Comedy Oddities: The Ghost Breakers

the ghost breakers indexI’m fond of Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard and I’m fond of supernatural silliness so at first I was quite surprised I’d not heard of this 1940 film before now. But it’s probably not on our tv screens very often as Bob Hope makes a few dodgy racist gags in a couple of scenes rather unfortunately, as during a black out Bob comments to his valet Alex (Willie Best) “You look like a black out in a blackout. This keeps up I’m going to have to paint you white”, which is definitely something which would get him deservedly cancelled if he was alive today.

Otherwise Alex is treated mostly well, but there’s the odd dodgy bit of dialogue elsewhere regarding race, and Hope also says at one point “Me, I’m mentally retarded, I’m still eleven years old when it comes to the fourth of July, circuses or haunted castles”, which once again is a line of dialogue that hasn’t aged well. If you can look past such unpleasantness it is a film which is perhaps of some interest, but it’s not funny enough to bother with if you understandably can’t be arsed with such shittiness.

In the film’s trailer Bob Hope talks up the supernatural aspects of the film and early on you get to see a ghostly figure, but in the film itself we don’t see anything strange or impossible until the fifty seven minute mark. Before that there’s just some farcical idiocy where Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) inherits a castle on “Black Island”, just off of the coast of Cuba, and plans to go over and check it out, but before she leaves a man is shot dead near her apartment and Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope) thinks he accidentally did it and hides away in Mary’s trunk.

Larry soon finds out he’s innocent but as Mary’s life seems to be in danger he and Alex stick with her on the boat ride over to Cuba. These early sequences have the funniest moments, from Larry’s interaction with dodgy mobster “Raspy Kelly” to when Larry’s in the trunk and chatting away to Alex and a drunk bloke thinks it’s some kind of ventriloquist act. The initial flirtation between Larry and Mary also contains some cute lines, and the way Larry dances with Mary to assuage her nerves is quite the sweet moment. Some jokes are a bit laboured though, zombies are described as “walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring” to which Larry quips “You mean like democrats”, but most of the time it’s amiable fare.

That is until they reach the castle and the supposed horror element is ramped up, and around the hour point we finally meet our first ghost. There’s lots of minor slapstick and running around in this segment and its rarely entertaining or even that funny, Larry provides the odd bit of humour as he’s still capable of the occasional quip, but its largely action sequences and supposedly spooky goings on which include mistaking a badly scarred individual for a zombie and treating him poorly.

With an ending that isn’t a million miles away from how the average episode of Scooby Doo is wrapped up I came away wondering why some critics rate it highly. Perhaps if the second half of the movie had been as funny as the first then it might have been a film I could have recommended despite its shortcomings, but the final thirty minutes are strangely bland, watching Hope, Goddard and Best act scared isn’t at all entertaining, and as all three appeared in films far better than this I’d suggest watching them instead.

★★1/2

Alex Finch.
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