Blog Archives

Lunatics and Laughter Day 1: The Ghost Breakers (1940)

ghost-breakersDirector: George Marshall

Writers: Walter DeLeon, based on the play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey & Charles W. Goddard

Cast: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Willie Best, Pedro de Cordoba, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Anthony Quinn

Plot: On a rainy evening in New York City, Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) packs to visit her great-great grandfather’s “haunted” island off the coast of Cuba, which she has inherited . Although the Cuban representative Havez (Pedro de Cordoba) tries to dissuade her from visiting, Mary is skeptical of the claims of ghosts on what he calls “Black Island.” Elsewhere in the hotel we meet radio “ghostbreaker” Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope), who reveals secrets, uncovers skeletons in the closet, and blows the lid off, as he puts it later, “family ghosts.” Larry is planning to leave for fishing vacation after that evening’s broadcast with his valet, Alex (a somewhat insensitive racial stereotype, by modern standards, played by Willie Best). When Mr. Parada (Paul Lukas) arrives to transfer the castle to Mary, he offers her a princely sum of $50,000 for the land. Before she decides on the deal, she receives a mysterious phone call from a man named Ramon (Anthony Quinn) warning her not to sell. The combination of the call and the offer simply makes her more determined to visit her grandfather’s estate. Left alone, she listens to Larry’s radio broadcast where he dishes on a mob operation.

When Larry returns, there are a series of shootings in the hallways and Larry believes he kills Ramon.  Mary helps him hide as the police search the building, but he winds up in her trunk and is mistakenly sent to her cruise ship. Mary and Alex locate the trunk, but are unable to free Larry before he’s loaded onto the ship. In her room, Mary receives a letter warning her that death awaits her on the island. Alex helps Larry out and shows him a newspaper report about the shooting (remember evening editions? Neither do I) where he points out that Ramon was shot by a different caliber bullet– Larry couldn’t have killed him. Larry realizes someone is trying to intimidate Mary into avoiding the castle. As they discuss the situation on the deck, someone pushes a heavy potted plant over a railing, nearly killing the couple. They flee back to her stateroom, where the strain of the evening starts to show on Mary. When Alex arrives and says they can ride back to New York on a speedboat if they hurry, he refuses to leave, determined to help Mary. Before leaving the ship, Parada warns Larry about the castle, while Mary runs into an old acquaintance, Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson) who is skeptical of Parada and tries to warn her from dealing with him. Larry is excited when Parada tells him about a voodoo priestess on the island, one who allegedly has the power to create mindless zombies. (“You mean like Democrats?” Larry quips.)

That evening Geoff begins to romance Mary, who asks him to accompany her to Black Island. He refuses, fearful of the zombies. Mary is shocked when she believes she sees a ghost – Ramon, the murdered man. He introduces himself as Ramon’s twin brother, Francisco Mederos, who angrily demands information about his brother’s death. Larry and Alex, meanwhile, have taken a rowboat out to Black Island, where they encounter “Mother Zombie” (Virginia Brissac) and one of her zombies (Noble Johnson). They enter the house, where they hear noises that indicate someone else is there and find a strange painting that is the perfect image of Mary – her great-great-grandmother Maria. The two split up, and Alex observes a ghostly figure emerging from a trunk. Larry chases but only finds a skeleton. At the shore, Mother Zombie watches as Mary suddenly swims onto the beach carrying a waterproof bag with a dry robe. Inside, Larry and Alex hear Mary calling for them, but believe it’s a trick. She, meanwhile, hears voices telling her to run away before it’s too late – but runs right into the clutches of the Zombie. She flees, observed by the hidden Parada, who himself is captured by an unseen figure. Larry and Alex are attacked by the Zombie, hiding in a suit of armor, but before the creature can deliver a death-blow, they see the image of Maria Sebastian walk down the stairs. As it is distracted, Larry and Alex lock it in a closet and run to Maria – really Mary wearing her great-grandmother’s clothes after her own were ripped fleeing from the zombie. Mary notices the painting of Maria is pointing towards the crypt, and she and Larry investigate. In the crypt, Larry and Mary find Parada stabbed, stuffed in one of the caskets, bleeding to death. As he dies, he directs them to the organ in the crypt. Mary solves the puzzle, using the organ to open a hidden door that leads to an old mine beneath the castle. Francisco and Geoff both appear with guns, and Geoff shoots the gun from Francisco’s hand backing the other three against the wall. Geoff reveals that he was behind the threats and the offer to buy the castle, determined to gain ownership of an enormous vein of silver beneath the island. He’s about to shoot them, but the ceiling above collapses and clobbers him. A puzzled Alex looks down and says, “Boss, did I press the wrong button?”

Thoughts: At the top of his game, Bob Hope was one of the funniest human beings ever placed on the planet. He had a sly, sharp wit that was just this side of being truly subversive, and was just as likely to deliver a merciless zinger as he was to take a shot across his own rather prodigious nose. It’s not surprising, given the immensity of his library, that we start our march through the creepy comedy catalogue with him.

From the beginning, this film demonstrates how far afield certain comedies go. If you strip the movie down to its bare plot, it’s actually pretty dramatic – a reporter Is falsely accused of murder, flees from justice, and winds up in a haunted house. It could very easily be the set-up for a more traditional horror movie. The comedy comes not from anything in the situation or setting, but from the wonderfully funny performances by Hope and Best. Horror/comedies tend fall one way or another – either a dark story with funny characters (let’s call this “Type A” for the sake of discussion) or a pure comedy that plays with the tropes of a horror for its humor(“Type B”). While both sorts of film have strong examples (and we’ll discuss films from both categories before this little experiment is over), I find that the Type A movie is typically much more satisfying. (Virtually any “spoof” movie is in the Type B category, and as so many terrible spoofs have been made since Scary Movie jumpstarted that particular subgenre in 2000, I may be a bit unfairly biased against Type B. But at least I can admit it.)

The story is creepy, and the house is covered with cobwebs and dust, straight out of the pages of Better Haunted Homes and Gardens. The moment when the armored zombie slowly raises its mace over the head of the oblivious Larry is genuinely tense, and you’re afraid for him until Alex saves the day. No matter how tough the situation gets, though, Hope’s one-liners and Best’s witty retorts keep the mood light at all times. The best sequence, when Larry and Alex explore the mansion, is full of stuff like this – a distant sneeze prompts Hope to observe “The ghost has a cold,” for instance, and when the two commit the Scary Movie Cardinal Sin of splitting up, Larry tells Alex that, if he sees a couple of fellows running, let the first one go, because “That’ll be me.” Perhaps the greatest thing is how close to the vest the film plays the notion of the supernatural. These days, anyone trying to make a movie of this nature would feel the need to have Mary plagued by odd noises and startling images in the mirror practically from the beginning. Here, there’s nothing close to a confirmation the ghosts are real until Alex sees one in the trunk, almost exactly one hour into the film’s running time. (Okay, admittedly, we see the Zombie before that, but voodoo zombies aren’t the same thing we think of today, and even in this film can just as easily be explained as someone who is heavily drugged rather than someone under any some sort of legitimate magical curse.)

As a Type A, the film allows for more of a slow burn than many movies do today get to the genuinely frightening elements. It takes almost a half hour of the film’s short 85 minute running time to even get on the ship to Cuba, and the closest thing we’ve gotten to horror at this point are the brief allusions to ghosts in Mary’s castle, which she hasn’t even left for yet. The comedy, oddly, is also light, built primarily out of Hope’s quipping and his physical acting ability – the scene where Alex helps him out of Mary’s trunk, for example, is hysterical.

In fact, a lot of the movie is packed with red herrings and somewhat questionable moments that, in retrospect, are simple plot devices with no other value but to complicate the situation. The entire subplot regarding the mobster angry at Larry and Francisco seeking justice for his brother’s murder, in the end, amount to almost nothing. You could lift those characters out of the film entirely, come up with another explanation for getting Larry and Mary together (Larry was planning on a vacation, for Heaven’s sake, it would have been far more expedient simply to have him meet Mary on the cruise ship and get involved in her case when the potted plant is pushed towards her) and you’d still have essentially the same movie. Despite that, though, the movie doesn’t feel padded, and whips forward at a nice clip to the very entertaining finale.

As a rule, I try to not let cultural differences hurt my enjoyment of a movie too much. The 1940s were simply a different time, and I don’t really feel it’s fair to judge a film from that earlier period with the same standards as a contemporary film. That said, the portrayal of Alex frequently borders on the offensive. Although Willie Best gives a solid comedic performance, it’s based on the sort of minstrel show stereotype that, today, would get a film picketed from the moment it’s released. Alex is a clever character – frequently more logical and sensible than Larry, in fact – but it can be a bit hard to accept his cadence and intonation in the 21st century. Perhaps the worst moment is when a frightened Alex hides in a dust-filled clock, emerging covered with white powder and explaining that, when he gets scared, his “Al-bee-no blood shows through.” To his credit, though, Best also gets one of the film’s flat-out funniest moments, when Alex, at the end of his rope, knocks on the door to the closet where he trapped the zombie just to make sure it’s still there, then starts patiently pacing back and forth in front of one of the few things he can control.

To use the film’s age to its benefit, there is a degree of quaintness that makes it even more charming. The ease with which Larry is placed on the boat to Cuba is funny (the idea that anyone in 2012 could make it onto a ship that easily, let alone one to Cuba, is laughable). Hope’s Larry Lawrence is his typical charming screwball, particularly when he sees how shaken up Mary is by the whole affair and turns on some music, putting on a persona and dancing with her to cheer her up. The word today would be “adorkable” – he gladly plays the buffoon, but it’s purely for her benefit. Mary later calls him chivalrous, and when the obvious attraction between the two (who have only known each other for a few murder-obsessed hours) surfaces, there’s no trouble believing it.

Although the movie isn’t without its faults, it’s still a fun excursion with Bob Hope and well worth watching if you want lighter fare in the run-up to Halloween. The creepy moments are genuinely so, and the funny moments are as full of Hope’s timeless charm as any film he ever made.

Advertisements