Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#1,709. The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Directed By: George Marshall

Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson

Tag line: "The two stars of The Cat and the Canary find love and laughter in a haunted house!"

Trivia: Bob Hope is said to have enjoyed this role since it was a total change of pace for him. In most of his films he portrays a coward while, in this one, he is heroic

A year after they made The Cat and the Canary, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard reunited for the horror / comedy The Ghost Breakers, and while the laughs are as plentiful here as they were in the earlier film, the horror elements are even more intense this time around, resulting in a movie that, on occasion, is more frightening than it is funny.

New York socialite Mary Carter (Goddard) has just inherited the “Castillo Maltido”, a spacious mansion on a remote island off the coast of Cuba that’s been in her family for generations. Ignoring the warnings of the Cuban solicitor, Mr. Parada (Paul Lukas), who tells her the old estate is haunted, Mary books passage on a ship bound for Cuba to check out her new property. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, radio personality Lawrence “Larry” Lawrence (Hope) is up to his usual tricks, revealing the secrets of the city’s organized crime syndicate to his loyal listeners. Alas, his latest story hits a bit too close to home for mob boss Frenchy Duval (Paul Fix), who tells Lawrence he got it all wrong and asks him to swing by his hotel suite so that he can “give it to him straight”.

Believing there’s going to be trouble, Lawrence’s valet, Alex (Willie Best), hands his boss a gun just before he enters the hotel, but as Larry approaches Frenchy’s room, shots ring out behind him (a showdown between Mr. Parada and a Cuban informant named Meredes, played by none other than Anthony Quinn, that somehow relates to the Castillo Maltido). Out of fear, Larry fires his gun, and in the confusion thinks he’s the one who shot Meredes dead (it was actually Parada). In a panic, he seeks shelter in the first suite he happens upon, which, as luck would have it, belongs to Mary Carter! Convinced of his innocence, she agrees to hide Larry from the police. Not taking any chances, Larry climbs into the only place the cops won’t search: a large trunk Mary is packing for her trip to Cuba. Sure enough, Larry evades the police, but before anyone knows what’s happened, the trunk is taken from the room and loaded onto the ship. With Larry and Alex on board, the boat leaves dock, and during the long trip to Cuba Mary tells Larry all about her inheritance, and how she feels someone is trying to scare her away from it. So, Larry agrees to accompany her to the Castillo Maltido, but are the rumors that ghosts reside there simply tall tales to frighten visitors, or do Mary’s ancestors haunt the halls of her new estate, bringing death to those who venture inside?

Early on, The Ghost Breakers puts the emphasis squarely on comedy, with Hope’s “Larry” Lawrence tossing out a slew of one-liners, most of which hit their mark (when Mary first meets him, she has a hard time believing his name is Lawrence Lawrence. “My middle name is Lawrence, too”, he replies. “My folks had no imagination”). Once they’re on the boat, however, the movie shifts gears and becomes an intriguing mystery, with Mary being hounded by an unknown person intent on keeping her from her inheritance (after a day out with Larry, she returns to her room and finds a sinister voodoo trinket stuck to her door). But where The Ghost Breakers truly excels is in its final act, during which Larry and Alex, along with Mary and her friend Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson), who she ran into on the boat, make their way to the small island where the Castillo Maltido is located. Aside from the various spirits that haunt the old place (we actually meet one of them), the group also must contend with a voodoo priestess (Virginia Brissac) and her zombie son (Noble Johnson, looking pretty damn creepy), both of whom live nearby. Aided by the impressive set pieces, including a tomb where many of Mary’s relatives are preserved under glass, these scenes will surely have you poised on the edge of your seat.

Not all of the humor translates well to modern times; Larry’s valet, Alex, played by black actor Wilie Best, is occasionally the butt of jokes that today seem a lot more insensitive than they did in 1940 (when the lights in Larry’s hotel room are knocked out by an electrical storm, he calls for Alex, only to find he’s standing right next to him in the darkness. “You look like a blackout in a blackout”, Larry snorts, adding “If this keeps up, I’ll have to paint you white”). These unfortunate moments aside, The Ghost Breakers is a funny, spooky flick that, more often than not, will have you laughing while you’re covering your eyes.

1 comment:

Tony said...

I saw tis a few months ago and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

As for Willie Best, he's downright dignified in this role if you compare it to his early 1930s roles. He was billed as Sleep 'N' Eat and his movies under that name are, shall we say, rather insensitive to his humanity.

He was also in High Sierra, one of Bogart's breakthrough movies.