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Monday, 20 March 2017

THE SMILING GHOST (1941)

Haunted house, spook-the-inheritor comedies following the plot of The Cat and the Canary (1927) were ten-a-penny in the Thirties and Forties. Warner Brothers’ B-movie The Smiling Ghost was no exception but is amiable enough within the formula. It was directed by Lewis Sellers, a veteran of the studio’s house style of crime thrillers including Crime School (1938) starring Humphrey Bogart who was billed below his rambunctious co-stars, the Dead End Kids. Bogart was also connected to one of The Smiling Ghost’s writers Vincent Sherman whose screenplay of The Return of Doctor X (1939) gave the actor his only horror genre part. Co-writer Crane Wilbur went on to pen House of Wax (1953) for Vincent Price. Though the storyline doesn’t fully make sense, the duo craft some sassy one-liners.

The plot centres around tall, gauche, chemical engineer ‘Lucky’ Downing, who is offered a much-needed $1000 to pose as the boyfriend of an eligible society heiress for one month, unaware that her eligibility is due to her previous three husbands falling victim to a ghoulish figure nicknamed the Smiling Ghost. To his credit, Downing sticks around even after uncovering the real back-story to try and solve the mystery. 

In the light leading-man role Wayne Morris has a gangly, aw-shucks persona that fits well and convinces when called upon to use his fists. As comic relief back-up to strengthen Morris’s character, Willy Best is drafted in and endures the poison chalice of being Clarence,  the resident ‘negro comic’ of lily-livered buffoonery. We last see him doing the same as the butt of Bob Hope’s gags in 1940’s The Ghost Breakers and here the only benefit is the decent chunk of screen time he gets. This is just as well when for example he is admonished by the butler, Norton for hiding in the coal-cellar: “How do you expect anyone to see you in there?” Actually, Alan Hale’s Norton is one of the few original touches in the film. He plays the butler without any of the supercilious formality normally assumed, instead being a blunt, blue-collar type who could just as easily be a plumber or a street cop. Film buffs may recognise Hale from his memorable Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) among other humorous roles.

Downing is indeed lucky since he is caught between two women subtly cat-fighting over him. There is the aforementioned Elinor Bentley Fairchild (Alexis Smith), a self-possessed blonde siren of means, and the down-to-earth brunette reporter Lil Barstow, an equally beautiful yet honest Brenda Marshall. At one point, Elinor skewers her rival with the delicious: “Every look you give him, you could pour on a waffle”.

The family home also encompasses a gaggle of dinner-suited sybarites such as Elinor’s permanently sozzled cousin Tennant (Richard Ainley) and a vivid crackpot turn by Charles Halton as Great Uncle Ames who has a disconcerting passion for manufacturing shrunken heads out of suitable subjects he meets. Seeking a final piece for his collection - “the perfect negroid type” - Ames takes a special interest in Clarence: “How would you like to stay with us for a looong, looong time?”

Introductions over, Downing’s luck holds long enough to dodge the blade of the killer after Tennant asks to be given back his own room. The inhospitable drunk is unwittingly mistaken for Downing by the titular, fedora-wearing menace baring a toothy grin and mad, staring eyes. Tennant is later found, alive and unconscious as the tenant of a cellar trunk.  For some reason, the Ghost does lack that all-important killer instinct. We learn that although his first victim John Eggleston drowned, and number three died of a snake-bite, the second, Paul Myron (David Bruce) also survived, albeit placed in a permanent iron lung. When Downing and Barstow visit him, he shows them a photo of Eggleston, insisting he is the Ghost – back from the dead to haunt all future suitors.

Downing later finds himself attacked by the grinning ghoul and dumped unharmed in a coffin, making the Ghost’s half-hearted advances even more perplexing. Eventually the family decide to lure the Ghost out by staging a phoney wedding for Lucky and Elinor at midnight. There’s an amusing exchange during the nervy wait when Lucky makes awkward small-talk about the cruel treatment of Mary, Queen of Scots. Lee Patrick’s Aunt Rose fires off the zinger comeback: “Yes, isn’t it? I didn’t think the news had got around”.

For extra harshness, the Ghost appears and abducts Barstow. Lucky grapples with him manfully until the killer is crushed by a disused boat. Barstow remarks that their assailant doesn’t look or sound like Eggleston somehow, a hunch borne out when he is unmasked as assumed iron lung occupant Paul in another of those denouments that Scooby Doo would almost parody later. His vendetta is explained as the insane jealousy of a man rejected by his wife for being a cripple, but not how he can free himself from the confines of his seemingly necessary apparatus – a clanging error by the writers. Even more inexplicably, Downing bursts in too late to save Clarence from Ames reducing him to a presented shrunken head - and yet his valet appears safe and sound as well. (?)

America’s impending entry into World War Two (courtesy of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that December) gets a sobering look-in at the end after Downing realises that Barstow is the one for him. Pessimist Aunt Rose clouds the rosy prospect with the sour: “Why worry? He’ll probably be drafted right in the middle of the honeymoon”. Ironically, in real life Morris would soon leave Hollywood to enlist. He found that his size initially ruled him out of cockpit flying until an air-force relative pulled strings enabling him to spend the rest of the war becoming a decorated Hellcat fighter pilot.

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