Sometimes I suspect the folks at MGM's home video department play a variation of "pin the tail on the donkey," spinning blindfolded employees around to randomly select titles for their manufactured-on-demand DVDs. How else to account for The Living Ghost (1942), an obscure, Poverty Row mystery-comedy long in the public domain? Labels specializing in such long-forgotten films, Alpha Video for one, have already released it at bargain-basement prices, and it's available for free on the Internet Archive. MGM's release doesn't seem tied to any special Halloween promotion, and maybe that's a good thing because despite its title The Living Ghost isn't a horror movie and has no ghosts in it, living or otherwise. A pristine new transfer of this Monogram Studios production might trump other available versions, at least for hard-core fans of super-cheap movies, but this video transfer is only fair with weak blacks that give it a washed-out appearance. The movie barely runs 61 minutes, and yet for the same money (or less) you can buy positively gorgeous, brand-new and extras-packed Blu-rays of, say, the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty or My Fair Lady. Of course, those films don't star James Dunn.
Add to that, The Living Ghost has little to recommend it. It's a very typical example of Monogram's movies from that period: cheap, claustrophobic, and uneventful. However, star Dunn is breezy and agreeable, as is ingénue Joan Woodbury, and despite its extremely low budget (well under $50,000, probably in the $15,000-$20,000 range), by Poverty Row Horrors standards it has a couple of halfway-good points.
This MGM "Limited Edition Collection" disc has no extra features.
Former detective Nick Trayne (Dunn) now works as a "professional listener," i.e., a psychic adviser, to a waiting room full of chumps and eccentrics. However, Ed Moline (Paul McVey) talks Nick out of retirement to investigate the strange disappearance of wealthy banker Walter Craig.
At this point The Living Ghost becomes structured much like Monogram's cheap, contemporaneous Charlie Chan movies. Like the Chan films, The Living Ghost burns up most of its running time by having Nick question a mansion-full of mostly colorless suspects and obvious red-herrings, including Craig's wife, Helen (Edna Johnson); his obnoxious daughter, Tina (Jan Wiley) and her fiancé, Arthur (Howard Banks); also Craig's sister Delia (hatchet-faced Monogram regular Minerva Urecal); and her husband, George. And then there's the family butler, Cedric (Norman Willis); Craig's former partner, Tony Weldon (George Eldredge); and his secretary, Billie Hilton (Woodbury), who becomes Nick's love interest, and who impresses by never putting down her cigarette.
Eventually, Craig himself (Gus Glassmire) turns up unexpectedly, alive but brain-damaged (his brain "decorticated") and in a zombie-like state of somnambulism. Nick and Billie decide to visit an abandoned house rented by a man who may have built the apparatus that caused Craig's brain injury.
Like frequent Monogram player Bela Lugosi, James Dunn was a star on the way down, his career crippled by alcoholism. He started out well, debuting in Frank Borzage's pre-Code Bad Girl (1931). Dunn soon became associated with child star Shirley Temple, playing the male lead in Baby Takes a Bow and Bright Eyes, as well as two other films featuring but not starring them, Stand Up and Cheer! and Change of Heart (all 1934). He also starred in Living on Love (1937), the so-so remake of Rafter Romance (1933), both of which were recently released to DVD after many years in obscurity. By the end of the decade Dunn had aged prematurely and was toiling away in the salt mines at Monogram. Though he'd briefly bounce back three years after The Living Ghost, winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of an alcoholic father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Dunn wasn't able to capitalize on that success, but he did work steadily until his death in 1967.
He's serviceable in The Living Ghost, but the script makes no great demands on anybody. Unimaginatively directed by William "One Shot" Beaudine, the picture uses mostly standing sets, interiors and soundstage exteriors that turn up again and again with only minor redressing, in the Sidney Toler Charlie Chans as well as Monogram's cheap horror and horror-comedies. The script is full of clichés - Nick to Cedric the butler: "How much do you charge to haunt a house?" - and those trying to make sense of the mystery run the risk of having their brains turned into cottage cheese.
Monogram often turned to contract player Mantan Moreland for comedy relief; it's almost surprising that he's not in this. Instead, at the beginning an actor named Danny Beck, probably an ex-Vaudevillian, appears as a double-talking client of Nick's. His nonsense speech is pretty funny even if there's no reason for him to be in the movie. Like Monogram's other films, the score, likely stock cues, is laughably bad: when Nick and Billie are investigating the spooky, abandoned house, the underscoring sounds like chase music more appropriate to a Western serial.
Video & Audio
The full-frame transfer of The Living Ghost is functional, better than most early-forties Monogram pictures offered by public domain labels. However, it's still several notches below similar offerings from Sony's MOD program, or Warners. Blacks are milky gray instead of black, and this is very noticeable in the haunted house scenes near the end, with the image also exhibiting a shadowy cheesecloth-like pattern. Supposedly this was released in Britain as A Walking Nightmare (a more apt title), but this sources a British print, apparently a reissue, distributed there by Anglo-Amalgamated (and released with a BBFC "A" certificate). The Monogram logo is absent from this version. The mono English audio (no subtitle options) is adequate on this region 1 disc. No Extra Features.
Complaints aside, I'm delighted that MGM is releasing titles from its Monogram library, but given their brief running times I think MGM be wise to package at least two films per disc, and to offer them with better transfers. As is, fans of outré films like these will want to Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is presently hard at work producing special features content for sci-fi extravaganzas from two different home video labels.