Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard are Scared Stiff in This Classic Horror-Comedy.
DIRECTED BY GEORGE MARSHALL/1940
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 15, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
“I don’t think my kids have any idea who Bob Hope is!”
That was the realization of a friend when I mentioned that my family had watched the Hope vehicle The Ghost Breakers the night before. “Mine do”, was my matter-of-fact reply. Thanks to my film critic gig, they’d seen various and sundry other Hope films (Son of Paleface, Road to Bali), but this would be their first time seeing the classic comedian at the top of his pre-WWII game. Though deemed too scary for one, the rest ate it all up rather readily.
Though eventually settling in as a sterling horror/comedy with both scares and laughs in earnest, The Ghost Breakers (1940) takes some narrative scenic routes in getting there. Hope plays Lawrence “Larry” Lawrence (you read that right), a radio crime reporter who, following a broadcast in which he calls out a particularly dangerous gangster, finds himself embroiled in a hotel shooting. Pre-figuring The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by twenty-two years, Larry assumes he accidentally murdered another gangster in a hotel hallway when in fact the fatal bullet originated from another room.
That mess goes on just long enough to set Larry on the run, tethering him to the beautiful and rather mysterious Mary Carter, played by Paulette Goddard. (This Hope/Goddard reunion comes on the heels of their 1939 initial pairing, The Cat and the Canary, which is also newly available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber). For good measure, most of this goes down during an electrical blackout and a thunderstorm.
After a prolonged wacky interlude on a cruise ship, Larry, Clark, and Larry’s assistant Alex (Willie Best) find their way to Havana, and the creepy, Scooby-Doo-worthy haunted castle that Clark has inherited. Thanks to the great direction of George Marshall (Murder, He Says, in which Fred McMurray references “that movie The Ghost Breakers”; Destry Rides Again), the many fitful frights of the castle take on supernatural lives of their own (particularly a legitimately scary old woman played by Virginia Brissac and her very eerie zombie son, played by Noble Johnson) even as the core cast doesn’t miss a comedic beat. In this way, The Ghost Breakers takes its place alongside of the other great horror-comedies if the era, including Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and its own 1953 Martin & Lewis remake, Scared Stiff, also directed by Marshall.
Author/film historian Lee Gambin flies in with a practically breathless commentary track, enthusiastically spouting information about the cast, crew, the film itself, and related tangents. The commentary’s rapid pace makes it difficult to keep up; if you become distracted by the film itself, you might get lost as Gambin veers off into thoughts on queer cinema or any number of other mental detours. But, despite the exhaustion factor, the track is worthwhile. More than once Gambin addresses the obvious subject of The Ghost Breakers’ inspirational relationship to Ghostbusters. (Yes, Dan Ackroyd was a big fan).
Also discussed is the role of Willie Best (sometimes known as “Sleep n’Eat”), an African American with an unusually large amount of screen-time for the era. Best as Alex delivers on the expected scare takes, and yes, he is the butt of a few of Hope’s racially motivated (though not at all hateful) quips. But also, Alex is undeniably far more competent and in control than his boss. He’s got a lot to do in the film, and several worthwhile spotlight moments. It’s even accurate to say that, as far as token black characters go, Best has more going on in this film than Ernie Hudson does in Ghostbusters forty-four years later. Best, as evidenced by this 1940 film alone (to say nothing of his other 123 screen roles), is without question the top supporting player in this cast, and clearly something of an unsung pioneer as a black actor in Hollywood.
Besides the Gambin commentary, this new The Ghost Breakers Blu-ray also includes a short Trailers from Hell segment in which Ed Wood screenwriter Larry Karaszewski gives an appreciation. The picture quality the new 2K master of this eighty-year-old visual-effects-adorned black and white comedy is pretty remarkable, all things considered.
Functioning humorously within several genres and not without an indelible cinematic moment or two, The Ghost Breakers happily transcends the niche of “the Bob Hope comedy”. In light of Hope’s later career, in which he was, to paraphrase one commentator, “a cue card-reading celebrity who sleepwalked through ubiquitous TV specials”, (a persona that generated its own Dave Thomas spoof characterization on SCTV) it’s easy to forget that the man came from an earlier time of lightning talent and charisma. That is the Bob Hope of The Ghost Breakers– almost never not funny.
No matter whether you remember Bob Hope or not, and whether you want a good classic Hollywood laugh or a good macabre scare, you now know who to call. Catch a break and catch The Ghost Breakers.