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Thursday, 20 October 2016

THE LIVE GHOST (1934)

By 1934, Laurel and Hardy were coming to the end of their hugely popular run of short films and were about to branch out into long-form features. The Live Ghost, released that December, showcased a number of the much-loved repertory company of supporting actors they’d built up over the years in a fun farce of mistaken ghostly identity.

Directed by fellow Brit, Birmingham's Charles Rogers, it first allows us to enjoy Walter Long, one of their arch enemies, as a fearsome sea captain whose vessel has an even worse reputation (for being ‘aunted’). Long always played the tough grizzled villain, belying his real-life warmth and had come to Hal Roach Studios via film roles for D.W. Griffith -notoriously as Gus, an African-American bad guy in the ill-conceived Birth of a Nation (1915), the Musketeer of the Slums in Intolerance (1916) and three of Rudolph Valentino’s brief run of box-office hits.

Stan and Ollie are idly fishing on the dockside when Long offers them crewing on his ship. Wisely they demur although not from fear of him but of sharks - Stan hearing that the sea is ‘infatuated’ with them and Oliver correcting him that the correct term is ‘infuriated’. Numbskull heads prevail and they agree to Long instead paying them a dollar a head to shanghai other sailors from the local dive. 

This becomes a passport to the bar scenes where Stan places bets with gullible sea-dogs that an egg can’t be held in the mouth without breaking it. The resulting swallow caused by a fist to the chin gets him chased out to a waiting frying-pan bop from Ollie. One of the wilier pub denizens is another welcome face, Charlie Hall, a slightly awkward performer but a vivid opposing force for them as various cuckolded husbands, an exasperated ice-cream parlour employer and then his eye-for-an-eye vengeful business competitor in the following month’s famous Tit for Tat (1935). Here he gets the better of Ollie when he switches con-artist places with Stan, causing all three (plus Long) to get hit outside.

The nitwit pair awake to find themselves equally press-ganged on-board ship amongst some understandably bitter new workmates and the captain’s threat to turn any crew-member’s head 180 degrees if they utter the word ‘ghost’ again. None of this fazes the marvellously sozzled Arthur Housman (Hollywood’s go-to for comic drunk parts). He manages to be just sober enough to fool Stan and Ollie, threatened by Long into babysitting him, into thinking he’s abed while he tops up his alcohol stream on shore. A fall into a vat of paint gives Housman a full-body white spectral appearance which cues up ghostly chills for Laurel and Hardy back on board.

Meanwhile there’s a disappointingly brief two-scene cameo from Mae Busch whose hard-bitten sassy persona almost makes a perfect match for Long were it not for an unexpected reunion with her husband in the form of Houseman. The pleasurable chills are rounded off by Long making good on his threat when the boys excuse their incompetence.

As Laurel and Hardy retire to bed with their heads facing the opposite way to their nightshirts, so must we from their delightful company – making way for other notable comedy teams of the pre-war period to do their best in picking up the baton of comic-horror.

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