Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Film Review: Hold That Ghost

"Hold That Ghost" *** (out of ****)

As you know through-out the month of October I have been reviewing classic horror films such as Val Lewton's "The Body Snatcher" (1945), Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "The Wolf Man" (1941). But maybe you don't like horror films. Perhaps you find them too scary. Then have I got something for you, a comedy horror film.

What is it about comics and horror films? Think of all the comedians which have found themselves in haunted houses, facing ghost. There was the comedy short with Laurel & Hardy, "The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case" (1930), Harold Lloyd in the two-reeler "Haunted Spooks" (1920), Bob Hope ventured off on two occasions; "The Cat & the Canary" (1939) and "Ghost Breakers" (1940), not to mention the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "Ghost Catchers" (1944). But no team has been caught in more ghostly situations than the comedy team of Abbott & Costello, probably best known for their encounters with the Universal Studio horror monsters. But "Hold That Ghost" (1941) preceded those films. In a way establishing the formula.

I've written once before about Abbott & Costello when I reviewed their comedy "Naughty Nineties" (1945), one of their best comedies. It features some of their best known routines, including "Who's on First". There's nothing quite that iconic in "Hold That Ghost" but the team gets in plenty of funny moments.

We all pretty much know the set-up to these haunted house stories. On a dark and stormy night a group of people find themselves in an equally dark house, which may have been abandon for years or is occupied by a strange family, with plenty of secrets. We can expect hands coming out of corners grabbing people, damsels in distress screaming and the discovery of at least one dead body. And we'll find all of that in "Hold That Ghost" except the film will interrupt those moments for comedy sequences. Maybe that is why comics find themselves in horror films, to show us there is nothing to be afraid of. The comics ease the tension and show us how formulaic horror films really are.

"Hold That Ghost" starts off pretty slow with Abbott & Costello as a couple of gas station attendants, who through a temp agency, land jobs as relief waiters at a swanky nightclub where Ted Lewis and the Andrew Sisters (who appeared in another Abbott & Costello comedy the same year, "Buck Privates" (1941) where they had one of their biggest hits, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy") are performing.

The opening sequence actually focuses more on the musical numbers giving Lewis and the Andrew Sisters their screen time. Some may take great pleasure in knowing we get to hear Ted Lewis sing his signature song, "Me & My Shadow". But these scenes do serve a useful purpose. They help introduce us to the characters. We establish that Chuck (Bud Abbott) and Ferdinand (Lou Costello) are a couple of good natured losers who keep hoping for their big break. One day they would like to own their swanky nightclub. And we meet some notorious gangsters like "Moose" Matson (William Davidson) who has been having problems with Charlie Smith (Marc Lawrence) who wants to cut in on Matson's latest job and demands a percentage of the cut or else he'll talk to the cops. But Matson refuses causing concern for his right hand man Bannister (Russell Hicks). Who also wonders where Maton has hidden his fortune. Is a double-cross in the works?

After Chuck and Ferdinand get fired from their waiter positions, because of their comedy hi jinks, they find themselves back at the gas station only "Moose" Matson stops by and the boys find themselves in the back seat of his car during a police chase which ends in Matson's death. And since the boys were with him at the end, according to Matson's will, they inherit his property, an abandon hotel. And this is where the fun begins.

Now Chuck and Ferdinand, along with some other travellers, heading to different locations, have rented a bus. The guest include; Doctor Jackson (Richard Carlson), Norma Lind (Evelyn Ankers) and radio actress, known for her scream in horror programs, Camille Brewster (Joan Davis). As they all travel to their first stop, the abandon hotel, which is just off the state highway, the weather starts to get bad, leading the bus driver to ask if everyone can stay at the boys' hotel for the night until the weather clears. But the driver leaves them behind. It seems he works for gangsters who believe Matson's fortune is somewhere in the hotel.

Naturally everyone is scared to spend the night there and no one more so than Ferdinand. And the gangsters will use every trick to scare these guest into leaving so they can search the hotel.

As you can probably guess the best moments in the film belong to Abbott & Costello. The "scary" scenes aren't scary and are just used as situations for the comedy team to react to. There is a romantic sub-plot between the doctor and Norma, but it doesn't amount to much, which is actually one of the best things about the screenplay. It doesn't push the romance in our face or try to pretend the viewer cares about anything more than seeing Abbott and Costello. The film basically revolves around them.

The best comedic sequence is a dance between Ferdinand and Camille to the "Blue Danube" waltz. I wouldn't reveal what happens for all the money in the world. All I will say is, they are no Fred & Ginger. How they get through the dance with no bruises is a miracle.

There are also plenty of funny Abbott & Costello verbal gags, their speciality, like Ferdinand getting stuck explaining what a "figure of speech" means to Chuck and Camille. Some of the other exchanges though come from Ferdinand's fear, like when he afraid to go outside by himself because he has no one to talk to. Chuck simply tells him to talk to himself. But Ferdinand doesn't like to because he always gets stupid answers.

There is another funny moment when the men decide to go investigate a noise and tell the women to stay behind. But Ferdinand decides he'd rather stay behind too with the women, causing Chuck to tell him he can't, he's not a woman, though Ferdinand refutes, why not let him make up his own mind.

But the most memorable bit ( after the "Blue Danube" waltz) will probably be the candle routine, which the team would re-use in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), their first of the Universal monster films. Here Ferdinand is left by himself with two candles but each time Chuck walks away the candles start to move on their own causing Ferdinand to constantly scream for Chuck. But each time Chuck arrives the candles stop moving.

Now as I said the main emphasis here is the comedy. Younger movie fans will probably not know this but Joan Davis was a very popular comedienne during this time and she helps out the boys providing laughs. She is the best known of all the supporting players in the film. She appeared in the Irving Berlin musical, "On the Avenue" (1937) with Dick Powell and was in "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941) which featured the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

The film was directed by Arthur Lubin. But who knows if "direct" is really the right word. Abbott & Costello's films consist of routines they had been doing for years on radio and stage. So there was little input a director could give them. They knew what worked and what didn't based on their performances. No director was going to change that. I assume Lubin's main job was just to make sure everyone was in frame. Though he did "direct" a couple other films with the team including "Buck Privates", their first starring vehicle and "In the Navy" (also 1941). And Lubin would direct more horror material with his version of "The Phantom at the Opera" (1943) with Claude Rains and Nelson Eddy. I have not seen this adaptation, but, as I understand it, it places more emphasis on the music rather than horror.

Those looking for some laughs come this Halloween night should check this movie out. If you really want to tickle your funny bone rent "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" too. Though I haven't reviewed it on here (yet) I do recommend it. And now you can find these films a lot easier. Universal has finally released these films on DVD in a special Abbott and Costello collector's set. I haven't seen any of these DVDs so I have no clue if there are any special features. But just being able to watch the films alone should tempt movie lovers to buy them.

Comedy buffs (especially Three Stooges fans) will also take pleasure in seeing Shemp Howard in a small role as a soda jerk. He often appeared in small roles with the team.