It’s hard to knock a comedy duo that collaborated that long and that successfully, and starred in one of Broadway’s longest-running shows (“Hellzapoppin”)—but we’re sure gonna try. To the innocent, uninitiated viewer who stumbles upon Ghost Catchers, the Olsen and Johnson shtick can be a painful thing to behold. Their forte was wild sight gags, hoary jokes and puns and what film historian Leonard Maltin lovingly calls “a flair for the ridiculous that has never been duplicated.” Time, however, has passed them by: There’s no longer any humor in seeing these loudmouths cavorting in women’s clothes or zoot suits, no pleasure left in the dreamworld plots left over from the vaudeville pastiches.
That having been said, I’ll admit that Ghost Catchers is not one of Chic and Ole’s strongest vehicles. But there’s still a lot to like in the movie. Here’s the bare bones plot: Southern colonel Breckinridge Marshall (Walter Catlett)—he’s not a legitimate colonel, but is what we used to say in my neck of the swamp “puttin’ up a front”—and his daughters Susanna (Martha O’Driscoll) and Melinda (Gloria Jean) arrange to rent a New York brownstone in anticipation of the success from Melinda’s singing career (she’s to give a performance at Carnegie Hall). The lawyer (Walter Kingsford) who made them such a sweet deal on their new digs has neglected to tell them, however, that the joint is haunted; as the family Marshall settles in for a good night’s sleep, they hear strange noises in their new domicile—a horse whinnying and someone…tap dancing. Susanna rushes next door to obtain help from the neighbors.
After experiencing supernatural events that seemingly have no explanation, Ole and Chic go with Susanna to the lawyer’s office the next day to break the lease…but no soap—attorney Chambers refuses to believe in “ghost stories.” Chambers then tells the trio the tale of Wilbur Duffington (Jack Norton), a millionaire who died on New Year’s Eve in 1900 after taking a tumble out a window—apparently he was having a miserable time at his own affair. That gives Olsen and Johnson an idea: why not throw a party in Wilbur’s honor in an effort to exorcise his spirit?
Wilbur waves a white flag as he departs the brownstone…but the Marshall family’s troubles are just beginning when it’s discovered that a criminal gang are operating in the basement!
Leonard Maltin wrote in Movie Comedy Teams that Ghost Catchers came closer to Olsen and Johnson’s zany brand of humor than any of their other vehicles—I’m going to have to dissent from this opinion, because I think Crazy House is a much better representation of their “anything-for-a-laugh” approach to movie comedy. There are some fitfully amusing sequences in Catchers that often remind me of The Goon Show (where the plot stops dead in its tracks for a wheezy gag or two); I like the craziness that permeates the team’s nightclub (when Susanna is ejected from the joint she disappears via a trap door that opens up under the floor of the place and deposits her out on the street), particularly in the wind-up scene where Ole, Chic, and the Marshalls are tangling with the bad guys…and their pleas for help are ignored by the patrons (they assume they’re just clowning around). I also enjoy the fact that there’s an actual ghost in Catchers (most of the time in these haunted house films weird events are usually explained away Scooby-Doo-style); in fact, it’s Wilbur who comes to the rescue (despite having been evicted) by summoning the cops—police sergeant Edgar Dearing explains to Ole and Chic that someone just walked through a wall at the precinct to let them know they were in trouble. Dearing then takes a beat, and repeats “Walked through a wall?”
“Oh,” cracks Gomez, “Abbott and Costello! Send them right in!” Ole and Chic reference Bud and Lou in Ghost Catchers, too—most memorably in a funny scene where the two of them are undressed for bed by unseen forces while they discuss among themselves how unrealistic Hold That Ghost (1941) was (including the “moving candle” bit). (The duo don’t realize that something supernatural has taken place until after they’ve hit the hay…then both of them awake with a sudden start.) The animated opening credits of Catchers—with a tall man and short man running away from a ghost—was cribbed from Hold That Ghost’s titles, too. The authors of Universal Horrors argue: “The scene isn’t good, and isn’t funny, but hearing Olsen and Johnson discussing Abbott and Costello and Hold That Ghost makes for an unusual moment that sticks in the mind after everything else about Ghost Catchers has faded. (Hold That Ghost is one of my favorite A&C vehicles…but believe me, it’s not difficult to enjoy both movies.)
(You’ll also notice how Gloria Jean is a big girl now…and in all the right places, to quote one of my favorite movies.) In addition, Catchers features some fabulous character veterans like Tom “Heil myself!” Dugan (as the guy who bricks up our heroes “Cask of Amontillado”-style), Leo Carrillo, Andy Devine (his character is identified in the closing credits as “Horsehead”), Henry Armetta, Tor Johnson, and Wee Willie Davis. (Lon Chaney, Jr. is also in this one, and manages to keep his dignity despite wearing a bear costume. Hey—if he was able to shamble around in dirty bandages for three Mummy films, the bear suit is a walk in the park.)