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DVD SAVANT

THE Ghost Breakers


The Ghost Breakers
Universal Home Video
1940 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 82 min. / Street Date April 1, 2003 / $19.98
Starring Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Willie Best, Pedro de Cordoba, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Anthony Quinn
Cinematography Charles Lang
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Film Editor Ellsworth Hoagland
Original Music Ernst Toch
Written by Walter DeLeon from a play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard
Produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.
Directed by George Marshall

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Who ya gonna call?

A light and breezy Bob Hope comedy that comes up with some not-bad haunted house thrills when needed, The Ghost Breakers is one of his more pleasant vehicles. Universal's release of this older Paramount library title also fares well in the quality department.

Synopsis:

Muckraking radio personality Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope) runs away from a murder in a hotel corridor and ends up locked in the trunk of Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) and on his way to Cuba. With his valet Alex (Willie Best) in tow, Hope tries to run interference for Mary, who has inherited the haunted Black Island, with its own castle called Castillo Maldito. Suave Cubans dog her - the charming Parada (Paul Lukas) and the sinister Mederos twins (both played by Anthony Quinn). In Havana, Mary meets an old acquaintance, Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson), who warns her further about the Mother Zombie at Castillo Maldito (Virginia Brissac) and her towering zombie son (Noble Johnson). But Larry and Alex go on ahead to the castle, to clear the way of threats to Mary.

Bob Hope's writers strike a nice balance between his wisecracking persona and a straight ghost story in this entertaining vehicle. Although Hope is always making light of situations, he doesn't step out of character as he would in a Road movie, and his efforts to win the attention of Paulette Goddard's spunky heroine are sincere.

The picture's composed of only about four long scenes, really. A stormy night in Manhattan sets the stage for murders committed around Goddard's inheritance of a Cuban island, with its Castle of the Damned a prime piece of real estate. Paul Lukas and Anthony Quinn are sinister foes, and later monster-fighter Richard Carlson is charming as the young bachelor competition for the heroine. Instead of his neurotic fool character (the one lifted wholesale by Woody Allen), Hope turns out to be a rather dedicated guy, accompanying Goddard on an unplanned voyage, and preceding her across Cuba to the haunted island, in a sincere bid to make sure she'll be safe. In keeping with the glamorous unreality of the show, Cuba is seen only in a stockshot of the harbor, a fancy nightclub, and the fantastic haunted island.

Hope can be a bland presence, but here his perfectly-timed wisecracks work well, perhaps because of the mild restraint provided by the genre's conventions and expectations. But the honors go to his two supporting players. Goddard carries the picture, as the story really follows her more closely than it does Hope, and she's very appealing. Her sense of humor and game-Jane quality help us over the melodramatic bumps - all she has to to is make fun of a deadly threat, or con the cops, and we're on her side.

Willie Best was one of the better black talents of the time, seen exclusively as porters, elevator operators, and in other servile roles. In the standard ghost movie, the black character was a secondary clown used for exaggerated fright gags, as Joel Siegel put it in his book The Reality of Terror. The black comedian reacts to scares by making his eyes pop out, his hair stand up straight, or running through a door, leaving behind a cartoon cutout. Best is treated with a little more respect here.

Perhaps the best place to appreciate Best is in Cabin in the Sky, where he plays the devil's Idea Man #2 in some wickedly funny scenes. But even that movie's utilization of black stereotypes makes it an iffy sell to many African-Americans; part of the reason that so little is known about stereotyped actors like Best is the racial discomfort factor - Best's screen name before 1936 was Sleep 'n Eat. His movies are often absented from frequent television showings because of race jokes in the dialogue. Here, Hope quips when the power goes off: "If this keeps up I'm going to have to paint you white!"  1

Here Best is Alex, Hope's faithful but independently wise valet. Best wears a suit and behaves on the slow side, but watch carefully and it'll become clear that he solves most of Hope's problems and always keeps an intelligent eye out for him. He has a lot of screen time acting independently, and functions as a leading player - even though only Hope seems to acknowledge his existence.

(spoiler)

The Ghost Breakers never gets seriously superstitious, but the Paramount art department created an impressively atmospheric haunted castle, with dreamlike halls. Visitors approach only by boat, lending some shots an Isle of the Dead quality. Noble Johnson (King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game) is menacing behind some strange makeup, but nothing that ever approaches a fright level. The ghost comedy was on a slight rebound from its late 1920's silent heyday, and true to form, the haunting is really being done by humans angling to seize Goddard's inheritance. But the ghosts turn out to be real, just the same.


Universal's The Ghost Breakers DVD is part of its Bob Hope The Tribute Collection, and looks much better than another entry in the series that Savant sampled. I've been informed that the Paramount elements held by Universal are both limited and sometimes lacking in quality, and the mostly excellent picture here is a welcome surprise. Universal's encoding is also an improvement - the picture is sharp and detailed.

The list of extras, shared by some of the other titles, includes a tepid bio doc explaining how Hope entertained the troops in WW2. There's a command performance excerpt from 1944, and another public appearance short subject called Hollywood Victory Caravan. A trailer and stills gallery round out the package. The show has English closed-captions, and Spanish and French subs.

It is said that sharp eyes will turn up Robert Ryan as one of the medics in the hotel hallway scene. I didn't spot him, personally.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ghost Breakers rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Hope docu and personal appearance films, stills, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 21, 2003


Footnote:

1. TCM just gave us a rare showing of the 1945 Deanna Durbin comedy thriller Lady on a Train last week. 'Why doesn't this get shown more?' I thought, as it's really funny and clever. Well, the answer came when Durbin is describing a man in an early scene. Durbin: "I said he was bucktoothed. You know, buck-toothed, like a JAP." Oh, that's why.
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