Monday, January 14, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)

The "old dark house" picture has been a staple of the horror and horror-comedy genres at least as far back as the silent classic, The Cat and the Canary (1927), long before the Scooby Gang made it the regular fare of children's entertainment. To this tradition you may add The Ghost Breakers (1940), a creepy comedy featuring all kinds of silly scares and a very young Bob Hope firing off one-liners like silver bullets. While some of the film's touchier aspects may lessen the modern viewer's enthusiasm for the movie, The Ghost Breakers has plenty of laughs and even some genuine thrills to warrant attention, and kids will probably enjoy its humorous take on the haunted house theme.

Bob Hope plays Larry Lawrence (aka Lawrence Lawrence Lawrence, because his parents "lacked creativity"), a radio celebrity whose news scoops involving the mob get him into hot water. When Larry goes to confront the gangsters, he accidentally gets mixed up in the affairs of Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard), who has just inherited a cursed Cuban castle. Larry and his sidekick Alex (Willie Best) accompany Mary to Cuba to investigate the property's ghoulish reputation; once there, they discover both corporeal and ghostly threats lurking in the castle's moonlit halls.

Hope and Paulette Goddard make a fine pair, and they share some very good scenes that combine romance and comedy in equal measure. No shrinking violet, Goddard's Mary is a plucky heroine, ready to engage Larry's silly humor or to venture alone into the haunted castle at night. She becomes especially lovely when she assumes the costume of a long dead ancestor; the stunning black dress, designed by Edith Head, is a real winner, and it suits the actress perfectly. Hope is remarkably handsome, although his distinctive features still suggest the fool more than the hero; his obvious jealousy when another man enters the picture engages our sympathy for fear he should lose the lovely Mary to a more conventional sort of leading man.

The only real hitch in the picture is Willie Best's appearance as Alex, Larry's manservant and companion. There are two ways to react to the performance: you can either decry it as another "Stepin Fetchit" stereotype or you can appreciate how much Best is able to do with it in spite of the attitudes of the day. Best was one of the best-known black character actors in the business, notable enough to recieve credit for small roles when most performers would not. His goggle-eyed reaction shots are typical of the era, and Best eventually lost the public's support as a new generation of African-Americans sought to distance themselves from such portrayals. Still, Alex is Larry's functional equal in the film; often more practical than Larry, and no more frightened by the specters than his white companions, Alex is more sidekick than servant, and Best certainly knows how to hold the screen against the charismatic Hope. If you watch the film with younger viewers, it's a good idea to talk about Best's character and how depictions of minorities have changed since the 1940s, but children are more likely to regard Alex as a full participant in the comedy than a mere stereotype, and that may be the wisest and most appreciative way to view Best's performance.

Look for Anthony Quinn playing a dual role as Cuban twin brothers, as well as Virginia Brissac rendered utterly unrecognizable under the heavy make-up of the zombie mother. If you like haunted house movies, be sure to catch The Old Dark House (1932) and House on Haunted Hill (1959). For more spooky comedy, try Topper (1937), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Hope and Goddard also starred together in a 1939 remake of The Cat and the Canary. Bob Hope is best remembered today for his road movies with Bing Crosby, but he also stars in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), Casanova's Big Night (1954), and The Seven Little Foys (1955). You can see more of Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1936), The Women (1939), and The Great Dictator (1940). The Ghost Breakers, which began life as a stage play, was remade in 1953 by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff, with Lewis filling the role that Willie Best had plays in the 1940 version.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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