Monday, November 19, 2012

THE GHOST BREAKERS: Havana Frightful Good Time!

As fond as I am of the 1939 version of The Cat & The Canary, the words of that great philosopher Daffy Duck leap to mind:  “If they like that mess, they’re starvin’ for some real hoofin’!”  Well, if Paramount’s 1940 tweaking of The Ghost Breakers (TGB) isn’t the real hoofin’, I don’t know what is!  It’s a premium blend  of snappy comedy, playful romance, and genuine spooky suspense.  Producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. (Witness for the Prosecution; The Asphalt Jungle; Oklahoma!) reunites The Cat & The Canary co-stars Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, as well as director George Marshall (The Gazebo; It Started with a Kiss). Their funny, sparkling chemistry together is better than ever, blending warmth, romance, and comedy as deliciously as a daiquiri.  Hope and Goddard are so darling together, I want to hug them and bring them home for the holidays!  (But a DVD will do!)  I like the cheeky references to Paulette Goddard’s Cecil B. DeMille movies, too (Unconquered; Reap the Wild Wind, etc.).

Be very, very quiet; we're hunting ghosts!
Based on the work of Walter DeLeon and based on the play by John Willard and Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard (any relation to co-star Paulette Goddard?), the film gets off to an exciting start in New York City during a violent thunderstorm that’s almost worthy of Hurricane Sandy.  “Nice night for a murder,” says our heroine Mary Carter (Goddard) as she packs for her voyage to pre-Castro Cuba.  She only thinks she’s kidding, with all the mystery and intrigue afoot!  You see, Mary’s off to Cuba to claim her family inheritance, Castillo Maldito, or “Black Island.”  Sounds cozy already, huh?  Mary’s mom had told her about Black Island and its sinister legends, but Mary’s a good-natured yet skeptical New Yorker who doesn’t scare easily: “(My mother) also told me about Santa Claus, Snow White, and the Seven Dwarves.”  Of course, her Cuban advisor, Senor Havez (Pedro de Cordoba of Anthony Adverse; The Corsican Brothers; Hitchcock’s Saboteur) gives Mary a last friendly warning: “We must admit there is a dividing line somewhere between superstition and the supernatural.  All I know is that during the last twenty years, no human being who has tried to spend the night in Castillo Maldito ever lived to see a sunrise.”  You never know; I can imagine the eager developers eventually showing up waving contracts for chain restaurants and hotels anytime now!  But Mary gets an urgent phone call from Ramon Medeiros (Anthony Quinn of Road to Singapore and Road to Morocco, as well as winning Best Supporting Actor Oscars for Lust for Life and Viva Zapata!) about her upcoming trip. Alas, whatever it was he wanted to say gets lost in a hail of gunfire, and poor Medeiros is no more.  What was Medeiros trying to tell Mary before everyone got trigger-happy?

"Johnny Ola told me about her! They call her 'Superman'!"

Meanwhile, meet our hero, radio star Larry Lawrence (Hope) and his valet Alex (Willie Best of High Sierra; Cabin in the Sky; and Hope and Goddard’s third film together, Nothing But the Truth). Larry’s full name is in fact Lawrence Lawrence Lawrence, a name so nice they named him thrice!   “My parents had no imagination,” Larry explains.  He and Alex are packing for a fishing trip, but will they end up sleeping with the fishes instead?  You see, as if the storm and the hotel’s resulting blackout weren’t already agita-inducing, Larry’s radio show focuses on dishing the dirt on notorious criminal underworld types. Wouldn’t you know Larry has run afoul of gangster Frenchy Duvall (Paul Fix of After the Thin Man; Dr. Cyclops; and ironically, TV’s The Rifleman, as Marshal Micah Torrence!)?  Now Duvall is out for blood.  Sheesh, underworld types can be so sensitive!  As more gunplay ensues, Larry fears he’s the one who accidentally killed Medeiros, and he and Alex end up unwittingly joining Mary on a slow boat to Cuba! 

Young Richard Carlson as The Man in the White Suit!
Romance blooms for Mary and Larry, though that doesn’t stop others from trying to keep our heroes from reaching Black Island, including Dr. Parada (Paul Lukas of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Watch on the Rhine, the film that won Lukas his Best Actor Oscar), Anthony Quinn again, this time as Ramon Medeiros’ brother Francisco.  Look sharp during the scene at the Las Palmas nightclub with Lloyd Corrigan (Whistling in the Dark; The Big Clock; The Manchurian Candidate; the Boston Blackie movies) for a brief appearance by lovely Dolores Moran (To Have and Have Not; The Horn Blows at Midnight; Old Acquaintance) and a dapper young Richard Carlson (The Little Foxes; The Creature from the Black Lagoon; It Came from Outer Space; and the fact-based 1953 to 1956 TV series I Led Three Lives) as Mary’s old friend Geoff Montgomery. Carlson is in one of my favorite scenes:

Geoff:  “A zombie has no will of his own.  You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.”

  “You mean like Democrats?”

They won't hear nothin' more
from The Mighty Quinn....

 TGB’s comedy and horror elements blend superbly, with character actor Noble Johnson (King Kong; Jungle Book; The Most Dangerous Game) playing a truly haunting, memorable zombie.  John M. Miller from the TCM Web site notes that TGB pre-dates Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie by three years.  For better or worse, like any actors who were even remotely swarthy, both Anthony Quinn and Noble Johnson were frequently cast in supporting roles at Universal Studios and RKO as Native Americans, Latinos, Arabs, and other so-called “exotic” types. 

...Or will they? He resurrects real good!
TGB’s production values are top notch, from Edith Head’s gorgeous wardrobe for Paulette Goddard, to Hans Dreier and Robert Usher’s Art Direction, to the cinematography of Charles Lang (Charade; Some Like It Hot; How to Steal a Million).  Farciot Edouart’s special effects photography with the ghosts emerging is eerily captivating.

Willie Best was highly praised by none other than his co-star Bob Hope, who said Best was one of the best actors he ever knew—and yet so many people have criticized him, or more specifically, the African-American stereotypes he was called upon to portray. I say you can’t fault a performer (or anyone else) for NOT being ahead of his time!  My dear friend and fellow blogger Becky Barnes of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food renown agrees: “Willie Best was one of the best comedians of the era. It's such a shame things were the way they were then. I think he just about carried The Ghost Breakers, and he deserves acclaim for his work.”  Amen to that, sister!
Bob Hope and Willie Best agree: no comedy-thriller holds a candle to The Ghost Breakers!

 Just as zombies never die, neither do remakes:  The Ghost Breakers was successfully remade in 1953 for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff, with Lizabeth Scott as the heiress-in-distress, including voiceover cameos by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby! 

I think Mary would prefer a free drink or a mint on her pillow!

Ooh, The Zombies!  I loved that band!

Laura, er, Mary is the face in the misty light....
Aha, we've solved the mystery! Mary's ancestor was Dr. Phibes!
Don't you just love a happy ending on the high seas?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Cat and The Canary (1939) - Cat Ballyhoo!

Where there’s life, there’s Hope—Bob Hope!  Okay, so I borrowed that from an ad line from another one of Hope’s comedies, but the point is, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard were a delightful team in their first film together, Paramount’s The Cat and The Canary (TC&TC).  Produced by Arthur Hornblow of Witness for the Prosecution fame, and based on John Willard’s original 1922 stage play, the popular thriller was eventually adapted for both stage and screen in 1927 and 1930.  Director Elliott Nugent (My Favorite Brunette, Up in Arms) joined forces with Hope and Goddard for this 1939 version of the story, adding more witty, playful comedy and romance to Willard’s thriller. This version worked so well that Hope and Goddard made two more films together: The Ghost Breakers (1940), and Nothing But the Truth (1941).  For the record, there was also a 1979 version.  I never saw it, but the stars sound promising:  Yanks Carol Lynley and Michael Callan, and Brits Honor Blackman, Wendy Hiller, Edward Fox, Olivia Hussey, Daniel Massey, Peter McEnery, and Wilfrid Hyde-White. But I digress….

 Here's looking at you, kids!

Universal actually owned the rights to Willard’s play, but sold them to Paramount. Fun Fact: the film, along with the 1940 film The Ghost Breakers (which I’ll discuss next time), was an inspiration to Walt Disney for his Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland!   Focusing on the funny, The New York Times’ film critic Frank S. Nugent describes Bob Hope not as the thing with feathers a la Emily Dickenson, but as having “a chin like a forehead and a gag line for every occasion… (This version of the story) is more hair-brained than hair-raising, which is as it should be.”  I agree: with this cast, fun and suspense make a swell team, including the delightful Nydia Westman (the 1933 version of Little Women; The Remarkable Andrew; The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) as Cousin Cicily, a charmingly daft flibbertigibbet among the late Cyrus Norman’s relatives.  The supporting cast weren’t small potatoes, either, with George Zucco (The Mummy; After the Thin Man; The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Gale Sondergaard (Anna and the King of Siam; The Letter; and Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner for Anthony Adverse).  I especially enjoyed Sondergaard as Miss Lu; she’s kinda like a sophisticated Bayou Mrs. Danvers played for straight-faced laughs, blending mystery, menace, and mirth. Both Zucco and Sondergaard  playfully spoof the more ominous roles they were known for, while still being spooky enough to keep viewers on their toes, blending suspense and comedy into a sparkling cocktail. As Lawyer Crosby (no relation to Hope’s future screen co-star Bing Crosby), George Zucco’s foreboding presence adds the right touch of menace.   

Meet the lady known as Lu!
Hope’s movie career had begun with The Big Broadcast of 1938, and Goddard started her career as a child model, debuting in The Ziegfeld Follies at the tender age of 13!  Goddard’s fame as the Follies’ girl on the crescent moon put her on the map.  She was married to a a millionaire at the age of 16—and divorced not long after that.  After dissolving her marriage in 1931, Goddard went to Hollywood, where her natural talent and beauty sent her stardom soaring, bewitching Hollywood’s elite.  She earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in the 1943 war drama So Proudly We Hail!  She attracted some pretty remarkable fellas as husbands, too:  Charlie Chaplin; Team Bartilucci fave Burgess Meredith; and author Erich Maria Remarque of All Quiet on the Western Front fame. Goddard also did her bit for higher education, leaving over $20 million to New York University when she died in 1990.  What a gal!

Hello, I’m Mrs. Trumbull! Mrs. Ricardo
recommended me. Anyone need a
babysitter for spectral spooks?

The plot involves a gaggle of distant cousins who’ve come together after 10 years for the reading of Cyrus Norman’s will.  In the great comedy-thriller tradition, the prettiest and most generally winsome gal, Joyce Norman (Goddard) finds herself the designated Lady in Distress, while the affable, quip-slinging actor Wally Campbell (Hope) has noticed how little Joyce has grown up quite nicely.  Attraction is in the air, and no wonder, with the delightful chemistry between Hope and Goddard!  I especially liked the way Wally manages to be brave for Joyce in spite of his nervousness. 

Joyce and Wally ain’t afraid of no ghosts!
That comes later, in The Ghost Breakers!

In addition to Joyce and Wally, the prospective victims, er, heirs include Fred Blythe (John Beal of Double Wedding; My Six Convicts; The Firm); Charlie Wilder (Douglass Montgomery, another 1933 Little Women cast member); and Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson, whose long career included Intruder in the Dust; Lady on a Train; TV’s I Love Lucy as babysitter Mrs. Trumball).  Wally tries to put the others at ease with quips: “I hear old Uncle Cyrus’s ghost is holding bank night.”  What’s more, thanks to Wally’s theatrical background, he can’t help predicting each new spooky suspense cliché, keeping the others’ heads turning suspiciously, prompting Wally to suggest to Joyce, “I’ll recommend a nice quiet bomb-proof cellar to you for the next 30 days.”  Sorry, guys, everybody’s gotta stay overnight whether they want to or not.  As Wally wryly explains, “The members of Local Number 2 of the Bayou Canoe Paddlers and Putt-Putt Pushers Union fold putt after midnight.” Well, that’s OK; Wally and Joyce and company can always while away the time looking for a diamond necklace worth a fortune while trying to avoid being bumped off.

Oops, Joyce grabbed the wrong book.
She was looking for Bazooka Joe’s
bubble gum bio, The Psychology of Fleer!

On top of the creepy goings-on at ol’ Blue Bayou, the local authorities announce that there’s a fugitive psychopath on the loose from Fairview, the local asylum. “That’s all we needed,” Wally says. “Well, anyway, he’ll feel right at home.”  The killer is known as “The Cat,” but this “Cat” sure isn’t the suave Cary Grant/To Catch A Thief kind of cat burglar!  Soon Wally and Joyce are up to their ears in danger and romance, with more secret panels than The Game Show Network as Miss Lu stirs the pot with ominous warnings and whatnot!  Can Wally and Joyce live happily ever after, “live” being the operative word?  One thing’s for sure: with Hope and Goddard, it’ll sure be fun finding out! 

Hey, Joyce, give a guy a hand!

Fun Facts: 

If you like The Cat and The Canary, check out other reviews of this fun film by other swell bloggers!

1.) Yvette Banek from her stupendous blog IN SO MANY WORDS from March 2012!

2.) John Greco’s Twenty-Four Frames review from May 2011! 

Also, don't miss an uncredited Charles Lane (Ball of Fire; I Wake Up Screaming, etc.) in the final scene!  I admit it, I'm a sucker for a happy ending, especially a funny one!