Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hold That Ghost (1941)

Director: Arthur Lubin                                      Writers: Robert Lees & Frederic I. Rinaldo
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                              Cinematography: Elwood Brendell
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Richard Carlson and Evelyn Ankers

While Abbott and Costello’s first film for Universal, Buck Privates, was in post-production the studio already had them working on their next feature. Hold That Ghost is an old dark house spoof aimed at cashing in on the success of Bob Hope’s The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers over at Paramount, and at the same time redeeming the studio’s reputation in that area after its previously poor showing in the dreadful The Black Cat earlier that year. But when Buck Privates turned out to be a smash hit, the film was temporarily shelved so that the studio could release In the Navy to capitalize on the popularity of the team’s previous service comedy. But there was another reason for the delay. The two service comedies had used the Andrews Sisters and the studio felt that there was now an audience expectation to see them in any Abbott and Costello film, so the crew was reassembled in to shoot nightclub scenes featuring the Andrews Sisters as well as Ted Lewis and his Orchestra to open and close the film. Evelyn Ankers returned, along with future Universal sci-fi star Richard Carlson, to be included in the closing scene, and finally Hold That Ghost appeared in theaters that August.

The film begins with the comedy team as relief waiters in a nightclub where Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters are performing, dishing out their usual wordplay and physical humor. Mobsters are at work in the club too, and William B. Davidson as the big boss is being shaken down by Marc Lawrence who threatens to tell the police about his last big robbery unless he gets a cut of the action. But Davidson isn’t telling where he hid the money. Meanwhile the boys are thrown out of the club and go back to their job running a gas station. But when Davidson shows up and has to make a quick getaway from the cops, the boys are trapped inside the car. Davidson is killed in the shootout and leaves everything to Abbott and Costello. Everything, winds up being a broken down hotel. Convinced that the hotel is the location of Davidson’s hidden cash, the mobsters arrange for their transportation to the hotel, along with other passengers including bookworm Richard Carlson, the beautiful Evelyn Ankers and comedian Joan Davis, and abandon them there while Lawrence looks for the money. But Lawrence is nabbed by a pair of creepy hands in the basement and disappears, the first of many “supernatural” events follow.

Production took longer than normal on an Abbott and Costello picture because Lou Costello was ill during the first half of the filming. Once he was back on the set, however, the production then had to deal with bad weather and a fruitless search for a suitable gas station set, which Universal finally gave up on and built themselves. And, of course, the entire production had to deal with the off-screen antics of the comedy team, as Ankers relates: “In looking back I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how they ever got a picture finished. They must have kept the local bakers very busy, for a typical vaudeville pie fight was soon a weekly event or when their friend Jack Pierce, the makeup genius who made all the monsters in his magic laboratory, and his assistants would come down to the set for lunch there would inevitably be a food fight.” Director Arthur Lubin was a regular Abbott and Costello director, helming the first five pictures for the boys before moving on to other things, and the film score was written by Universal horror composer Hans Salter and is equal parts humor and horror.

Abbott and Costello do a solid job with their usual shtick, the “Blue Danube” waltz being particularly funny. It’s interesting to see Richard Carlson in his pre sci-fi days, still playing a doctor but a very nerdy one. Evelyn Ankers, as the love interest in her first Universal film, is beautiful as always, and while Ankers falling in love with Carlson is about as realistic as the rest of the antics on the screen, it’s the only time they would work together. One of the great ironic in-jokes of the film is Joan Davis’s role, playing a radio/film actress who specializes in screams. As she and Ankers are about to head upstairs in search of the missing Marc Lawrence, Davis grabs hold of a post in the doorway and says, “It’s just like the scene in The Case of the Haunted House. I had a great part in that one, though. Five screams.” But before the two reach the top of the stairs, Ankers demonstrates why the studio had dubbed her their new “Scream Queen.” Davis becomes so frightened that she can’t utter a sound, and that’s when Ankers cuts loose with an impressive blood-curdling scream. Hold That Ghost is standard Abbott and Costello hokum, but enjoyable enough if you’re in the mood for that.

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