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.
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.
The Ghost Breakers never gets seriously superstitious, but the Paramount art department
created an impressively atmospheric haunted castle, with dreamlike halls. Visitors approach only
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
Supplements: Hope docu and personal appearance films, stills, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 21, 2003
1. TCM just gave us a rare showing of the 1945 Deanna Durbin comedy
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson