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Tuesday, 6 December 2016

THE GHOST TALKS (1949)

In May 1946, Curly Howard had fallen victim to the most damaging of the strokes that were jeopardising his health and ability to work as part of the Three Stooges. A hectic partying lifestyle and the stress of a failed marriage the previous October that lasted just three months had both contributed to his decline and this last stroke finished him as an active member of the group.
This forced Moe into asking his older Brother Shemp to return and take Curly’s place, something he was reluctant to do as his solo career was working well. He realised that without him Larry and Moe’s livelihood would be lost, so he stepped into the breach on the understanding that he would cover temporarily till Curly was better. This proved an unrealistic hope as Curly’s condition was terminal, eventually leading to his death in 1952.

Shemp loyally stayed with his brothers as a co-star until 1955, making 76 shorts with them. Along the way, he battled with studio executives over the inherent problem of how much to imitate the priceless loss of Curly versus the benefit of allowing him to develop his own characterisation. Director Edward Bernds recognised that he was a different type of performer and needed this creative freedom, whereas Jules White tried to force him or Moe into comic behaviour that was a pale copy of their beloved brother’s antics. Shemp’s characterful bulldog facial similarity to Moe made it all the more crucial that he differentiate himself and one can see that his persona is more punchy, less subservient to Moe than Curly was.

The Three Stooges’ first horror-comedy combination in their new line-up was The Ghost Talks (1946) directed by Jules White and written by Felix Adler, a staff writer for the boys whose comedy pedigree extended back to supplying the storylines for Harold Lloyd’s Feet First (1930) and Movie Crazy (1932) as well as the screenplays for several Laurel & Hardy features such as Swiss Miss (1938) and A 1940’s A Chump at Oxford. His work here is cloth tailored to a lower standard as by now the Stooges were on their downward trajectory – yet he does raise a couple of grins with surrealist moments.

The trio are removal men tasked with emptying the contents of the creepy Smorgasbord Castle on a stormy night. After Larry receives a crossbow shaft in the butt from a suit of armour, the Stooges discover the suit is possessed by a prissy, plaintive antiquated voice (of actor Phil Arnold): “Please put me down, I beseech you”, he begs in cod olde Englishe dialogue but an American accent. Larry interrogates this unbelievable premise into even greater cultural confusion:

“Sprechen sie Irish?
“Hoot, mon!”

In trying to lower the suit’s raised arm, Larry causes the suit to rumble like a fruit machine before dispensing a flood of coins from its chest. To their even greater surprise, the threesome are told that the suit’s occupant is the famous spirit of Peeping Tom, a medieval tailor from the Middle Ages forever immortalised in the legend of Lady Godiva who rode through Coventry dressed in nothing but her long hair in return for her husband, the Earl of Mercia, abolishing the crippling taxes upon his people. The city’s folk were ordered to stay indoors and with their shutters closed to preserve her challenged modesty. Tom, it is said, drilled a hole in his shutter to get an eyeful of the comely Lady G – although in the film he claims he opened the shutter to better see to thread his needle. Well, it’s no less likely a tale than his supernatural suit possession. He is overjoyed that his thousand year imprisonment is due to end with a rescue by the Lady herself.

The Stooges celebrate with him by opening up a bottle of milk of all things – innocent to the last. The suit spirit drains his glass as if by magic. He dampens the revils somewhat by warning the boys that removing him will have dire consequences. Naturally, they ignore all advice even if from a reputable source, triggering odd events such as a mischievous frog scurrying through Shemp’s pyjamas and a sassy floating skeleton that cues in a Hollywood period in-joke when he introduces himself as Red (voiced by Jules White). “Oh, Red Skeleton!” says Larry. (Another industry gag is the three-toned chimes of NBC’s radio and TV station familiar to audiences of the time when Moe prangs Shemp with a bent safety-pin).

The levitating levity isn’t enough to calm the team’s rising fears as they find the front door is locked. “What we need is a harder head,” observes Shemp and manfully volunteers to be used as a human battering ram - in vain.

The perambulating skull on clockwork feet that we saw in If a Body Meets a Body (1945) makes a fleeting (and flying) return guest appearance with its bat wings terrorising the trio for good measure just before the entrance of the legendary Lady Godiva as foretold. The beautiful Nancy Saunders, still with us and aged 91 as of writing this, rides in on horseback in a bored manner which, intentional or not, does amusingly undercut any bid for a big reveal moment and whisks away the haunted suit.

The Ghost Talks does what it says in the tin, slap-happy rather than slapstick, and cheekily had much of its footage heavily recycled for their 1956 short Creeps.


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