Films: Comedy/Musicals


Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE GHOST BREAKERS. Paramount Pictures, 1940. Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Anthony Quinn, Willie Best, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Tom Dugan, Paul Fix, Lloyd Corrigan Screenplay Walter DeLeon, based on a play by Paul Dickey Director: George Marshall.

   If you asked me to list the ten best comedy-mystery films of the Golden Age of Cinema there are certain films that could not be left off the list, The Thin Man, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, The Cat and the Canary, My Favorite Blonde … But there is only one film that could be in the number one spot, the perfect blend of comedy, mystery, and scares, The Ghost Breakers.

   It wasn’t a new story then. It had been filmed twice before in the silent era and was based on a play that had also been novelized (it’s available as a free e-book), and it would be filmed again with Martin and Lewis as Scared Stiff (1953), but when you find the perfect cast, directors, and script — helped along to no small extent by Bob Hope’s army of gag writers — familiarity is a small problem.

   Bob Hope is radio star Laurence (Larry) Lawrence in this one. His middle name is Laurence too: “My parents had no imagination.” Larry does a radio show in which he uses his contacts in the underworld, namely Raspy Kelly (Tom Dugan), to get the inside dope on racketeers. When he reveals gangster Frenchie Duval (Paul Fix) is running a diaper service racket and not cutting his men and partners in on it, Frenchie is unhappy and invites Larry over to ‘talk.’

   It’s the night of a spectacular thunder storm (“Basil Rathbone must be having a party.”) that keeps knocking the power out which will further complicate things, but the station assures Bob they have auxiliary power and the show will go on.

       Receptionist to Bob: “You were great tonight, in your own opinion.”

       Bob, taken aback with no comeback: “I’m working on it.”

   Larry was going on vacation after the show, but not as far as he fears Frenchie will send him.

   Staying at the same hotel is Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard), who has inherited an island off Cuba known as Black Island on which stands the old slave castle Castillo Maldito once owned by her ancestor Don Santiago — who doesn’t care to vacate the place it seems. Anyone who goes there save the old black woman caretaker (Virginia Brissac) and her zombie son (Noble Johnson in terrific makeup) dies.

   Paul Lukas is Mr. Parada who wants to buy the place for $50,000, but when Ramon Mederos (Anthony Quinn) calls and warns her against selling she pulls back. She’s sailing for Cuba that night and might as well see what she owns.

   Larry and his man Alex (Willie Best in one of his best roles) show up at the hotel with Larry packing Alex gun, and on the 14th floor Larry, Mederos, and Parada come together. Mederos is killed and Larry thinks he did it so he ducks into Mary’s room and she takes pity on him.

   Larry hides in her trunk and ends up in her stateroom sailing for Cuba when the police search her room and her trunk is loaded to take to the dock.

   There is a classic bit on the dock as Alex hunts among the myriad trunks for the one Larry is in.

       To policeman: “I used to be a porter, I just love trunks.”

   It gets even better when a drunk becomes convinced Alex is a ventriloquist when he hears Larry in the trunk.

   Once on board Alex informs Larry he couldn’t have shot Maderos because the gun is the wrong caliber, but by then Larry notices Goddard is in trouble and despite himself he decides to go to Cuba with her to investigate Black Island; though he might regret that a bit when someone tries to drop a fire bucket full of sand on his head on the foggy deck.

   Ghosts or not, there is a very real killer lurking in the shadows.

   In short order they end up in Cuba where Goddard meets an old friend who lives there, Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson), and he joins the quest to help her, but that night when he takes Goddard to a local club she realizes Larry and Alex have gone to the island ahead to protect her. She determines to go too, but before she can leave meets the threatening Francisco Mederos (Quinn playing twins). Once he is gone she decides to swim to the island despite the sharks and see for herself leaving a note for Geoff that Mederos spots and reads as well.

   And once on the island, they are all in for a surprise or two.

   The film moves at a clip, joke on top of scare on top of clever line on top of intriguing mystery. It never stops to breathe or let you, or let you worry if any t’s are left uncrossed and i’s undotted. (Lloyd Corrigan keeps appearing running into Mary but we never find out who he is or what his role was.) Hope and Goddard had previously starred in the hit The Cat and the Canary (another remake) which is why Ghost Breakers got made in the first place.

   A word has to be said about Willie Best in this film, because without him, much of this would not work. I suppose to be politically correct it must be mentioned the role is a common stereotype of the era as is Noble Johnson’s part as the zombie. I can understand why that might interfere with some people’s enjoyment of the film, but beyond that, and making no apologies for the prejudices of the time period, Willie Best, one of the best light support comics of his era, is every bit Bob Hope’s equal in this exchanging quips and punch lines as brightly and cleverly as Bob. He is no more cowardly than Bob, and his reactions are just as funny. Compare this to the more offensive similar role he plays in The Smiling Ghost, and you will see what I mean.

   It really is a pleasure to watch them playing off each other in this. They are much more a team here than the usual black supporting character of the era is in other films. He may play a servant, but he is every bit Bob’s equal in every scene, and the two characters show real affection and respect for each other while exchanging smart lines and gentle barbs. Even the few racial jokes are less offensive than most.

   The scenes at Castillo Maldito are the film’s highlight, and Marshall milks them for all they are worth, with specters, an organ that plays itself, secret passages, cobwebs on cobwebs, and one stunning moment when Goddard descends the staircase dressed in her ancestors black gown to the shock of zombie Johnson. There are some genuine frissons in these scenes of a type that won’t be seen again on screen until The Univited, a serious ghost story.

   You know this will all work out, the mystery of Black Island and Castillo Maldito will be solved and the killer revealed, and as you have to expect from the beginning there is at least one final kicker, but this is easily the best of a great tradition, and one of the rare perfect films ever made. There isn’t a single false step in it. No gag falls flat, no scene plays false including a punny bit where Bob and Goddard are trying to unscare each other with phony British airs while dancing and exchanging awful puns and word play. This would not work at all with almost anyone else, but these two have it down pat, and you can see the mischief in both their eyes. You have to know that scene was broken up numerous times by Bob and Paulette getting more risque than the censors would allow on screen.

   The Ghost Breakers is funny when it is supposed to be funny, and it is scary when it is supposed to be scary, and it sometimes manages to be both at once. There is even a pretty good clue which hadn’t been quite so over used in film then, though it was pretty old hat in books long before that.

   I first saw this around age ten and I recall it was pretty scary then. Less so now of course, but I still appreciate the art that goes into it, and every time I watch it I see something new in the three main characters performances: Hope, Goddard, and Best are the reason to watch this film and the three divide the pleasures surprisingly equally. They are reason enough to watch this one, even if it wasn’t the perfect model of its type.

   But don’t misunderstand, I am saying unequivocally that The Ghost Breakers is the best comedy mystery Hollywood ever made. There is everything else and then there is The Ghost Breakers.

HORROR ISLAND. Universal Pictures, 1941. Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran, Fuzzy Knight, John Eldredge, Lewis Howard, Hobart Cavanaugh, Walter Catlett, Ralf Harolde, Iris Adrian. Director: George Waggner.

   Sometimes you’re expecting one thing and you get something else. Not all the time, not most of the time. It’s actually rather seldom, and sometimes it doesn’t turn out well at all. But when it does — and I imagine you’ve guessed by now that this is one of those times — it’s makes you feel great just to be able to stand up and tell other people about it.

   Or maybe just a little foolish.

   Horror Island may not be to all tastes. You have to be fond of creaky but often still entertaining tales of old dark houses or mansions, isolated for one reason or another from the rest of the world — snowbound, stormbound (lots of thunder and lightning), or the like — filled with strangers, mostly, with some kind of evil or sinister presence among them, or controlling them in weird or evil ways for some nefarious purpose unknown.

   And — of course! — lots of hidden panels and secret passageways, suits of armor perhaps with eyes peering out from within, painting with peepholes and in active use. You know what I mean. It’s all kind of silly and fun, except when the dead bodies start to pile up, at which point your sense of make believe has to kick in. The actors are not taking this all very seriously, so why should you?

   What makes Horror Island a little different is that it takes place on (guess what) an island, where two enterprising entrepreneurs (Dick Foran and Fuzzy Knight) have created a tourist trap mystery-adventure cruise, complete with a castle-like mansion and all the trimmings (see above). And naturally a treasure map that helps attract a small boatful of various individuals of both genders and with all kinds of motives (not all of them good).

   Even though this came in a boxset of DVDs entitled Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive (along with such non-ringers as The Black Cat, Man Made Monster, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman), you will noticed that I have classified this as a comedy as well as a mystery. And so it is, and if you’re in the same mindset as I am, it’s a gem.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


TRUE CONFESSION. 1937. Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Porter Hall, Edgar Kennedy, Lynne Overman, Fritz Feld, Tom Dugan, John T. Murray, Hattie MacDaniel. Director: Wesley Ruggles.

   Honest lawyer Ken Bartlett (MacMurray) won’t represent anyone unless he thinks they are genuinely innocent, and as a result he and wife Helen (Lombard) are struggling. Since opposites attract in film as well as life, Lombard is a compulsive liar and writes fiction that doesn’t sell because as friend Merkel says, “all the people you write about are crazy.”

   Desperate for work Lombard takes a job as personal assistant to a wealthy man (John T. Murray) with plans to hide the job from her husband despite warnings from Merkel about her best qualification being something other than shorthand.

         Lombard: Where does the secretary usually do most of her work?

         Butler Fritz Feld: Hah!

   Sure enough boss gets a bit handsy, Lombard resists and hits him , and then when she goes back with Merkel in tow for her hat, the police led by Edgar Kennedy show up, and Mr. Arnold’s body is shot dead in his home office. Good thing she is married to a lawyer, but he only defends the innocent, and he’s not so sure she’s among them.

   This was the fourth and final outing for Lombard and MacMurray, and by this point they were a smooth team with another even better screwball comedy, the mystery The Princess Comes Across, under their belts. Here a mustache-bearing MacMurray is more than a little peeved with her, but still can’t live without her or with her.

   Ironically John Barrymore, top billed not that many years before in Twentieth Century, is third billed here and well towards the end of his career.

   Lombard is delightful with a fine scene when she gets caught up in Edgar Kennedy’s theory of why she did it, and then when she finds Kennedy doesn’t want an easy case, her too fertile mind leaps to his aid, and she confesses more or less just to entertain him. Whenever her tongue wanders into her right cheek there is trouble afoot.

   When her gun shows up in her apartment she is headed for a cell, and an angry MacMurray still can’t stay mad when he is near her, his stern lectures always ending in a clench even in a cell. But when he finds out she didn’t do it, his whole strategy is shot, since he can’t claim self-defense, and Lombard sees it as a chance for him to get headlines and business — even with her neck on the line, so she tells MacMurray she shot the man in self-defense even though she didn’t.

   Enter John Barrymore blowing balloons and popping them in a saloon to the annoyance of owner Lynne Overman. Barrymore lays claim to being a great criminologist as a “student of life,” and after reading about the case, he is off to the courtroom where he is a regular in his white Chaplinesque suit (clearly his character is modeled on Chaplin’s little tramp even miming the walk and the cane twirl).

   Things look bad. Prosecutor Porter Hall seems to have a perfect case for first degree murder against her, so her confession doesn’t look half so promising for her husband’s career. As Barrymore tells Merkel, “She’ll fry.”

   Barrymore shows up to talk to Lombard in her cell and frightens her to death describing how she will look “fried,” leaving her more than a little scared as reality sets in so she retracts her confession — again, but now MacMurray only wants to win the “honest way.” She’s stuck with her lie, only now she realizes she could end up in the chair.

   Watch for the scene where she and MacMurray recreate the crime in court a bit too strenuously with the less than cooperative aid of a prop door that won’t open while Barrymore lets air out of one of his balloons as commentary.

   By now even the jury is lost and find her not guilty out of sheer confusion. And there’s more to come…

   This is a fast, often zany, and at times delirious screwball comedy. It really isn’t a mystery despite the murder, and MacMurray has a point that it a lot of happiness to come from someone’s murder, but no one seems to mind as much as he does.

   Lombard rides again, unrepentant to the end, the last shot of her, as MacMurray slings her over his shoulder to try and teach her the error of her ways again, is tongue literally in cheek.

   This may not rank with It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, or Nothing Sacred, but that said, it is fresh, funny, and thanks to Lombard, sometimes takes flight as only the best of screwball comedy can. In any case a Lombard film I’ve never seen before is always worth watching.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


HOLD YOUR BREATH. Christie, 1924. Dorothy Devore, Walter Hiers, Tully Marshall, Jimmie Adams, Priscilla Bonner, Jimmy Harrison, Lincoln Plummer, Max Davidson. Director: Scott Sidney. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The audience greeted the silent comedy with considerable pleasure. In its own way, it is somewhat bizarre, as cub reporter Dorothy Devore attempts to get an interview from reclusive millionaire Tully Marshall in his well-guarded apartment.

   Through a series of ruses, she gains entry and even manages to ingratiate herself when an organ-grinder’s monkey reaches through an open window and makes off with an expensive diamond bracelet, the most recently acquired bauble in Marshall’s collection.

   The rest of the film consists of Devore’s hair-raising attempts to retrieve the necklace as the monkey climbs about the building’s exterior, with a detective in hot but somewhat less exposed pursuit, A highlight for the audience was a cameo by Max Davidson as a street pedlar who takes advantage of the crowd gathered to hawk his wares.

   Devore is a delight, and this film was one of the comic highlights of the weekend. Sidney also directed the Elmo Lincoln Tarzan of the Apes, as well as another Christie comedy that I’ve seen and liked, Charley’s Aunt (1925). According to the program notes, Devore was the top female comedian on the Christie lot in the 1920s. I don’t find that hard to believe.

MY FAVORITE SPY. RKO Radio Pictures, 1942. Kay Kyser, Ellen Drew, Jane Wyman, Robert Armstrong, William Demarest, Harry Babbitt, Ish Kabibble. Director: Tay Garnett.

   I don’t have much to say about this movie. Either you like band leader and long-time radio star Kay Kyser in the role of a movie hero, or you don’t. His overripe meekness and exaggerated gestures of astonishment and surprise can wear on you awfully quickly.

   He’s no Pee Wee Herman, though. I think of him as an early Woody Allen type, southern style. Utterly cornball, in other words, but still funny.

   His orchestra plays only a minor role in this one, as Kay is asked by the army to help unroot some spies working out of the night club where he and his band are playing, The only problem is that he’s not able to tell his wife what he’s doing, and their honeymoon is constantly being interrupted. You can see what this means, and you can take it from there.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, considerably truncated and revised.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


COCK-EYED WORLD

THE COCK-EYED WORLD. Fox Film Corporation, 1929. Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, Lily Damita, Leila Karnelly, El Brendel, Bob Burns, Stuart Erwin. Director: Raoul Walsh. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   I was not in a great mood for this reprise of performances by McLaglen and Lowe as Top Sergeant Flagg and Sergeant Harry Quirt, last seen in a 1926 success, What Price Glory?, but my grumpiness evaporated early on, beguiled by the combative charm of the leads and non-stop action orchestrated by director Walsh.

    The crowded plot follows the two rascals from Siberia by way of Coney Island to Central America, with brawls and womanizing pretty much summarizing the early scenes, then shifting to a more serious engagement in Central America that has the boys fighting for country, girls and the studio’s profit margin.

    This film is definitely pre-code, with girls, girls, girls in various stages of dress and undress. And oh, yes, there’s familiar comic El Brendel gracing yet another film with his ubiquitous and not always amusing presence. A lively romp that escapes the leaden ace of so many early sound films and races to a satisfying conclusion.

    PS. Jim G. was particularly impressed by the beautiful Lily Damita, future wife of Errol Flynn.

COCK-EYED WORLD

GOIN’ SOUTH. Paramount Pictures, 1978. Jack Nicholson, Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Lloyd, John Belushi, Danny DeVito, Veronica Cartwrighht, Ed Begley Jr. Director: Jack Nicholson.

GOING' SOUTH

   Even if I told you this was a Western, you’d still know it was a comedy, just by looking at the list of people in it. The only two cast members of any consequence, however, are Nicholson and Steenbergen — the first film appearance of the latter, at the very young age of 25.

   Nicholson is a horse thief, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, an outlaw through and through, and of no good to anyone to boot. Captured in Mexico and broght back (illegally) across the border to be hanged, he is saved from the noose at the last minute by Steenbergen’s speaking up at the last minute to say that she will parry him. (A local ordinance carried over from the Civil War, when men were scarce.)

   It’s not really a husband she’s looking for, however. She has a mine on her property that needs working, and she’s desperate to find the gold she’s sure that’s there before the railroad comes in and takes over the land.

   One look at Nicholson in this movie will show you just how desperate she is. He is the scruffiest looking star of a major motion picture that I can ever recall seeing. He is manical capering gnome of a man, leaping for the sheer joy of living, with a leer in every glance to sends his new wife’s way.

GOING' SOUTH

   And Mary Steenbergen, although still young, is a quintessential “old maid,” with fussy, virginal ways, but totally in charge of the situation, until, of course, it blushingly (and inevitably) goes out of control.

   The rest of the cast is there for background, nothing more, except for perhaps Veronica Cartwright, who plays the outlaw’s former love, he “first woman he ever had to pay for.” Sparks fly, misunderstandings abound, nefarious double-dealings run amuck. And for a Jack Nicholson movie, there are surprisingly few moments of enigmatic incomprehensibility. This is a funny movie, worth looking out for.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.


GOING' SOUTH

Next Page »