The Ghost Breakers

06/18/2020 06:40

Film: The Ghost Breakers

Year: 1940

Director: George Marshall

Writer: Walter DeLeon

Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard and Richard Carlson



This was a film that I remember hearing about years ago, but never really had the urge to check out. That all changed when I was doing my Journey Through the Aughts segment on Journey with a Cinephile: A Horror Movie Podcast. I was intrigued to see this when I saw it on the list for 1940, having known about it and seeing Bob Hope stars. To go ahead and get into this, the synopsis is a radio broadcaster, his quaking manservant and an heiress investigate the mystery of a haunted castle in Cuba.

We start this movie off with Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) meeting with Havez (Pedro de Cordoba) in her hotel room. We learn that she has inherited a castle in Cuba and he’s there to handle the paperwork. He tries to change her mind, but she’s a hardworking woman and won’t be scared off by the ghost stories that surround the place. Joining them soon after is Parada (Paul Lukas), who I believe is from the Cuban government to make the transaction official. He also offers her 50 thousand dollars to not take the property, but again she declines. Another wrinkle is added here when Ramon Mederos (Anthony Quinn) calls Mary to also warn her not to go to the island. Also during this, we get an odd scene where the power goes out and Mary has an interaction with another person on her floor.

This power outage also causes problems at the place of Larry Lawrence (Hope). Raspy Kelly (Tom Dugan) comes into the building from the storm and rings up to his room. His servant, Alex (Willie Best) answers and they can’t really understand each other. Larry works for a radio station where he gives the dirt on the criminals and Raspy is his informant for juicy information.

The power comes back on and Larry goes to work for his last broadcast before he leaves for vacation. What he reveals rubs a gangster, Frenchy Duval (Paul Fix), the wrong way and he wants Larry to come to his hotel room before leaving. Larry gets scared and Alex gives him a gun before heading up. He gets caught up in something between Havez and Ramon, which leaves Larry thinking that he killed the latter. He hides out in Mary’s room.

She allows this even though they never met, but there’s a bit of a mix-up. Larry hides in her trunk and he gets locked inside. He ends up being transported to the pier and loaded into the estate room on the vessel Mary is booked on.

The two of them get to know each other better, plus he gets to listen in on a conversation between Havez and Mary. Larry doesn’t trust him so he comes up with a plan that he’s a ‘Ghost Breaker’. Along with Alex, they’re going to prove the castle she inherited on Black Island isn’t haunted. Even when faced with a chance to go back to New York, Larry stays to keep his word. This will lead them on a path of encountering a Southern gentlemen of Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson), a zombie (Noble Johnson), his mother (Virginia Brissac) and possible a haunted Castle.

While writing that recap, I was trying to figure out where I would start with this film. Normally I go with the story and it didn’t surprise me the more I looked into this to find that it is based off of a play. Not everything in this era was based off written works like you got more in the earlier decades. The more I reflect on this, I can tell that this story works as a play as it has a few set pieces that we move from each. You could really do the hotel, the ship, the restaurant and then the castle to convey all of the information for this movie.

Going from this idea of a play, this was made pretty fast off of the success of a story I rather enjoy of The Cat and the Canary. The 1939 version of that film showed the chemistry of Hope and Goddard, so this was made something like 8 months after to ride that wave. They also wanted it to be an ‘Old Dark House’ film, since the other was as well. I do think the two leads play well off each other, bringing solid acting and comedy. I have some trouble calling this an ‘Old Dark House’ film though, as it’s really the last like 20 minutes or so we are there.

Speaking of these types of films, what is interesting here is that this starts as a gangster movie. Larry gets himself in hot water and I like the comedic set up to have our lead heading to Cuba. He is a pretty chivalrous guy to help Mary, but I think a lot of that is she is attractive. What is interesting is that I didn’t trust any of the characters aside from Mary and Alex. Larry is our hero, but his connections to the underworld make me question him. Geoff comes off as an untruthful. I think part of that is he wants Mary away from Larry. We also don’t know who to trust from Parada, Havez, Ramon or his twin Francisco (Also Quinn). That did keep me hooked into the movie to be honest.

There is still the elephant in the room. I’m not going to get as up in arms as some people I’ve seen that have reviewed this movie or given it at least a blurb. There’s quite a bit of racism in this movie. It doesn’t really address it though as it is just accepted. It is fitting I watched this when there are protests going on in the world for the Black Lives Matter movement. Alex is played by a black actor of Willie Best. He is playing a caricature that is over the top. I’m glad he was cast here instead of someone who is not black or someone in black-face at least. Larry makes some really horrible comments that made me cringe though toward him as well as Native Americans. On top of that, Mary’s inheritance was on the back of slave traders. What I was referring to about actually casting minorities is Brissac is the mother of the zombie and she’s just wearing make-up. Johnson the other hand is black. I don’t want to get all up in arms knowing film history like I do about movies that are 80 years ago, but I felt I needed to address it.

Getting my issues there out of the way, I did think the acting was solid. Hope is someone I grew up knowing about the humanitarian things he did. I think his performance here as Larry was good. He makes some good puns and wisecracks. You do have to get past his normalized racism at times, but I thought he was likable. Goddard is one of my favorite characters here. She is independent and strong-willed. I didn’t like that near the end they made her need Larry, but that’s the times. I was a big fan of Best despite how they had him play the character. It was nice to see Cordoba, as I just saw him in another 1940’s movie of Before I Hang as well as Quinn. The rest of the cast is fine in support to build the story and mystery.

The last thing I wanted to cover would be the effects. There’s not a lot in a movie like this. I do need to commend them for the ghost in the movie. It isn’t anything groundbreaking from movies before this, but it still amazes me how well they could do something 80 years ago when CGI doesn’t look great today. It just shows it can be done. It just does cost time and money. The movie is shot fine and I really dug the castle they end up in the end.

Now with that said, this movie is problematic due to when it was made. It is a fun will mystery with comedy and some horror elements splashed in there. We have a pretty solid cast though and despite how some things are written, they play their roles well. I never got bored with this, so the runtime is solid at 85 minutes. It feels like an ‘Old Dark House’ film, based off a play, but on a grander scale. The effects they use here for the ghost still impress me after all of these years. The soundtrack also fit for what they needed as well. I would have to say this is above average movie that is just lacking enough to get it to the good range.


My Rating: 7.5 out of 10