Quite obscure but routine and not especially funny, Whispering Ghosts (1942) does have the unusualness of headlining Milton Berle in a rare, pre-Mr. Television starring role, but the movie doesn't utilize his talents all that well, either. Whispering Ghosts was a B-picture from executive producer Sol M. Wurtzel's busy second features unit at Fox. They were very adept cranking out solid Charlie Chan, Michael Shayne, and Mr. Moto mysteries, but conversely were all thumbs when it came to comedy. Indeed, this same unit all but destroyed the film careers of Laurel & Hardy, and as with that team's A-Haunting We Will Go (1941), they were especially ill-suited to broad slapstick, even in the haunted house-comedy-mysteries mode.
Still, Whispering Ghosts has in its favor plenty of fog-shrouded atmosphere - though not a single ghost, despite the title - and even though not used well, Berle is interesting to watch at this solo shot.
The movie arrives courtesy of 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives manufactured-on-demand line. The video transfer is obviously old and even includes burned-in reel change cues but otherwise is okay. No extra features.
Betty Woods (Brenda Joyce, the second and best of Tarzan's various Janes) inherits the Black Joker, a spooky pirate ship from her grand-uncle, Captain Eli Wetherby who, some time before, was found murdered, an axe sticking out of his back. Betty and her fiancÃ©, David Courtland (John Shelton), search the cobweb-ridden ship, now docked in New Jersey, for the supposed fortune in diamonds hidden somewhere onboard.
Elsewhere, radio host and quack amateur detective H.S. Van Buren (Berle) promises to reveal Wetherby's murderer on the next episode of his program, The Man Who Lifts the Veil. However, Police Inspector Norris (Arthur Hohl) threatens Van with jail unless he reveals the murderer's name to him at once. When Van names his suspect, Manuel Dazetta, Norris laughingly reveals Dazetta as an alias of Wetherby's already known to the police.
Still determined to solve the mystery, Van camps out aboard the spooky ship, accompanied by his black valet, Euclid Brown (Willie Best). Already aboard are two actors, Norbert (John Carradine, made up like the Gorton's Fisherman) and Stella (Renie Riano), hired by Van's announcer and rival, Jerry (Edmund MacDonald), to impersonate the ghosts of Wetherby's first mate, Long Jack, and former fiancÃ©e, Meg, as a practical joke.
Whispering Ghosts was obviously inspired by the spate of successful haunted house comedies of the previous few years, especially The Ghost Breakers (1940), starring Bob Hope, and Hold That Ghost (1941), with Abbott & Costello, Whistling in the Dark (1941) with Red Skelton, and probably too the Broadway hit and movie of Arsenic and Old Lace (already filmed but not yet released), given this film's eccentric types. By the mid-1940s everyone and his mother appeared in haunted house comedies of one sort or another; even lowly Poverty Row studios like Monogram and PRC were cranking them out, the former often starring the East Side Kids and/or Mantan Moreland.
Berle was not yet the iconic "Uncle Miltie." He'd appeared in silent films as a boy, including Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Mark of Zorro, but his first starring role did come along until 1933, a nearly forgotten two-reel short called Poppin' the Cork. He co-starred with Joe Penner in New Faces of 1937 (1937), then for the next several years enjoyed a string of second and third leads, some referencing his greater fame on radio. Rather amazingly after Whispering Ghosts Berle followed it up with yet another dreary comedy-mystery, Over My Dead Body, then starred in two more comedies, straight this time, Margin for Error (1943) and Always Leave Them Laughing (1949), before finding greener pastures on the new medium of television.
Whispering Ghosts oddly posits Berle almost as something approaching a conventional leading man, if a witty one. He's reasonably funny but not, for instance, cowardly like Bob Hope in his horror-comedies, or excitable and stupid like Lou Costello, in his. Instead, Berle, a notorious scene-stealer, atypically lets others like John Carradine (who hams it up as the faux ghost pirate, and later imitates a frog) and Willie Best walk off with the movie, they getting an at least equal share of the laughs. Ineffectively, for most of the film Van acts bravely among the cowards, assuming the "real" ghosts are mere actors, which, in fact, they are.
Van: "Don't be so nervous!"
Euclid: "I'm not nervous!"
Van: "Then stop biting my nails!"
Video & Audio
Fox's Whispering Ghosts is presented in its correct 1.37:1 full frame, though the framing is off a bit. Brenda Joyce's name in the credits gets a trim, for instance. The contrast is rather blah and there are some scratches and a few distracting reel change cues, but otherwise it looks okay. The audio, English only with no alternate audio or subtitle options, is so-so. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Both classic horror fans and fans of classic comedy will want to see Whispering Ghosts, tepid though it is. The art department and cinematographer got it right; they generate a fair amount of atmosphere, but the comedy is undistinguished. Mildly Recommended for those with an interest.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.