Release Date(s)1940 (September 15, 2020)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
Combining comedy and horror has provided countless hybrid movies through the years, including Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Little Shop of Horrors, and more recently, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. The Ghost Breakers neatly falls into this subgenre, with Bob Hope delivering one-liners during an unanticipated stay at an old mansion in Cuba.
Hope plays Larry Lawrence, a New York City radio personality fleeing a murder in a hotel hallway who finds himself locked in a steamer trunk on a ship bound for Cuba. The trunk belongs to Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard), on her way to a reputedly haunted castle secluded on a small island off the Cuban coast. Larry’s valet, Alex (Willie Best), comes along to look after Larry. Parada (Paul Lukas) and the Mederos twins (Anthony Quinn in a dual role), men with suspicious motives, try but fail to dissuade the spunky Mary from going.
Once Mary frees him from the trunk, Larry gets up to speed on threats she has received as well as a cash offer to sell the estate. Fearing for her safety, Larry takes on the role of her protector. On the island, former acquaintance Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson) warns Mary about the castle ghosts and a huge zombie (Noble Johnson) that prowls about the premises.
Hope exchanges a series of one-liners with Best as his straight man, and we assume this will be the character he will play throughout. Yet later, his Larry displays a backbone when, having been shot at in New York, still attaches himself to Mary and the danger she is facing from sinister parties. Those familiar with Hope’s TV monologues will recognize the cadence and perfect timing of his quips, but here they’re at the service of the story.
Director George Marshall sets the mood with a fierce thunderstorm and a blackout in Manhattan, where we learn of Mary’s inheritance and are introduced to shady characters. Marshall balances humor will some mildly chilling scenes.
On the island, the playbook of haunted house flicks is tapped. The island is overgrown with tropical vegetation. There’s an enormous entry hall in the mansion, walls grimy and moonlit filtering through slats in shuttered windows. Chimes from a grandfather clock break the silence, doors creak, a secret panel in a wall conceals an unseen observer, trapdoors with a pit lead to death, and a glowing specter walks by night. But the biggest scare is the giant zombie, roused from his eternal sleep by voodoo to terrify the assembled company.
Hope, who would initiate the successful Road picture franchise with Bing Crosby the same year with Road to Singapore, proves himself as a comic actor who can switch gears when his character is faced with real danger, even though he’s never far from a handy wisecrack. Hope’s wiseguy personality is muted so that he never appears arrogant and we remain in his corner.
Goddard’s Mary is far from the stereotypical damsel in distress. Independent and determined to see the island and the castle, she thinks nothing of making the trip to Cuba alone, not knowing she has a stowaway in her trunk. Once on the island, she never shrinks from weird happenings, forging ahead to get to the bottom of what’s behind them.
Willie Best made this film at a time when Black actors were stereotyped as superstitious and fearful. In horror films, their eyes popped, they shook uncontrollably, their hair stood on end, and they ran from any hint of a supernatural entity. This script treats Best’s character respectfully. Though his Alex is a servant, he gets his boss out of predicaments and solves his problems. He’s a cool, funny sidekick, with a winning on-screen personality.
The “horror” here is very mild. Most of the creepiness is created with rich atmosphere and production design. Shot entirely in the studio, the only glimpses it offers of the real Cuba are on a process screen. Horror buffs will enjoy Johnson’s zombie, a truly frightening character who is never exploited for laughs. When he slowly approaches Mary in the mansion, the scene is reminiscent of Universal’s 1940s Mummy sequels. It’s a shame Johnson doesn’t have more screen time. Fast paced at 85 minutes, the film never drags.
Featuring 1080p resolution. this brand new 2K restoration of the film from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The picture is sharp, with no visible imperfections, such as dirt specks, scratches, cue marks, jump cuts, or emulsion clouding. Atmospheric lighting is used to great effect on the island. Cinematographer Charles Lang employs elongated shadows behind characters to create an eerie feeling. He uses “studio moonlight” shining through shutters and high windows to cast beams into the deserted mansion, providing beautiful black-and-white compositions. The opening scene—the violent Manhattan thunderstorm—sets the mood with blinding lightning flashes. This differs from typical scare films, which use lightning and thunder in sparsely populated or desolate locations. Hans Dreier’s production design turns Paramount’s stages into a Cuban island, with lush tropical plants and trees and a massive mansion that looks as if no one has inhabited it in decades. Though the images lack the clarity of later films that have turned up on Blu-ray, the restoration for The Ghost Breakers is an improvement over earlier home video releases on VHS and DVD.
The soundtrack is English Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Subtitles in English SDH are optional. The dialogue is crisp throughout. Hope’s rat-tat-tat delivery hits every syllable perfectly, and dialogue in general is sharp. Lukas and Quinn speak in what are supposed to be Cuban accents, but they are hardly impenetrable. Best speaks slowly at times in accordance with his character and more briskly at other times, particularly when he contributes key plot information. Sound effects include an intense Manhattan thunderstorm, a ship’s foghorn, the clattering suits of armor, gunshots, and a couple of full-throated screams. Ernst Toch’s score, though not especially distinctive, avoids stereotypical scare-movie tropes such as the otherworldly theremin, loud dissonances to make us jump, or ominous bass chords. In keeping with the film’s light tone, the music is lilting for the most part, adding suspense only in scenes on the island.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary, Trailers from Hell commentary by Larry Karaszewski, and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Author and film historian Lee Gambin notes that the film “plays with the macabre.” It juxtaposes modern Manhattan with the exotic island, while incorporating many tropes harkening back to horror films of the 1930s. Hope’s banter keeps things light and the story never enters the darker regions of horror. This was the first film in which Bob Hope did not play a cowardly character, representing a turning point in his career. He was more debonair, self-assured, and self-possessed. Willie Best, as Alex, in many ways represents the archetype black character of 1940s movies. Billed sometimes as “Sleep & Eat,” he is endearing and sweet in The Ghost Breakers—his personality transcending the role he plays. Anthony Quinn had many jobs before appearing in the film. He carved gravestones, was a boxer, and a preacher, and worked with Mae West. Paulette Goddard’s Mary Carter is a poor working girl, another familiar “type” in 1940s films. Brief overviews are provided of cinematographer Charles Lang, composer Ernst Toch, and production designer Hans Dreier. Edith Head, the costume designer, prepared lovely dresses for Paulette Goddard but really enjoyed designing for men. The Ghost Breakers inspired Dan Aykroyd to write Ghostbusters. The final scene is a study in diversity, with a WASP (Hope), a Jew (Goddard), a Latino (Quinn), and a black man (Best) together on a speedboat. The film was remade in 1953 as Scared Stiff, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and once again directed by George Marshall.
Trailers from Hell – The Ghost Beakers trailer is shown as Larry Karaszewski refers to Hope’s timing as impeccable and comments on what a fine comic team he and Willie Best make, even quoting Hope’s line, “He’s the ‘Best’ actor I know.” Willie Best died at the age of 48, a penniless drug addict.
Theatrical Trailers – Five trailers are included: The Ghost Breakers, The Cat and the Canary, The Paleface, The Young in Heart, and Murder, He Says.
– Dennis Seuling