Friday, April 19, 2013

Lucky Ghost (Dixie National Pictures, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Lucky Ghost, a 1942 “race” production (meaning a cheapie with an all-Black cast aimed at Black-only theatres — usually they pretty slavishly copied the genre conventions of white films, though occasionally, notably the 1947 Transgender comedy Boy! What a Girl, the “race” filmmakers boldly went where writers and directors aiming at white audiences feared to tread because of the Production Code) starring the marvelous comedian Mantan Moreland. He’s teamed here with a taller, lighter-skinned, deeper-voiced straight man named F. E. Miller and billed as “Miller and Mantan” in what was pretty obviously an attempt to create a “race” version of Abbott and Costello. Directed by our old hacky friend William Beaudine (billed as “William X. Crowley” in an apparent attempt to make him sound Black, much the way pioneering white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang was billed as “Blind Willie Dunn” on his duet records with genuinely African-American guitarist Lonnie Johnson) from a script (if you can call it that) by Lex Neal and Vernon Smith, Lucky Ghost is virtually plotless. It’s just a series of sequences of Mantan Moreland shooting craps (with pretty obviously loaded dice) with various unsuspecting victims; it begins with Moreland and Miller (whose characters are called “Washington” and “Jefferson,” respectively — quite a lot of Black comedians were given character names of U.S. Presidents as an attempt at an ironic contrast between the lowly stations their characters occupied and the lofty ambitions of, presumably, their parents in giving them such grandiloquent names — I’m still amazed that the real name of blues legend Howlin’ Wolf was “Chester Alan Arthur Burnett,” and I can’t fathom what his parents were thinking when they named him after one of America’s least renowned and distinguished Presidents) doing a Chaplinesque tramp down a dusty road.

They come across a white convertible whose owners have sent their chauffeur to buy a 50-gallon drum of gas — they ran out in the middle of the countryside — and Moreland starts shooting craps and takes them for everything they’ve got, not only their car but their clothes as well. Then they come across a so-called “sanitarium and country club” (really a casino, kept in business by bribes to the cops to leave it alone) run by Blake (Maceo B. Sheffield, who played the lead in the first “race” musical Western, Harlem Rides the Range). The moment Mantan lays eyes on the singer at this establishment (she’s played by Florence O’Brien, the cast list identifies her only as “Hostess,” and she’s the first woman we’ve seen in the film — 15 minutes into this hour-long production!) it’s love — or at least lust — at first sight, even though she’s Blake’s girlfriend and he’s so pathologically jealous he’ll literally throw out any man who cruises her. Florence O’Brien sings a weird number called “If Anybody Cares” with a nice band (Lorenzo Flennoy and His Chocolate Drops) that showcases an odd voice that sounds like a Black singer imitating the white “torch singers” of the 1920’s; it’s not bad, but her “flutter” vibrato is really overdone and irritating. Then she and Moreland do a dance number together, and of course that incenses Blake — who somehow ends up in a craps game with Moreland, who takes him for the entire casino and treats everyone to all the food and drink they can consume. Periodically we’ve seen cut-ins to a nearby graveyard in which some of the permanent residents have come back to life as ghosts and are haunting the casino (obviously the writers were thinking of Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost here), and in the end they take the place over (there’s a nicely chilling shot of a skeleton playing a piano that may have been inspired by “That Place Down the Road Apiece,” a truly weird record made by white boogie-woogie pianist Freddie Slack in 1941 in which he ends up in an old roadhouse and is serenaded by a band of the undead) and magically divest Moreland of his ill-gotten gains.

Lucky Ghost isn’t much of a movie, and it’s disappointing that Moreland and Miller don’t get to do one of those bizarre double-talk scenes we’ve seen Moreland do in other movies (the ones in which he and someone else are carrying on a conversation and keep interrupting each other because each knows what the other one is going to say before he says it, so why wait?), but Moreland is still the only reason to watch this movie. Like Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Moreland was able to wiggle around within the racist stereotype of the stupid Black servant and play streetwise instead of just dumb; indeed in some ways he’s funnier than Lou Costello, whose whiny reaction when he got “taken” by Bud Abbott sometimes gets annoying when it’s clearly meant to be humorous. Some of Moreland’s films are a trial because he wasn’t given good material; this time around he got some nice lines even without a double-talk scene, and it’s also nice to see him dance. (He’d previously been in the 1937 film Shall We Dance with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: he’s the man in the ship’s engine room who kicks off the “Slap That Bass” number, and he was a good enough singer and dancer to hold his own as opening act for Fred Astaire.) Incidentally, lists this film not as Lucky Ghost, but under the reissue title, Lady Luck — which sounds a good deal more ordinary and doesn’t give you the key clue as to what it’s really about. There’s also an intriguing gag in the film in which Moreland, unable to write, signs the guest book at the casino with an “X” — which leads Florence O’Brien and everyone else there to call him “Mr. X.” After Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, this gag “plays” quite differently now than it no doubt did in 1942!