Movies I Need To See Before I Die: THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940), starring Bob Hope!!!

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(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have.  Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films.  But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to.  Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already.  I’m a film geek for God’s sake!  I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old.  I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time.  So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see.  Enjoy!)

Bob Hope is considered one of the greatest comic actors of all time.  He has starred in over 50 motion pictures……. and I haven’t seen ONE of them.  I mean, I’ve seen some of his specials on televsion and of course his cameo in THE MUPPET MOVIE, but I’ve never actually seen anything that he’s “starred” in.  I just came to realize this a few months ago, and once I found that out, I immediately made it a point to watch one of movies as soon as I could.  Now, most people would consider his “Road” movies with Bing Crosby his best, but I actually wanted to start with something with just him as the main protagonist.  So this is what I came up with.

The story opens with a young woman named Mary who inherits a creepy old castle in Cuba.  Even though she has some shady advisers telling her not to go (not to mention her receiving threatening notes), she plans on traveling to the castle to claim her inheritance.  Meanwhile, a radio announcer named Larry L. Lawrence (Hope) says some nasty things about a mob boss on the air, so he is summoned by him to a hotel so they can “talk”.  Some shooting happens and Larry thinks he shot a man (though he didn’t) and walks into a random hotel room, which happens to be Mary’s.  Larry hides in her trunk, and before you know it, he is on a boat with her to Cuba.  Also along for the ride is Larry’s man-servant Alex.  While on the way to Cuba, Larry learns that Mary’s life is in danger, and decides to help her.  They meet some strange characters and get involved in all sorts of shenanigans involving ghosts and zombies, plus confronting the very person who is trying to kill Mary.

The plot is definitely needlessly complicated for a lighthearted romp such as this.  For some reason, Hollywood (even back then) has always felt the need to overload their comedies with pointless exposition.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, for this being my first Bob Hope movie… what did I think of him?  Well, I think he’s pretty funny.  I love his one-liners.  It takes about 10 minutes for him to appear, but when he does he’s an immediate likable presence.  He demonstrates natural comic timing that is hard to come by.  One of my favorite lines in the movie is when someone is explaining what a zombie is: “They are lifeless, brainless, and don’t care about anything”, to which Hope replies: “You mean like Democrats”.  Now, I am a liberal, but dude, that’s fuckin’ funny.  The way that line (and many other lines) is delivered is priceless.

The production has a real polished look.  Since its a horror/comedy, it definitely has more of a darker look.  In fact, many images reminded me of some of Universal’s monster films.  The movie opens with some spooky titles too, which really set the mood.  The first half is lighthearted fun.  The pacing was fast, and the comedy was fun.  All the stuff with the mob was good and I enjoyed most of the scenes aboard the boat.  But then, around the halfway point, the movie slowly looses steam.  The jokes take longer to appear as the plot ends up taking over the movie.  To be honest, when I sit down to watch a Bob Hope movie, I’m not there for the story.  I could care less who killed who and all that.  I just want to see pratfalls and hear some funny one-liners.  That stuff is there, but it’s just not as often in the second portion.  Instead, we get a bunch of scenes of Hope walking slowly through dark hallways holding a flashlight.  One of the things I find the most boring about horror movies is people walking slowly through dark corridors.  I realized the intention is to be creepy and scary, but to me it’s a bore.  So, with this movie, I found out that even back in 1940, that kind of thing was still boring.

But there is still some funny things here.  I did let out a few sudden loud laughs here and there.  Hope does deliver some choice zingers.  Paulette Goddard plays Mary and has that same likable presence she displayed in  Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR.  A very young-looking Anthony Quinn also appears as a mysterious character. But for me, the actor that steals the show is Willie Best as Alex, the black man-servant.  Now, I’m sure many will find his character an offensive stereotype.  And I can’t argue that he doesn’t fit into a stereotype, but to completely right off his performance would be a crime.  Even though he does his bug-eyed expressions and talks about fried chicken, his comic timing is undeniably brilliant.  I love how he mumbles after Hope gives him an order.  Also, he isn’t just merely in the background.  He almost has an equal amount of screen time as Hope, as he is pretty much a full fledged sidekick.  As a performer, he seemed to be treated like an equal.

Like I said, the movie looks great.  Unfortunately, the script relies too much on plot.  After a nicely paced first half, I found myself impatiently waiting for the next gag in the second half.  It’s too bad, because Hope is definitely a funny dude.  I could compare this to the films of W.C. Fields (or at least the couple that I’ve seen).  In those films, this film and even some Abbott & Costello films, the plot always gets in the way of the comedy.  That’s why I’ve always preferred the comedies of Laurel & Hardy and The Marx Bros.  Sure, their films have a plot, but they use the framing device to their advantage, sometimes poking fun at story conventions.  And the jokes are always first.  They never let the plot dominate their films.  Now, I haven’t seen any of Hope’s other films, so I’m not sure if they’re all like this one.  I sure hope not,sot I will definitely be checking a few more out because I think he’s talented.

It may sound like I’m being too harsh, or that I just didn’t like the film.  Well, I didn’t hate it.  In fact, I laughed out loud on occasion.  Hope is a great performer and Willie Best is a hoot, stealing every scene he appears in.  But everything positive in the film can’t save it from an overload of unwanted exposition.  The second half drags as it follows every horror cliché in the book (instead of mocking them).  In fact, the movie felt a lot longer than its 84 minutes because of how slow the second half goes.  People that aren’t too picky will probably have mildly swell time with this one, but I just can’t bring myself  to fully recommend it.  If it focused more on the comedy instead of a generic horror plot, then this definitely would have been a fresher comedy.  Instead, it’s just a mediocre movie that just so happens to have a few funny gags in it.  .  ★★½ (out of ★★★★)

- Not rated but contains some mild violence and frightening images.  Would probably get a PG today.

- Running time: 1hr 24min.

(THE GHOST BREAKERS is available to rent on DVD from Netflix)

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Categories: Austin Kennedy, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Movies I Need To See Before I Die, Reviews

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