Friday, 4 November 2016
THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)
Although 1939 proved to be one of Hollywood’s greatest years for film, producing Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach to name but four, it was still a great time to be Bob Hope. He had finally struck comedy gold with audiences and that October embarked on the first of the hugely popular buddy-buddy series with Bing Crosby in Road to Singapore. This crystallised his persona as the conniving coward; the duo played fast and loose with scripts much to the screenwriters’ chagrin, ad-libbing and augmenting the gags with those from his radio team that Hope would come to rely on for decades to come. An improvised irreverent feel came out of the material, allowing Hope to often break the fourth wall with asides to the audience and industry in-jokes. He transferred this quality to the first of his unbeaten nineteen Academy Award ceremony hostings in February 1940, mocking his fellow professionals and edgily re-dubbing the event ‘as it’s known in my house: Passover’.
The double-whammy of his two hit movies in succession put Hope on a studio treadmill of new projects to be mined for all they were worth. The first of these was a canny bid to make lightning strike twice on screen and at the box-office: reuniting him with Paulette Goddard in another remake of another silent murder-mystery comedy – The Ghost Breakers. Like its predecessor. It was adapted from a play, this time by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard. Paramount brought back cinematographer Charles Lang who’d already shown a great understanding of creepy mood lighting with The Cat and the Canary but this time replaced the director. George Marshall was an experienced comedy helmer whose pedigree included a number of Laurel and Hardy shorts, comedy romance (Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in Destry Rides Again) and would go on to not only direct Hope in the future but also went on to remake this film with Martin and Lewis as Scared Stiff (1953).
Once again, Hope straddles the twin duties of straight lead and light comedian in The Ghost Breakers as ‘Larry’ Lawrence Lawrence (yes, his sadistic parents saddled him thrice), a cynical Manhattan radio gossip broadcaster with an eye for the ladies and a ski-nose for trouble. He spices his shows with racy tidbits about mobsters - “A man who knows all the rackets and all the racketeers” - which they allow except when he gets familiar enough to be a candidate for the cement overshoes. When ‘Frenchy’ Duval (Paul Fix) summons him on the chilling pretext to ‘give it to him straight’, Larry realises that shooting his mouth off may not be the only consequence.
For a smart second opinion, Larry has the advantage of (and over) Willie Best as his black manservant Alex, off whom he bounces reflexive in-jokes such as the ominous weather-inspired: “Basil Rathbone must be giving a party”, referring to Rathbone’s crackling recent horror role in The Son of Frankenstein. At the risk of replaying an over-used record of 1930’s Hollywood racism, the movie’s one retrospective sour note is an especially poorly-judged African-American tokenism in Best’s treatment. Recycling the same dim, wide-eyed deference he was forced to give as the chauffeur in 1932’s dismal The Monster Walks (see earlier review) is bad enough, yet to make matters worse Best’s cowardly gibbering is further demeaned by some atrocious gags at the expense of his colour by the hero. Twice, Hope gets crude laughs from the contrived difficulty of finding Best in the dark: “You look like a blackout in a blackout”. Alex’s function seems to be that of the even greater coward, so by comparison his boss almost looks positively macho. Larry’s lily-livered character quips sit somewhat oddly when closely combined with his terse, authoritative orders to Best, which is a shame as occasionally they hit the mark: “I don’t mind dying but I hate the preliminaries”. The only upside is that the servile role at least gains this minority actor an unusually large amount of supporting screen time as a definite sidekick.
Hope is more blessed by the wisdom to partner him with Paulette Goddard, who repeats her go-getting turn as a relatable streetwise gal, here named Mary Carter, who rolls with life’s punches who finds herself once more inheriting a spooky property, this time a Castillo in Havana’s haunted Black Island, cursed by its infamous Cuban plantations owner’s undead slaves. They meet when Hope panics and lets off a shot in the gangster’s hotel, thinking he’s murdered Ramon Mederos, a young Anthony Quinn. Goddard gamely helps him out by stowing him in her trunk en route to Havana for a ship-bound middle act. This affords a nice sequence showing off Hope’s physical comedy chops as he adjusts haphazardly from crouching to standing again after his lengthy confinement. The chemistry between Hope and Goddard is sweetly conveyed when they playfully pretend-dance together in her room, trading effortless witticisms about imaginary fellow guests.
The last third of the film takes place at the cobwebbed Castillo, suitably Gothic in its dark cavernous layout. Like The Cat and the Canary though, the tone of The Ghost Breakers becomes uneven when finally getting to grips with the ghouls. Hope’s one-liners are weaker, feeling more like flat reactive comments to the unsettling intrigue in a regular horror film than those of a mischievous comedian on fire. He does however demonstrate a topical even-handedness with political gags; after a cheeky dig at his own side in the previous film, he scores with a satirical bullet for the Republicans’ nemeses. When the suave goatee-bearded solicitor Parada (Paul Lukas) warns him about the roaming spectral victims of voodoo:
“…walking around blindly, with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do – not caring…”
“You mean like Democrats?”
We do get a couple of supernatural moments to enjoy while Mary and Larry search for clues to concealed treasure in the mansion. A chest releases the luminous ectoplasmic form of one of Mary’s eighteenth-century ancestors to wander briefly around downstairs while Larry looks on, transfixed. The slightly Disney-fied whimsicality of this is overshadowed by the stronger meat of a bald albino zombie hulk who pursues Mary through the house and inexplicably erupts from within a suit of armour to tussle with Hope. This memorable cameo was played by the imposing Noble Johnson, who had earlier appeared in the horror classics The Mummy (1933) and both of the King Kong films.
Ultimately, as we build to the pay-off, Quinn reappears as his vengeful living twin brother Francisco, a second bite at the cherry that gets little more screen time than his sibling as the sleuthy couple discover the dying Parada. There is then the big reveal of the villain being unmasked as Mary’s scheming friend Geoff.
The Ghost Breakers works sporadically rather than consistently, an accusation that happily could not be levelled at Bob Hope’s future efforts. Whilst war-time movies like these opted for justifiable escapist humour tinged with darkness, in 1941 when America entered WWII he began a staggering 50-year comedic tour of duty flying out to entertain the troops at every international conflict up to the first Gulf War till ill-health curbed his astounding work ethic and he died at the age of exactly 100.