Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Living Ghost (Monogram, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Living Ghost, a 1942 Monogram production that was billed as mystery and horror but was really — at least in intent, rather than result — more of a comedy than anything else. The star was James Dunn (TCM was doing a whole afternoon of Dunn’s movies), pretty portly by then, cast as Nick Trayne, a former D.A.’s investigator and private detector who has now set up in business as “The Sympathetic Ear.” This entails him offering customers the opportunity to sit in his office and tell him their troubles so they can get them off their chests and feel better about them. Trayne only charges $2 an hour for this service — which made me wonder why he didn’t have psychiatrists breathing down his neck and threatening to sue him for unfair competition, since he was basically offering the same service they were at a fraction of the cost to his consumers. Nonetheless, a joke that sophisticated was beyond the meager imagination of Joseph Hoffman, who wrote this script from an original story by Howard Dimsdale.

There’s a brilliant scene early on in Trayne’s office, with a mad cast of eccentrics — including one of those people, common in Monogram movies of the period, who spoke in gibberish with an occasional insertion of an English phrase (or at least something that sounded like real English words) — in the Monogram Charlie Chan movie Dark Alibi we saw an African-American comedy duo doing something like this as a gag (they were speaking recognizable words but cutting each other’s sentences short) and being quite amusing, and in his 1966 concert recording in Manchester Bob Dylan pulls something similar to shut up the hecklers in his audience: he starts spouting gibberish that sounds like English and the audience falls quiet in an attempt to make out what he’s saying. (This makes me wonder if this is an old carnival performer’s trick which Dylan picked up because during his boyhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, traveling carnivals were the main form of entertainment available to residents of Hibbing and other towns that remote.)

Trayne enters the action when the anxious family of multimillionaire Walter Craig (Gus Glassmire) calls him in to find him after he’s disappeared and been presumed kidnapped — I joked that rival private eyes Walter Playne and Sammy Boatt were unavailable — and they send the housekeeper’s daughter, Billie Hilton (Joan Woodbury), to fetch him and bring him into the case. What results is a movie that once Trayne arrives at the Craig mansion, hardly ever leaves it again — except for a run-out to a doctor’s office as Trayne and Billie seek an explanation once Walter Craig returns, but with his cortex basically fried with toxic drugs so that he’s in a virtual coma which will last about a year or two and for which there’s no known cure other than time. The film then turns into a whodunit — though Hoffman’s writing and William Beaudine’s direction are both so sloppy and uninvolving it’s more of a whocareswhodunit — and for what it’s worth Charles guessed the culprit who put Walter Craig into his medically induced almost-coma state was his wife Helen (Edna Johnson), whose motive became clear once it was revealed that she was frozen out of Craig’s will and if he died all his money would go to their daughter Tina (Jan Wiley). My money was on Craig’s business manager, Tony Weldon (George Eldredge, yet another portly, middle-aged Monogram villain), and it turned out they were both in on it, and “it” was a plot to loot the Craig fortune since if Craig died Helen would be frozen out, but if he were alive but incapacitated Helen could help herself to his money legally.

The whodunit plot was less interesting to Hoffman than the Nick-and-Noraish byplay he wanted to establish between the Dunn and Woodbury characters (the two actors had made at least one previous movie together, the recently rediscovered 1937 RKO film Living on Love, no great shakes as a film but a damned sight better than this one!), but the film ultimately sinks under the weight of all too many lines of supposedly snappy dialogue that hang there limply and don’t evoke laughter at all. The Living Ghost is a disappointing movie because in a lot of ways it’s a better-than-average “B” — the premise is provocative (though it would have taken much more careful writing than Dimsdale and Hoffman offered to make a viable movie out of it) and the sets have a refreshing solidity to them (this is one Monogram where one doesn’t have to worry about literally shaky sets collapsing on the actors at any moment), while Mack Stengler’s camerawork is better than his average and blessedly free from the shadow moustaches his errant lighting sometimes provided for female cast members. It’s just a wearing experience to hear these actors — the portly, un prepossessing Dunn and the quite good Woodbury (I think she was a superb performer and only the oddly bony structure of her face kept her from the major-studio stardom she certainly had the acting chops for!) — spout reams and reams of Joseph Hoffman dialogue that’s clearly several orders of magnitude less funny than he clearly thought it was, and hardly a patch on the Albert Hackett-Frances Goodrich repartee in the MGM Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy that were obviously Hoffman’s inspiration!