BOOTLEG FILES 381: “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1968-70 TV series starring Hope Lange, Edward Mulhare and Charles Nelson Reilly).
LAST SEEN: A few episodes can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Once-popular program that seems to have vanished.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Someday, with luck.
Last week’s column, as you may recall, focused on a zany 1973 TV commercial starring Charles Nelson Reilly as a singing banana. (Yes, that was considered normal in the 1970s.) In writing the column, I recalled Reilly’s role in the TV series “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” That was one of my favorite programs when I was a kid – I used to watch it when it was in syndicated reruns in the 1970s – and I was nostalgic to revisit its episodes. However, a quick spin around Amazon.com came up with nothing. The show, it seems, never made it to DVD.
Ah, but a visit to the collector-to-collector treasure chest known as iOffer.com produced a number of fan-created DVDs featuring unauthorized collections of the series’ episodes. And, thus, a new addition to The Bootleg Files was created!
“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was part of a peculiar trend in 1960s sitcoms, where a light brand of science fiction was used to mix low-level special effects with lowbrow comedy. Beloved programs like “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie” – as well as less-than-beloved crap like “My Mother, The Car” – were staples of the decade. But if a witch and a genie could score ratings, why couldn’t a ghost?
20th Century Fox produced “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” in 1947 as a film starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. The film provided a sweetly comic story about the impossible love between a young woman and the ghost of a salty sea captain. The studio’s television production unit felt this old chestnut could be warmed up as a weekly sitcom. In order to broaden its appeal, the original property was updated from Edwardian London to contemporary New England.
The casting of the show’s leads was, on the surface, somewhat unusual because neither actor was particularly well versed in comedy. Irish actor Edward Mulhare was better known for tough guy roles in films including “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” (1955) and “Von Ryan’s Express” (1965). Taking on Rex Harrison’s role for the small screen marked the second time that Mulhare followed in the British star’s steps: he replaced Harrison as Henry Higgins in the Broadway production of “My Fair Lady.” But the studio insisted that Mulhare’s character retain a physical resemblance to Harrison’s Captain Gregg in the 1947 film, so the blonde and clean-shaven Mulhare had to wear a fake beard and dye-darkened hair for the series.
In gaining the role of the widowed Mrs. Muir, Hope Lange enjoyed a chance to jump-start her stagnant career. Lange came to prominence in the mid-1950s as a contract player at 20th Century Fox, and she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the scandalous “Peyton Place.” For a while, she seemed to do no wrong – leading roles in “The Young Lions,” Frank Capra’s “Pocketful of Miracles” and the Elvis drama “Wild in the Country” were among her most prominent films. By the mid-1960s, however, Lange’s film career abruptly tanked. With no big screen prospects available, Lange accepted this small screen role.
Perhaps recognizing that Mulhare and Lange would not be able to carry a comedy series on their own, the producers expanded the cast to include a pair of reliable character actors with a penchant for mirthful scene stealing. White-haired Reta Shaw was recruited as Mrs. Muir’s wisecracking housekeeper Martha, while Charles Nelson Reilly was cast as Claymore, Mrs. Muir’s landlord and the great-nephew of Captain Gregg. A great deal of mileage was squeezed out of Captain Gregg’s chronic indignation of having the neurotic Claymore as a descendant – and since profanity was verboten on network TV, the show’s writers allowed Captain Gregg a wave of oceanographic insults to pour on Claymore. Thus, Claymore was called a “miserable barnacle,” a “cowardly codfish” and a “larcenous sea slug” by the agitated ghost.
In order to appeal to a younger audience, the widowed Mrs. Muir was given two adorable kids and a doggie named Scruffy (who, in real life, was rescued from an animal shelter just two days ahead of being euthanized). While the program may have seemed a tad out-of-touch with the groovy late 1960s, Mrs. Muir was presented as a modern, economically self-sufficient woman (a writer) who ran her home without male financial assistance – and in one episode, she even ran for political office.
As an aside, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was one of four sitcoms that debuted in 1968 where the central character was a single working mother raising children” Lucille Ball’s “Here’s Lucy,” The Doris Day Show” and the groundbreaking Diahann Carroll series “Julia” also provided a sisterhood of independent women.
“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” relied on a number of guest star appearances to keep its stories fresh. Most of these stars were best known for the TV work – including a pair from 20th Century Fox’s “Batman” series, Stafford Repp and Yvonne Craig. Occasionally, there were some surprises: Mark Lester from the Oscar-winning film “Oliver!”, singer Harry Nilsson and a young Richard Dreyfuss turned up along the way.
“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” on the whole, was rarely a laugh-out-loud funny series – even Lange would complain in an interview that the program missed a number of original comic opportunities involving the ghost’s interference in the characters’ lives. But the show had a certain charm and eccentricity, and the chemistry between Mulhare and Lange was highly addictive – the actors achieved more passion in their quite glances than most performers could ever achieve in full-throttle romancing. The most memorable episode, titled “Medicine Ball,” enabled Mrs. Muir to dream herself into Captain Gregg’s era, thus allowing the pair to finally engage in physical contact. This was one of the most beautifully romantic episodes ever produced for a sitcom.
But that is not to say the show was lacking in humor. Reilly’s manic comedy gave the series most of its laughs, with the inept Claymore as the butt of lightly amusing (if vaguely predictable) jokes. Shaw’s exasperated housekeeper stole the show with her caustic commentary on the bizarre events that swirled around her.
The series debuted on NBC in 1968, but was abruptly cancelled after one season. A hue and cry from the show’s fans and an Emmy Award for Lange helped resurrect the show for a second season on ABC. Lange won a second Emmy the following year, but the network also abruptly pulled the plug after a single seasonal spin. However, the series became a staple of the rerun circuit via syndication to local TV stations around the U.S. in the pre-cable days.
So whatever happened to “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”? A website called TVShowsOnDVD.com reported a “rumor” in March 2006 that MPI Media Group was going to release the program on DVD. But that never came about. Later on, there was talk that Sean Connery was going to play Captain Gregg in a film remake of the program, but that never happened.
Today, anyone who wants to see “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” would have to purchase one of those unauthorized collector-to-collector DVDs on iOffer.com or squint their way through the less-than-pristine VHS dubs that can be found on YouTube. This, of course, stinks – “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was a pleasant series and it would be wonderful if a new generation could discover it in properly restored commercial releases. But until that happens, let’s be glad that the bootleggers are busy keeping the show alive.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!