31 July, 2009

The Ghost Breakers


As we continue these Top 5 -- and remember we’re only numbering them like that -- 1,2,3,4,5 -- by when they were released -- we come to The Cat And The Canary’s sort-of sequel, another great comedy-thriller, and my personal favorite of Old Ski Nose:

The Ghost Breakers
w Walter DeLeon from                      the play by Paul                            Dickey & Charles                                 W. Goddard
d George Marshall

It’s ghosts and gags galore again as Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) travels from New York to Cuba to see the castle she’s inherited, said to be haunted of course.  Enter radio star Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope) whose mistaken-identity run-in with the mob has him stowing away for the ride.  Soon the two are battling ghosts and zombies -- and the bad guys that want the castle for themselves -- with nothing but a trunkful of witty one-liners to save the day!

In his original 1940 Review, The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote (in part), “It looks as though Paramount has really discovered something: it has found the fabled formula for making an audience shriek with laughter and fright at the same time.  And apparently the necessary contents for such a valuable witch's broth are nothing more esoteric than a thoroughly haunted house, a web of tangled intrigue with some sort of treasure at the end, and Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope to grope their terrified way through and to same. It worked out very nicely in The Cat And The Canary last year, and it is working quite as nicely -- and even more amusingly, in fact -- here.”

And, “A hand reaches out of the darkness or a sinister figure appears through the gloom; Miss Goddard -- who hasn’t a great deal to do but looks great doing it -- casts her fear-shattered self into Mr. Hope's trembling arms, and he, witty fellow that he is, pops out a withering gag.  Some are bad enough to throw any spook that ever lived, but most of them are lively snappers which chase the creepiest chill with a laugh. As a consequence, the picture leaps nimbly along from gag to gag, never making much sense but always making merry.  Not many pictures can make your goose-pimpled sides shake with laughter, but this one does -- or should.”

Released just a year after Canary in 1940, sometimes a pseudo sequel -- second helping, whatever you want to call it -- is a very good thing and The Ghost Breakers shines for the treatment, as everything about the film – scares, laughs, and especially story – are heightened to their utmost potential;  and our utmost enjoyment.  The most significant reuniting was, of course, Hope & Goddard whose enormous success with Canary all but demanded it.  And why not in the same genre, even the same scenario?  More thrills and chills that tickle your funny bone as the wise-cracking Hope accompanies the brave and beautiful Goddard, once again the inheritor of a gloomy old place, supposed to be haunted, with a hidden treasure, all hampered by nefarious foes who want her out of the way.  (And people say today’s Hollywood has run out of original ideas.) 

Vis-à-vis my talking about the Series of the 40s -- see the My Favorite Brunette review -- I’m sure Paramount would have loved to continue something with Hope & Goddard beyond the upcoming Nothing But The Truth, but his Road series and her relationship with Charles Chaplin -- not to mention her becoming a star in her own right -- hampered that (and perhaps a little bit more on that in the upcoming Truth piece).  

The Ghost Breakers reunited several of the Canary team, including Producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Scorer Ernst Toch, not to mention most of the team would reunite yet again for Nothing But The Truth.  Particular to note is scribe Walter DeLeon -- who shines here -- reunited with a hit play, this time by Paul Dickey & Charles W. Goddard (no relation to our leading lady, although Dickey and Charles W. were brothers-in-law).  Interestingly, this was not the first time DeLeon tackled the Ghost Breakers material.  He had done so for the 1922 version, and even that wasn’t the first time the play had been filmed.  The first was in 1914, handled by none other than a young Cecil B. DeMille.  And our version today won’t be the last time the story is told, as our Director, George Marshall, will tell the story again with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis in their Scared Stiff.  (And people say today’s Hollywood is obsessed with remakes.)

Marshall himself remembers Hope’s “professionalism, impeccable timing, wonderful story sense, adaptability, superior sense of humor.  Maybe other directors had problems with him, but I always found him wonderful to work with.”  And, “I still laugh remembering the goofy times we had and Bob’s ability to make light even of heavy situations -- on screen and off.”  While this was their first picture together, he’d go on to direct Hope in Monsieur Beaucaire (which many consider to be his best) and Fancy Pants with Lucille Ball (which came this close to edging Nothing But The Truth out of these Top 5). 

You’ve probably noticed I don’t delve too much into plot in my reviews.  Well, that’s for two reasons.  One, I don’t want to give it away, nervous that someone might be reading this without having yet seen the movie (and they are treasures to be discovered).  Two, that plot, character names and the like aren’t necessarily why they’re treasures.  If I say such-and-such is a Bob Hope movie where he plays Private Eye, you get the idea.  And if I say such-and-such is a Bob Hope movie about his battling ghosts in a haunted house, you get the idea.  The plot and who he’s playing – who anyone in the movie’s playing – is sidelined for it being a Bob Hope movie.  The same, with great respect, goes to most films of the 40s.  It’s the new Humphrey Bogart film!  And that packed 'em in.  The 40s were when stars and their types of films were what mattered.  (Imagine today’s marketing allowing the same stars, writers, et cetera being in Film #2 without calling it that?  Ford had his Stock Company -- 'A Company Of Heroes,' as Dobe called his autobiography -- and there’s the McKay-Ferrell and Apatow camps, but you get the idea.)  So please forgive me if you’re looking for more in-depth play-by-play.  For that, I dare say the film does just fine on its own.

Next to My Favorite Brunette and, of the Road pictures, Utopia, I’ll stand by this film holding up the best.  As a thriller, it has some genuninely creepy moments (bed so well by Mr. Toch’s score):  the zombie laying in his bed, turning his head to the light.  His walking up the path to the staring, petrified Goddard.  Don Santiago’s midnight stroll (to this day a better than decent effect).  And the hand creeping up the glass coffin, trying desperately to get Hope’s and Goddard’s attention.  And as a comedy?  You bet it’s funny, with the rapid-fire wit only Hope can deliver.  And not just Hope – and without leaving the best for last – there’s Willie Best delivering right along side him (and for whom, I’m afraid, once again this review hardly does justice).  In fact, some of the funniest moments are Hope and Best simply interacting;  in the New York apartment at the beginning, on the cruise ship, and skulking around the castle.  What a great “buddy picture” in the middle of our comedy-thriller. 

Not to mention, going back to the in-game I talked about in the Brunette review (mastered by Hope & Co. by that picture), there are some great uses in this one.  Did you notice Hope humming “Thanks For The Memory” just before he’s introduced?  He was already so well linked to it, and he’d only introduced it two years before in Big Broadcasst ’38.  And quipping about the New York storm (and city-wide blackout, thirty years before the real one), “Basil Rathbone must be having a party.” 

Sorry, quick aside here.  Why was that line so funny to audiences then?  Sure, that big a storm is a funny quip about Rathbone’s oft-gothic roles but it was more than that.  Rathbone’s wife Ouida developed a reputation for hosting elaborate, expensive parties in their home.  So well known and coveted were these – and covered by the publicity mags – that of course the theatre going public were enamored of them.  Rathbone and Old Ski Nose will eventually co-star in Casanova’s Big Night.  Okay, back to the in-game.

There’s the great Pamphlet Scene as they’re pulling into the Havana harbor -- the Mad Lib esque back-and-forth -- Hope saying it sounds like a Cecil B. DeMille picture (which, remember, it would have been, if we were watching DeMille’s own Ghost Breakers just twenty-six years before).  And, as we heard Hope take a shot at the Republicans in Canary, it was only fair he address the Democrats in this one (with, as much as I’m a Democrat, one of the funniest quips of his career).

And our movie today was such a hit, it’s literally referenced in another movie, the Paramount / Fred MacMurray comedy-thriller Murder He Says.  MacMurray and Helen Walker are maneuvering their way through an old house -- I won’t give too much away -- when, stumped by a clue, he spots an organ, thinks a moment and --   

MacMURRAY
Nah, it’s stilly.

WALKER
What?

MacMURRAY
Did you see the Bob Hope picture ‘Ghost Breakers?’

WALKER
The one with the zombie?

MacMURRAY
                 Yeah.  Remember when they had the organ in it?  Come here! 
                                (he moves to it, she following)
They played a combination of notes that operated a gimmick that
opened the door to the hiding place.
                 (sitting at it now)

WALKER
In a place like this?  It couldn’t be.

MacMURRAY
Well what have we got to lose?  Worked for them, didn’t it?
                  (he positions his hands to play)

And let’s leave them there, because if you haven’t seen that film, it’s well worth the watch (and if I do a Fred MacMurray Top 5 it will definitely be on that list).  How good is it?  Well, none other than Gene Wilder homages it in his comedy-thriller, Haunted Honeymoon;  and I’ll leave you to discover how and where.  Interestingly, in his Family Film Festival episode of Murder He SaysTom Hatten notes, “Bob Hope was the king of the Paramount lot as far as comedy was concerned at this time.  How in the world did he ever let this script get away from him?  It’s the perfect Bob Hope movie except it’s better, as good as Bob is, it’s better with Fred MacMurray.”  And I dare say he’s right. 

Okay, back to our movie today.

Speaking of not doing these write-ups justice, at least in terms of plot, I’d certainly be remiss to not mention our wonderful Supporting Cast in Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Pedro De Cordoba, a young Anthony Quinn, Noble Johnson, Tom Dugan and Paul Fix.  And Virginia Brissac as Mother Zombie (I kid you not that’s her credit) who you might recognize as James Dean’s grandmother in Rebel Without A Cause.  Great character actors, all of them.  Look them each up;  you’ll be surprised how well you know them.  And I have to say Tom Dugan as Raspy Kelly is the butt of my favorite joke in the movie:  with that near whisper voice of his, he just barely raises it and Hope interrupts, “Don’t shout.”  Priceless.

One Supporter I’ll single out is Lloyd Corrigan.  That’s his real name, but you know who I mean;  the short pudgy fellow that seems harmless as he accidentally keeps bumping into Paulette Goddard;  first on the pier, then on the ship, then in the Havana Club.  (And for you Boston Blackie fans, yep, that’s Arthur Manleder.)  Well, what happens to him?  Granted, the plot is incidental, and fair enough, but he just sort of disappears, doesn’t he?  After the turn from bumbling to seemingly plotting in The Havana Club.  But then that’s it, he’s gone, never explained.  Is there info on an earlier cut with him as a cop or cohort at the end?  If anyone knows, please share.

As The Ghost Breakers is the second comedy-thriller from such a great team, I of course wish there were more.  But even if this was the only one, it’s well worth a night in a haunted house.  As Hope says to Goddard at the end --

HOPE
It’ll give us something to talk about on our honeymoon!

GODDARD
Our honeymoon?

HOPE
Yeah, didn’t I tell ya?

GODDARD
No, but I’d like to hear more about it!

HOPE
You would?

She smiles, nods and they kiss.  (And stop questioning the fact they’ve only known each other a week.  It’s Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard!)

                  Indeed, if Canary was the wedding, then The Ghost Breakers is quite the honeymoon.


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