Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ghost Buster (RKO, 1952)

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

The other short we watched was Ghost Buster — that’s right, singular and spelled as two words — from RKO in 1952, a two-reel short (though we were watching it on a Sinister Cinema DVD that packaged it to look like a feature and filled out the disc with something called Killer With Wings that turned out to be our old friend, the 1946 PRC horror “B” The Flying Serpent) starring a beanpole-like guy named Gil Lamb as Slim Patterson, a window-washer at the Daily Record newspaper who’s about to fall to his death several stories below when he’s rescued by the city editor’s secretary, Betty Ames (Carol Hughes). The typically irascible city editor, J. R. Lynch (Donald MacBride, the hotel manager from hell in the Marx Brothers’ Room Service), assigns his top reporter, Chuck Dixon (Jim Hayward), to get the story of the mysterious disappearance of the nephew of Bigelow (George Wallace — not, of course, the same one!), and Chick determines to get the story himself and prove that he’s worthy of being hired as a reporter. When he arrives at the Bigelow manse an officious servant tells him that Bigelow is not seeing any reporters, especially not one from the Record, and just then Mrs. Nolan (Barbara Pepper, considerably older and, shall we say, heftier than she was in her days as the vamp in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread 18 years earlier), Bigelow’s nurse, walks out on the job, declaring the house is haunted and she’s not going to work there a minute longer. (The house really is haunted, not by ghosts but by memories of a far greater film: once again, RKO recycled the big Victorian-style interior sets from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.)

Once Slim realizes that Bigelow’s nurse is leaving and that’s an obvious opening to the home, he leaves and reappears in drag as “Aggie Patterson” and takes the job as Bigelow’s replacement caregiver. A few scary/comic things happen in the middle of the night — notably one in which a painting on Bigelow’s bedroom wall hinges and reveals a hole in the wall through which a masked figure spies on the sleeping Bigelow and wields a knife on him — and writers Hal Yates (who also directed) and Elwood Ullman pull the Abbott and Costello gag of having Bigelow see the hand with a knife in it about to throw the knife at him, while Aggie/Slim turns around and sees a perfectly normal scene instead. Eventually, and unsurprisingly, the “haunted” house turns out to be a gimmick by the “missing” nephew, who hid out inside the house’s secret hallways (old houses in movies always have secret hallways!) and plotted to scare his uncle to death to inherit the fortune before uncle got around to changing his will and disinheriting him, and in case the gimmick of frightening him to death didn’t work (which he thought it would because uncle had just had a heart attack) dispatching him more quickly with the knife from hell. It’s not much of a story, but then the plot of a two-reeler was never the point (Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd moved from two-reelers to features in the silent era, and Laurel and Hardy ditto in the 1930’s, because they wanted to tell more sophisticated stories and tap deeper emotions than were possible in the 20-minute running time of a two-reeler — and, of course, because there was more money in features!) and though none of the people in this film are movie comedians whose names have come down through the ages, they’re all personable and funny, even though the main point of interest in Ghost Buster is the comparison with a much more recent film with an almost identical title!