Friday 27 May 2016

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Director: George Marshall
Writer: Walter DeLeon, based on the play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W Goddard
Stars: Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard
This well regarded horror comedy from Paramount has a stunning cast, but most of them weren’t quite so well known at the time. It’s arguable that the leading lady was better known in 1940 than her leading man, though there’s no question that he eclipsed her soon enough. She’s Paulette Goddard, a former Ziegfeld girl who became famous in 1936 when Charlie Chaplin cast her in Modern Times. He married her the same year and they were still married, albeit separated, when she shot this film. Her leading man is Bob Hope, the winner of a prize a quarter of a century earlier for impersonating Chaplin, when Goddard was only five years old; then again, Hope was only twelve. They starred together in The Cat and the Canary in 1939 and followed up the double act here, but were about to be more famous apart: Goddard with The Great Dictator and So Proudly We Hail!, landing her an Oscar nomination, and Hope with the Road movies with Bing Crosby. He hadn’t even hosted the Academy Awards at this point, his first stint imminent in 1941.

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.’
I chose this film to celebrate his career because it highlights his talents much better than most of the roles he was given, as well as showcasing the inherent racism of the time. Nobody thought it was inappropriate in 1940 for Bob Hope to tell him, ‘You look like a blackout in a blackout.’ Nobody felt bad in 1940 when he describes him with, ‘He always sees the darker side of everything; he was born during an eclipse.’ Nobody had second thoughts about giving him a whole conversation about spooks. Yes, both meanings of the word. Today, each of these instances is cringeworthy, but it’s notable that Best, while he’s still playing a subservient role, gets a part of substance here and at points even dominates scenes, with Hope relegated to being his straight man rather than the other way around. Sure, he’s yet another character with big eyes, sleepy voice and malformed vocabulary, not to mention the inevitable streak of cowardice, but he gets to figure things out that Hope’s heroic lead can’t because at least he’s not stupid.

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!
I remembered The Ghost Breakers positively, but rewatching highlights how creaky it is. The acting is decent, which isn’t surprising given the cast, and the cinematography is strong, emulating the Universal horror classics from the preceding decade. There’s one scene late in the movie where a zombie stalks Mary within Castillo Maldito and it’s wonderfully handled. Another character trying to climb out of a glass coffin is another spooky highlight. This is no horror movie though, it’s firmly a comedy first and an old dark house mystery second. The horror aspects, done in what would soon become known as the Val Lewton style, are a notable bonus! We’re here half to figure out why someone doesn’t want Mary to take ownership of her inheritance and half to laugh at the light banter of Hope, whether in partnership with Goddard, Best or anyone else. After he broadcasts his latest show, his secretary tells him, ‘You were wonderful, if you’re any judge.’ There are many clever lines of dialogue here and most aren’t racist at all.

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.
Mostly it’s content to run along at a decent pace, with snappy lines arriving fast enough to keep us laughing and spooky scenes to keep us on our toes. Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times, praised its ability to make ‘an audience shriek with laughter and fright’ simultaneously. A great example of this shows up almost immediately. The power is out at Mary Carter’s hotel, caused by the storm raging outside. ‘Nice night for a murder,’ she tells a neighbour, as he lights a cigarette on candles brought up for her. He’s taken sharply aback as he’s with the mob. ‘How do you know?’ he replies. Especially so early in the film, this delivers a laugh and a thrill all at once. The same goes for the various reactions to the storm itself. Mary revels in it, throwing her window open to the elements and crying, ‘Exciting, isn’t it?’ Larry, somewhere else in town, merely quips, ‘Basil Rathbone must be giving a party!’ He’s the comedian here, throwing out 1940 pop culture references with abandon, except when he forgets and Alex takes over.

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.
Somewhat surprisingly, given that this is a throwback to another time at just over three quarters of a century old, I wondered at how forward looking it actually was. How many horror comedies do we see nowadays, with plots that combine laughs and scares over a grounding of special effects that are rarely as capable as they want to be and some gratuitous exposure of female flesh? We get all that here. The effects vary considerably, from the highly effective local zombie to the poor double exposure of a ghost who climbs out of a chest and walks around, only for us to ponder as to why the chest is transparent rather than the ghost. As to female flesh, Mary realises that Larry and Alex have rowed over to her island, so she swims over to join them. While she does cover up an enticing bathing suit with a robe, it’s promptly ripped half open by a stubborn banister as she tries to escape the pursuing zombie. It’s easy to see what drew Chaplin to her: Paulette Goddard had a very nice pair of legs indeed!

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.
And that’s much of why I chose The Ghost Breakers to celebrate Best’s career on what would have been his hundredth birthday. The thirties and forties, not to mention the following string of decades too, were really not good for actors of colour. There were many of them and their talents were often substantial. Nobody is going to talk down Paul Robeson or Hattie McDaniel, but even given as many wide-eyed maids that the latter found herself stuck playing, she was regarded better than Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, to name just a trio of talented actors given consistently stereotypical roles that became more and more culturally embarrassing as years passed. Eventually, they were decried by the civil rights movement for enforcing stereotypes, even though opportunities were nonexistent. In 1934, while Best was shooting The Nitwits, he told an interviewer, ‘What’s an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out.’ He did it, making 119 movies in just over two decades. This may well be his finest role.

1 comment:

Rachel Glover said...

Thanks forr sharing this