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Thursday, 13 October 2016


During the Golden Age of silent shorts, there were a few examples of feature-length comedies tinged with frissons of horror, though sadly their number is further diminished by being lost like many films of the era. One of them was The Ghost Breaker in 1922, a haunted-house comedy made by Famous Players-Lasky before it merged into Paramount. It starred matinee-idol Wallace Reed who was a leading man of over 100 shorts as well as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). The source was a stage play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard and was first filmed as a serious version in 1914 by another Hollywood directing giant, Cecil B. De Mille.
According to the website of the AFI (American Film Institute), the plot revolves around Warren Jervis (Reed) who escapes his Kentucky family’s feud straight into aiding Lila Lee as Maria Theresa in ridding her father’s castle from ghosts and finding treasure along the way. The spirits turn out to be a ruse by her dastardly neighbour the Duke D’Alva (Arthur Edmund Carewe) to claim both the trove and her. Little else is known other than the cast and a poster which bears demoralising evidence of more sinister masquerading within the film. The bottom right-hand corner shows another recurring ghastly spectre of the period - the wide-eyed, cowardly black servant, here dressed like an awful golliwog of British comedian Max Miller. It's debatable which is worse - the casting of black actors in such demeaning roles which had the dubious benefit to them of providing work, or the fact that this example was actually a white billed co-star -Walter Hiers - in minstrel black-face.
Jervis and Theresa at least end the picture happily together. This was tragically not the case in real-life for Reed who tragically died later that year aged only 31 from a morphine addiction resulting from pain-management he’d taken to treat his injuries from a 1919 train crash. The film’s legacy was happier for Reed’s co-stars. Shortly before The Ghost Breaker’s release the smash-hit Blood and Sand opened, a more effective career boost for Lee and the sensationally popular Rudolph Valentino. Equally, Carewe would do himself more favours in the purer horror genre as Secret Policeman Inspector Ledoux in Lon Chaney’s 1925 Phantom of the Opera.

The Ghost Breaker generated even more of an after-life for itself in the coming decades of horror-comedy. Felix the Cat tried his paws at ghost-busting in the animated short Felix the Ghost Breaker (1923) before live-action would wake the dead with mainstream star vehicles for Bob Hope in 1940’s hit remake The Ghost Breaker and the double-act of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1953’s Scared Stiff (both being covered here anon...)

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