Saturday, October 22, 2011

This is Halloween

Hey! Geek Dog!

Remember a few weeks back when I was posting about movies I remember from Halloweens when I was a kid? Well, it's time to get back to it....

Oh, come on! This one isn't even scary! In fact, it's a comedy. It's called The Ghost Breakers......

....and it stars Bob Hope.

Everyone's a critic.

I don't care we're watching it anyway...

The Plot: Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope) is a radio personality in New York. When he makes a broadcast that offends a mobster he heads to the mobster's hotel for a confrontation. He accidentally steps into a conflict between two other men and believes himself to have accidentally shot one of the men in his fright. He ends up stowing away in the steamer trunk of a woman named Mary Carter who has just inherited an island and a castle just off the coast of Cuba. By the time Larry is cleared of killing he's already fallen for Mary and is determined to help her solve the mystery of the haunted castle. If he's not careful, though, the castle will end up with a new ghost... namely his own.

My Halloween: I remember this movie being shown on the independent TV station around where I grew up. It was a staple in the run-up to Halloween along with the later remake of it Scared Stiff featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. 1940's The Ghost Breakers though was always the version I preferred.

While I have seen this one again since those long-ago days of my childhood it's been several years since I sat down to watch it and really.... it's a bit of a shame. It's a fun little movie but sounds a sour note with the recognizably horrible portrayal of African-American actor Willie Best's character of Alex.

In the film Alex acts as Larry Lawrence's valet and right-hand man but the terrible, stereotypical, Hollywood patois Best is stuck with just induces cringing. Which is quite sad because, underneath it all or perhaps through it all it is quite apparent that Best is a fine comedic actor. He keeps up with Hope on every level and if Hollywood and society of the time had not been so hidebound and prejudiced Best almost certainly would have been a star.

As for the rest of the film, Paulette Goddard as Mary Carter is charming if a bit useless around the edges. Like African-Americans women in Golden Age Hollywood films were often limited by their roles. Still, the beauty and charm that made Goddard a star and a household name back in the day shine through here.

The movie was and obviously remains, though, a starring vehicle for Bob Hope. Hope plays just another variation on his own stand-up persona -- that of a self-deprecating fellow with a cowardly streak that he manages to overcome. It was a character that Hope would play again, and again over the years with little variation. There's nothing really new here... not even the jokes many of which are old Vaudeville standards or leftovers from Hope's old comedy routines. Still, Hope's own natural charm is in full display here and it is that charm that carried his career until his passing in 2003.

Where the film really excels is in the set design and atmosphere. Entirely studio bound it lacks the 'staged' feel that a lot of later studio pictures would have. The black and white does the film favors by helping to disguise the sets and lending the whole thing a creepy atmosphere but there is still no denying that the matte painters and set designers of the era did a bang-up job here.

Normally I would say that this is a great film to show little kids. They'll likely love Hope's broad performance and they'll find the ghosts and zombie of the film spooky but not overly scary but Willie Best's role is a bit of a stumbling block. On the other hand, Best was a consummate professional and it seems a bit unfair to deprive his memory over a role that he had little choice in the matter over. For actors like Best the Hollywood system and society was stacked against them and it was either take roles such as this and try to do the best they could with them and fight to try to change the system from within or give up acting altogether. I would say sit down with your kids before and after watching the film -- explain about the abuses in Hollywood at the time, point out where Best's role was entirely stereotypical but then also point out the areas where Best's performance really shines. In short, use this as a teaching moment and a time when the whole family can gather together around a movie to put you in the Halloween spirit.

Until next time this is me and Geek Dog signing off.

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