Saturday, April 19, 2014

Film Review: The Ghost Goes West

"The Ghost Goes West"  *** (out of ****)

"The Ghost Goes West" (1935) is a supernatural romantic comedy starring Robert Donat and Jean Parker directed by that great French filmmaker, Rene Clair.

Sadly Rene Clair is all but forgotten in the U.S. a shame. Today's younger generation of movie fans are not familiar with his charming, humorous, light-hearted supernatural comedies and sometime homages to the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Clair was a favorite filmmaker of mine in my youth. I remember seeing his "I Married A Witch" (1942), which "The Ghost Goes West" shares some traits with, when I was a young boy with my grandmother, who in our family was the movie buff and shared her love of American and Hungarian movies of the 1930s and 1940s with me. When I got a little older, in my teens, I saw Clair's early French films - "Under the Roofs of Paris" (1930), "A Nous la Liberte" (1931) and my favorite "Le Million" (1931). As if it weren't already possible, I fell in love with his movies even more. Such style! Such charm! So wonderfully paced! It was hard not to be impressed with Clair's body of films.

"The Ghost Goes West" was the first film Clair made outside of France. This is a British comedy, produced by a man many consider "the father of British cinema", the famous Hungarian Sandor (Alexander in English) Korda. The movie takes place in Scotland as the Scots are about to go into battle against the English but more importantly there is a war brewing between two Scottish clans - the Glourie family and the MacClaggan family. Murdoch Glourie (Robert Donat) is considered a ladies man and not a fighter. This brings shame to the name of Glourie as the father (Morton Selten) proudly says his son will fight in battle but before he does he will get his revenge on the MacClaggan family for their harsh words. But it is never to be. The young Glourie is killed when a cannon is mistakenly fired in his direction. Murdoch dies a coward's death, never getting justice. His soul is now stuck in a state of limbo. He must stay on Earth as a ghost and haunt the Glourie castle in search of a MacClaggan to get his revenge.

After two hundred years pass the legend of the Glourie ghost grows. It is now something every villager knows about. The current occupant, Donald Glourie (also played by Donat) is broke and desperately wants to sell the castle. He may get his chance when a pretty American woman, Peggy Martin (Jean Parker, best known for her roles in the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Flying Deuces" (1939) and the Oliver Hardy / Harry Langdon comedy "Zenobia" (1939) made when Laurel & Hardy were in a contract dispute with Hal Roach). With Peggy are her mother and father - Joe (Eugene Pallette) and Gladys (Everley Gregg). They want to buy the caste and return it to America.

Comedic chaos ensues when Peggy meets the ghost of the Glourie Castle believing it is really Donald. The ghost takes a liking to Peg and innocently flirts with her while Peg thinks it is Donald coming on to her, but, Donald is too shy to let his feelings known, leaving Peg confused wondering what Donald's true feelings are.

"The Ghost Goes West" set-ups up many humorous situations involving the ghost and the romantic sub-plot is nicely done. The film's total running time is 78 minutes leaving the audience wanting more. And more should have been done with the ghost romantic sub-plot. It takes too long to establish the relationship of all the characters and doesn't dig Donald into a big enough hole while the ghost gets into all sorts of trouble as Murdoch flirts with all the pretty girls causing the women to think it is really Donald. These are missed comedic opportunities. Still, "The Ghost Goes West" is a charming comedy filled with plenty of visual gags. It could have used more one-liners as well but that was never a staple of Rene Clair's films to begin with.

The plot involving a ghost seeking revenge reminds me of the equally charming and funny French comedy "Sylvia and the Phantom" (1946) another sadly forgotten film, Clair's "I Married A Witch" dealt with a witch putting a curse on the family that burnt her family at the stake. There was also the Abbott & Costello comedy "The Time of Their Lives" (1946), one of the team's finest comedies. "The Ghost Goes West" lacks some of the big laughs of these other films or even "Topper" (1937) with Cary Grant.

Although I like Robert Donat as an actor, he is probably best known for his Academy Award winning performance in "Goodbye Mr. Chips" (1939) and the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "The 39 Steps" (1935), often considered Hitchcock's best British film, he wasn't, for me, a comedic actor. There is some dry wit to his performance in "The 39 Steps" but it is lacking in "The Ghost Goes West". Cary Grant may have had more fun with a role like this or maybe Robert Montgomery. Both men I find more suitable to comedy and light-hearted romance. And Montgomery was in his own movie playing a spirit, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941).

Still I am afraid this all makes it sound as if I didn't enjoy watching "The Ghost Goes West". I did enjoy it. The plot is funny. There are some nice visual gags. There is some comedic tension which rises. I personally like the two lead actors and this may be one of the few movies I can think of where Eugene Pallette is given such a larger role to play. He was a character actor best known for playing sugar daddy types. When given a little more to work with, as in this movie, Pallette was quite funny.

"The Ghost Goes West" has not properly been put on DVD but it is a nice example of the type of English language comedies Rene Clair was making with its supernatural theme as seen in "I Married A Witch" and "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944). Please seek it out.