The Ghost and Mrs. Cunningham

As you must have noticed from the lack of linkies, yesterday was a joke.  Today is not.

The mark of a truly great sitcom screenwriter is the ability to make episode titles with puns from popular culture.  The more painful the pun, and the more obscure the cultural reference, the higher the literary skill.

By this standard, Disney after-school cartoon writers are the cream of the crop.  TaleSpin had all the qualities that children want in a TV show, high-flying adventure, groovy soundtrack, dastardly villains, and numerous anaphora to black-and-white films that no one that old had seen.  The title references can all be found on the wiki page, and they range from  quite witty, “The Balooist of Bluebloods,” to downright excruciating, “Gruel and unusual punishment.”

In many cases, the similarities went beyond mere wordplay.  Several of the story plots also borrowed from Hollywood hits, especially older films which clearly inspired the writers.  “Time Bandits” and “Citizen Kane” don’t seem to have taken much from the original, and “Bringing Down Babyface” has nothing to do with tigers.  But, “War of the Weirds” plays on the real misunderstandings that listeners had about a Martian invasion.  “Flight School Confidential” has the same shady underbelly as High School Confidential (without the drugs…which doesn’t leave much of the movie, actually.)

And my favorite episode, “Her Chance to Dream,” is based on one of my favorite films.

TaleSpin: Rebecca and William  Ghost of Mrs. Muir: Lucy and Daniel

I didn’t realize this when I was eleven because I was completely uninterested in any Rex Harrison movie without singing and dancing (as much as Harrison ever really sang or danced.)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir garners little attention except for feminist critics and thriller film buffs. Based on a book from 1945 but set in 1900, the movie grasps a melancholy combination of post-war gloom and turn of the century romanticism. At the beginning of the story, widow Lucy Muir rents a seaside cottage for herself and her daughter, but has to match wits with the resident ghost, Captain Daniel Craig, to earn the right to stay.  Although the captain is arrogant and brusque (just a wee bit like every other Rex Harrison character), he enjoys Lucy’s company.  To earn enough money to buy the cottage, he narrates his memoirs for her to write and sell, which is not what the term “ghostwriting” is supposed to mean, but oh, well.  Daniel often pushes Lucy to become a stronger woman, and pulls back regretfully so that she can live a fuller life.

The movie is straight-up sentimental, the impossible love story of a woman and…well, an intangible guy.  There is an almost kiss that is steamer than anything I’ve seen on vampire-pay-per-view.  Their happy ending isn’t achieved until after Lucy dies, old and content, and Daniel comes to escort her into their next adventure.

Of course, the animated version has its differences.  Like color.  And an abundance of fur.  After all, no one expects a psychoanalysis of an economically liberated, yet tradition-bound, Victorian woman in 23 minutes +commercials.   The children’s version starts (as it always does) with Baloo and Louie poking around and making trouble where they shouldn’t have been.  They release the ghost of Captain William Stansbury, who terrorizes them before Rebecca steps in to take control (as she always does.)  Very quickly (because kids have a short attention span), Rebecca and William fall in love and she’s tempted to join him, rather than spend her days doing the bookkeeping and maintenance for her cargo company.  Knowing that she has her child and her life (and 50 more episodes) in this world, Rebecca finishes the spell to send trouble-making William away.  Not quite the gentleman that Daniel was, William nevertheless promises to wait for his love before poofing out.  (The movie captain did not poof.  Harrison has never poofed in his life.)

Clearly, William was based on the black-and-white captain, but it’s remarkable how many similarities Rebecca had to Lucy, even in the design of her clothes and hair.  Both widows with a young child, the feisty bear doesn’t wallow as much as her human counterpart, and certainly doesn’t waste time staring out into the sea.  Yet I wonder if the original character designers and scriptwriters took inspiration from this movie when they created the unconventional boss of “Higher for Hire.”  Rebecca finds her path by channeling her energy into business, while Lucy sublimates rebellion through literature.   Both versions of the story are worth telling, and definitely worth watching.

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One thought on “The Ghost and Mrs. Cunningham

  1. Head Host Jason here from the Disney Afternoon based podcast “DAF Radio.” I actually sat down a few weeks ago with Libby Hinson who was the writer of this particular episode and asked her about the relationship “Her Chance to Dream” had with “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”. If you’d like to her her thoughts on the subject and about other TaleSpin episodes she wrote, we’ll be releasing the episode with this interview sometime in the Spring. Make sure you check it out!

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