Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Hold That Ghost (Universal, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After watching the 2009 International Musikwettbewerb concert from Munich I wanted to give Charles, in the immortal words of Monty Python, “something completely different,” and I found it in the next (fourth) in sequence in the complete Abbott and Costello boxed set on Universal: Hold That Ghost, Abbott and Costello’s first foray into combining comedy and horror and a film pretty obviously influenced by the success of Bob Hope’s comedy/horror films The Cat and the Canary (1939 — ironically, a story Paramount, Hope’s studio, had purchased from Universal for remake purposes!) and Ghost Breakers (1940). The film was originally shot under the working title, Oh, Charlie! (Abbott’s character name is Charlie Murray and Costello’s is Ferdie Jones, and Costello cries out, “Oh, Charlie!” or “Oh, Chuck!” innumerable times during the film when the strange goings-on scare him), as an immediate follow-up to Buck Privates, but without the elaborate opening scenes in a nightclub with the Andrews Sisters. The original intent was to release Oh, Charlie! right after Buck Privates, the mega-hit (not only of Abbott and Costello’s career: it was the highest-grossing film of 1941, ahead of Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, How Green Was My Valley and the other acknowledged classics from that year) that launched A&C as the top box-office attractions in the business. Universal president Nate Blumberg told his production chief, Cliff Work, that rather than release a horror-comedy with a gangster theme right after Buck Privates, they should follow it up with a second military-themed film, and an initial preview that went poorly — some viewers actually asked, “Where are the Andrews Sisters?” — simply confirmed the studio’s decision to hold back the horror-comedy and throw together In the Navy as Abbott and Costello’s third film and second starring vehicle.

After In the Navy, Universal revamped Hold That Ghost, adding two songs for the Andrews Sisters, lengthening the opening scene in the big nightclub where Ted Lewis and his band appear, and writing a big finale at the combination nightclub/roadhouse/health spa Abbott and Costello open at the end which would feature the Andrewses and the rest of the cast. According to Thomas Schatz’ book The Genius of the System, a romantic subplot was also added during the retakes, but that seems unlikely because the romantic couple — Richard Carlson and Evelyn Ankers — seem too integral to the main body of the film. Hold That Ghost begins at a swanky nightclub at which Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters are performing, and Abbott and Costello show up as relief waiters and, of course, screw up. Abbott coaches Costello to pull out the chair from the table when the customer stands up and push it back when he starts to sit down again — and of course when a scared politician brings a woman other than his wife to the restaurant (a situation depicted with surprising frankness for a Code-era movie!) and gets up to light her cigarette, Costello pulls back the chair and the hapless customer takes a pratfall to the floor.

Fired from this job and forced to return to the gas station from whence they came, Our Heroes end up inside a car being driven by gangster Moose Matson (William Davidson) that’s being chased by police. There’s a gun battle between them that ends with Matson biting the big one and, as he expires, handing the boys a document that’s his last will and testament, which leaves his entire fortune to whoever is with him at the end. Having already declared at the nightclub that all the money he’s stashed away from his various jobs is “in my head,” Moose leaves the boys nothing but an abandoned old tavern in the middle of nowhere, and Charlie Smith (Marc Lawrence), a gangster who is angry at Moose for having poached his plan for a robbery and done the crime himself, arranges for A&C to be the victim of a drive-by shooting so he can get to the roadhouse and find Moose’s cash stash before the boys stumble onto it. Harry Hoskins (Milton Parsons), the driver hired to take A&C to their inheritance, loads his car with other passengers as well: neurotic health-food expert Dr. Jackson (Richard Carlson), radio screamer Camille Brewster (Joan Davis, who next to A&C is the best thing in this movie, especially in the so-called “dance” she does with Costello where they practically break apart a room to the strains of “The Blue Danube”!), and damsel-in-distress to-be Norma Lind (Evelyn Ankers) — and they’re beset by the dark and stormy night almost inevitable in a Universal movie as well as gangsters from Moose’s old gang attempting to crash the party to get Moose’s loot.

Hoskins abandons the passengers at the roadhouse and the other five have to deal with trap doors (one coat rack contains the secret switch that turns the place’s bedrooms into casinos), hidden staircases, self-moving candles and the other accoutrements of a ghost movie — though we’re supposed to believe (at least I think we’re supposed to believe: for all their brilliance at coming up with simultaneously scary and funny situations, writers Robert Lees, Frederick Rinaldo and John Grant weren’t exactly big on plot coherence) that none of the “supernatural” goings-on are real, but are all part of a plot by Moose’s mob to drive A&C and the other guests out of the roadhouse so they can take over and get the money. Director Arthur Lubin also helmed Buck Privates and In the Navy (he would work on A&C’s next two films, Keep ’Em Flying — another service comedy! — and Ride ’Em, Cowboy, as well) but it’s clear that this script turned him on a lot more than the service movies had; for the hour we’re in the roadhouse with the five stranded guests, without electrical power (the storm has caused a blackout and forced them to rely on candles for illumination) we get a grab-bag of old Universal horror sets, filmed with spooky tracking shots and offbeat angles (at times this movie looks like The Cabinet of Abbott and Costello!), chiaroscuro lighting (Elwood “Woody” Bredell, later a noir specialist, is the cinematographer) and an overall air of chill rivaling that of Universal’s “serious” horror films of the time.

When it was made Hold That Ghost was just the first in a long line of genre spoofs Abbott and Costello would make — they’d do Westerns (Ride ’Em, Cowboy), mysteries (Who Done It?), the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies (Pardon My Sarong), “Northern” movies (The Naughty Nineties), hillbilly movies (Comin’ ’Round the Mountain) and others — until 1948, when in order to revive the flagging popularity of both the comedy team and Universal’s Gothic horror style, Universal put the two together and made Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Though it used Universal’s copyrighted monster characters, that film largely rehashed Hold That Ghost; it and its horror-comedy follow-ups ran the gags from Hold That Ghost (particularly the one in which some unnatural thing happens when Costello is alone, he calls Abbott, but by the time Abbott gets there the scene has reverted to normal reality) into the ground. Hold That Ghost is a marvelous movie, funny from the opening credits (a giant blob-like white ghost chases two cartoon figures, representing Abbott and Costello, across the sky, then morphs into Abbott and Costello’s names and the title of the film) through to the end — though it suffers from the disappearance of Joan Davis (who had moved on to 20th Century-Fox for Sun Valley Serenade with a much better bandleader than Ted Lewis, Glenn Miller) in the final scene, meaning we don’t get the payoff of the comedy romance between her and Costello we’ve been expecting all movie. 

The musical interludes at the beginning and the end don’t add that much — anybody watching Ted Lewis from this film (admittedly well after his career peak in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s) will wonder what on earth anyone saw in him, with his moth-eaten evening clothes, a voice that sounds like Boris Karloff trying to croon and nothing songs like “When My Baby Smiles at Me” (his theme) and “Me and My Shadow” (in which he’s dogged by a “shadow” — actually an African-American dancer named Charles “Snowball” Whittier, who worked with Lewis for 40 years — in a routine that was probably considered innocent and charming in 1941 but now is a bit creepy), and though the Andrews Sisters get stronger material — “Sleepy Serenade” at the beginning (which Lubin stages quite creatively, including a marvelous darkening of the lights as the song starts to move into its final chorus) and “Aurora” at the end (one of those bizarre examples of unwitting genderfuck — Aurora is a girl’s name in Brazil and the song includes the sentiment that the singer wants to make Aurora “my sweet señora,” which would sound weird enough sung by one woman in a 1941 film and is even more bizarre sung by three women — caused by the policy of music publishers not to allow any changes in their lyrics, which is how the totally straight Bing Crosby ended up singing a song called “There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears” with Paul Whiteman and Bix Beiderbecke in 1928!) — nothing here is as good as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or “Apple Blossom Time” from Buck Privates. Still, Hold That Ghost is a very funny movie, and while I don’t rate Abbott and Costello as a comedy team on the level of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers, they’re a damned sight funnier than just about anybody who’s made movie comedies since; the fact that they didn’t need to rely on scatological or raunchy jokes to get laughs itself puts them almost in a separate universe from the so-called “comedies” being made today!