Writer: Walter DeLeon, based on the play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W Goddard
Stars: Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard
In support are names as prominent as Paul Lukas and Anthony Quinn, two actors at opposite ends of their careers. Lukas was most of the way through his, having started out in the teens, though his biggest films were still to come: an Oscar-winning performance in Watch on the Rhine in 1943 and a memorable role as Prof Arronax in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954. Quinn was only five years into his and wouldn’t find his way into a really good lead until Viva Zapata! in 1952. He does get two roles here, but neither is much of an opportunity. And then there’s Willie Best, who would have been a hundred years old today. I don’t know if Hope really called him one of the finest talents he ever worked with, but he was certainly an accomplished performer stuck in an era when coloured actors were rarely given anything of substance to do. Best’s first six credits called him Sleep ‘n’ Eat, mirroring the screen image his studio built for him of an actor who only wanted ‘three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.’
He’s Alex and he works for Larry Lawrence, a radio personality who’s a sort of gossip columnist for organised crime: ‘the man who knows all the rackets and all the racketeers.’ That’s Hope, of course, and it’s one of his reports that gets him summoned to Frenchy Duval’s hotel room. When he believes he shoots a man dead in the hallway, he finds his way into the room of Mary Carter and the other half of the story. She’s inherited Castillo Maldito, a castle off the coast of Cuba, and she’s just signed the paperwork before a cruise to Havana to take it on. However, there’s a lot of pressure on her to not do so, much of which trawls old dark house clichés: the film begins with a terrific storm, during which she’s warned that no human being has survived a night in the castle, due to the ghosts who want vengeance for the treatment they got from her great-great-grandfather, a notorious slave trader. Parada brings her an anonymous offer of $50,000 for the castle. A stranger promptly rings her to suggest she say no. Strange things are afoot!
The script was written by Walter DeLeon, adapted from the 1909 play, The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W Goddard. It had been filmed twice before, firstly by Cecil B DeMille in 1914 with H B Warner and Rita Stanwood, and then in 1922 by Alfred E Green with Wallace Reid and Lila Lee. Both films, named for the play (so singular rather than plural), are lost today, leaving this version as the earliest extant. It was oddly remade as a musical in 1953 by this film’s director, George Marshall, as a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle called Scared Stiff. That’s best known today as Carmen Miranda’s final film, regarded as inferior to this in every other regard. It’s hard to see why Paramount felt it appropriate to remake it in the fifties as the haunted house setting was already passé and only the mix of horror and comedy, especially coming hot on the heels of The Cat and the Canary, gave it a fresh edge. By the fifties, the formula was firmly in the hands of Abbott and Costello, who had already done it to death, as it were.
Whenever The Ghost Breakers has legs, it’s worth seeing. Sure, some of the laughs have dated as much as the racism, but it’s funny enough throughout and it often reaches laugh out loud stature. There are down points though, where the script seems distracted from its proclaimed intentions and we wonder what we’re actually watching. These slower scenes, such as many of those on the cruise to Cuba, could easily have been cut and probably should have been; this would have made a much better 75 minute movie than it is an 85 minute one. Then again, we wonder if some scenes were already cut. I wondered why Lloyd Corrigan was even in the movie; he shows up on three distinct occasions, bumping into Mary and clearly setting up some sort of angle that never gets addressed. Was he really just there to distract Anthony Quinn’s second character away? That seems like a real stretch. I expected much more at the Castillo Maldito too, but we take too long to get there and don’t spend enough time there once we do.
And so to posterity. At the time this was a Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard picture, in many ways an otherwise unrelated sequel to the previous year’s The Cat and the Canary. Today, it’s not hard to see that they don’t get the strongest characters in the story. Larry Lawrence (‘My middle name is Lawrence too; my parents had no imagination.’) starts well but fades away once we get to Cuba. The generation of today, who didn’t grow up watching Bob Hope host the Academy Awards ceremony (19 times, just in case you didn’t keep count) or have a clue what a USO tour is, may not realise that he’s even the lead. Some might see him as the romantic interest for Paulette Goddard. Others might consider that he’s the other half of a double act with Willie Best. Many, especially once we land on Mary’s island, will find this so reminiscent of a live action Scooby Doo cartoon that they’ll translate the characters into the ones they know and love; I wonder how many will see Hope as Fred and how many Shaggy or Scooby as Best is as often each of them.