Friday, December 31, 2010

Ghosts on the Loose (Banner/Monogram, 1943)

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

The film was Ghosts on the Loose, completing our recent run through the Bela Lugosi films for Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions, released through Monogram in what would become the most common way movies got made after the studio system started to collapse following World War II (“independent” producers shop projects to studios, and if they’re lucky they get approval and production money, with the studio taking a distribution fee off the top and then sharing the remaining profits, if any, with the producer) but was still quite unusual in 1943, when this was made. Ghosts on the Loose was the second film, after Spooks Run Wild, in which Katzman paired his two top attractions at the time, Lugosi and the East Side Kids (formerly the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys, later the Bowery Boys) — though in the two years between the films Katzman had obviously changed his mind regarding which was the bigger audience draw; where Lugosi got over-the-title billing in Spooks Run Wild and the individual kids — Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan — were billed below him, this time around the East Side Kids got the first title card all to themselves and Lugosi was billed after the title.

The priorities in the credits are reflected in the actual film itself: we have to wait through 15 minutes of this 63-minute film before we see Lugosi at all (in Spooks Run Wild we only had to wait 10 minutes), and he only has a handful of scenes, playing neither a monster, a mad scientist nor a red herring but an ordinary character-villain part just about anyone could have done. Ghosts on the Loose was also noteworthy because Monogram borrowed an actress from MGM named Ava Gardner who was then totally unknown (she’d played a few bits in MGM’s low-budget productions but nothing long enough to earn her screen credit) but in a few years would become a superstar. She plays Betty, sister of East Side Kids regular Glimpy (Huntz Hall), and that casting defies genetic probability even though the film’s cinematographer, Monogram hack Mack Stengler, does his best by shooting her so plainly she looks like an only ordinarily attractive young woman, totally lacking the glamour she had in her later, bigger movies.

The gimmick is that she’s about to marry Jack Gibson (Rick Vallin, a tall, personable actor better than the general run of Monogram leading men who should have had more of a career than he did) and brother Glimpy is going to be the best man — and for its first 20 minutes or so Ghosts on the Loose is actually a minor comic delight as the Kids rehearse “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” for the wedding ceremony, steal a horseshoe-shaped wreath intended for a gangster’s funeral and acquire Glimpy a tuxedo from a funeral director who needs it back to dress the gangster’s corpse. Then the plot rears its ugly head: it turns out Jack owns a bungalow to which he intends to take Betty on their honeymoon despite the warnings that the house next door is haunted. It is haunted — not by ghosts on the loose but by a batch of Nazi saboteurs and Bundists, headed by Emil (Bela Lugosi — who in real life had fled Hungary when he was involved in Bela Kun’s Communist revolution in 1919 and was marked for death when Admiral Horthy’s counter-revolutionary forces took over — Horthy was still in power in the 1940’s and not surprisingly allied Hungary with the Axis — but then there were plenty of other real-life refugees from the Nazis, including Conrad Veidt, who played Nazis on screen) and Hilda (Minerva Urecal) and involving henchmen Tony (Wheeler Oakman), Bruno (Peter Seal) and Monk (Frank Moran).

What’s left of the film involves the mixup the East Side Kids create when they get the two adjacent houses mixed up and think Jack and Betty are going to be honeymooning in the “haunted” cottage in which the Nazi fifth columnists have set up a printing press and are publishing leaflets with titles like What the New Order Means to You and How to Destroy the Allies. The Kids move the press back and forth from one house to the other, along with a good deal of the furniture, and at the end the Kids defeat the Nazis but Jack and Betty are denied their honeymoon because Glimpy has come down with “German measles” — depicted as crudely drawn swastikas all over his face and the exposed parts of his body — and thus Jack, Betty and the Kids are forced to stay together in the little cottage for a week because it’s under quarantine. “That was our standard of comedy,” Ava Gardner sniffed about Ghosts on the Loose in her 1991 autobiography, adding that the film was “a piece of sweet, unsophisticated rubbish” and what impressed (if you can call it that) her most about the film was the dramatic difference between the ways movies were made at MGM and Monogram.

“It was shot at such enormous speed, we had one film stage and it took one week,” she recalled. “Action — film — print! Even the little experience I’d had with Metro told me that this was not a quality film. In one scene the hero accidentally stumbled over a prop and fell. Nobody cared. No retake. Print it! All part of the glorious fun.” She also recalled Bela Lugosi off-screen as “a gentle man who wouldn’t frighten a nervous kitten” and said her best memory of the film didn’t come while it was being made, but afterwards when she and her sister Bappie saw, on the marquee of a theatre in a sleazier part of L.A., “‘GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE’ WITH AVA GARDNER” — the first time she’d ever seen her name in lights. Ghosts on the Loose isn’t a Lugosi vehicle, but as an East Side Kids movie it has its appeal and probably showcases them better than Spooks Run Wild — which isn’t saying a lot. In the appendix of his book Poverty Row Horrors! Tom Weaver got a bunch of film buffs together to assess the nine Lugosi Monograms for their relative quality (and in assessing these movies the word “quality” must inevitably be modified by “relative”!), and at the time I first read the book I hadn’t seen Return of the Ape Man at all and I hadn’t seen some of the others in decades. Now that I’ve run them all relatively recently, here’s my ranking of them (screwy idea, isn’t it?):

1) Bowery at Midnight. Its plot is stolen from the best sources tapped by Monogram and Banner for this series — The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Blackbird (the 1926 Lon Chaney, Sr./Tod Browning silent) and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse — which makes up for some silly plot devices and Wallace Fox’s mediocre direction.

2) The Invisible Ghost. An even sillier story than the Monogram norm, but at least one quality actor besides Lugosi — Betty Compson — and inspired direction from up-and-comer Joseph H. Lewis.

3) Voodoo Man. A surprise this time around since I’d rated it low when I first saw it, but worthwhile performances from Lugosi and George Zucco and some genuine Gothic atmosphere lead me to move it up.

4) Black Dragons. A weak story — it’s supposed to be built around a final surprise “twist” but it’s so obscure and confusing the film is actually more entertaining if you know the “twist” in advance — but a nice combination of the old-dark-house schtick and a topical plot involving Japanese saboteurs and fifth columnists and a German plastic surgeon. The flashback sequence, far better directed than the rest of the film, makes it all worthwhile.

5) Return of the Ape Man. A good middle section knocking off the original 1931 Frankenstein (with a revivified caveman replacing the artificially created monster) and a nice supporting performance by John Carradine, as well as some spectacular stock footage of the Arctic, make up for sloppy plotting that fails to make the most of a potentially interesting story premise.

6) Spooks Run Wild. Not what it could have been if the script had tapped Lugosi’s own talents as a comedian (showcased in the Joe E. Brown vehicle Broadminded, International House and briefly in Ninotchka) but still a cute haunted-house romp uniting Lugosi and the East Side Kids.

7) Ghosts on the Loose. A second Lugosi/East Side Kids teaming but one which gives Lugosi a much less important role (though the Kids are more fun this time around). Worth it for some moderately amusing East Side Kids comedy and a glimpse of the young Ava Gardner.

8) The Corpse Vanishes. A premise far better used in the later Voodoo Man — Lugosi as a necromancer who kidnaps young women to revivify his old, catatonic wife — a heavy, ponderous, ridiculous movie whose makers thought Lugosi would look intimidating and frightening even doing mundane things like getting in and out of a van.

9) The Ape Man. The nadir of the Monogram/Banner Lugosi series: a dull story (essentially a reworking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but one that doesn’t let us see Jekyll, only Hyde), an insipid performance by Lugosi with utterly no flair to his villainy and nothing to recommend it but a cute meta-fictional gimmick at the end.