Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Guilty Pleasures: Ghost Catchers (1944)


In a review of Murder in the Blue Room (1944) that I wrote for the blog a while back, I slipped in a casual mention of how Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas—authors of the amazing reference tome Universal Horrors—were not particularly enamored of the Ole Olsen-Chic Johnson comedy Ghost Catchers (1944).  Here’s what they have to say:

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.

I realize that comedy is subjective to many folks.  I know that what makes me laugh might leave you completely stone-faced.  But Leonard Maltin is the reason why I was initially curious about Olsen & Johnson (they receive a chapter in his book Movie Comedy Teams), and I’m going to be completely honest: I think the duo are funny.  I maintain both Hellzapoppin’ (1941) and Crazy House (1943) are first-rate movie comedies, even though they’re a bit top-heavy with the musical numbers (a Universal trademark).  “Fans of Olsen and Johnson complain about the big band musical numbers and romantic subplots which bog down some of their pictures, but others may find these added elements a welcome respite from O&J.”  Your mileage may vary, I guess.

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.

The neighbors are Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (playing themselves); they operate a nightclub next door and when Susanna bursts onto the scene, pleading for help, the duo “give her the business” in typical Hellzapoppin’ style as they and their employees—including Virginia Bennett (Ella Mae Morse) and bandleader Clay Edwards (Kirby “Sky King” Grant)—entertain Susanna and the nightclub patrons with Three Cheers for the Customers.  Misunderstanding that the funnymen rarely take anything seriously, an angry Susanna returns to Casa del Marshall…and are soon joined by Chic and Ole, who are persuaded to spend the night in order to investigate the goings-on.

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 is reluctant to leave Rancho Marshall despite the swell bash—he only agrees to vacate after Ole & Chic give the order to ramp up some loud jazz music as a cast of thousands jitterbug their hearts out.  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?

In Crazy House, Olsen & Johnson in-joked that they were not Universal’s star mirthmakers with a gag in which studio president Thomas Gomez, informed by his secretary that “Universal’s most sensational comedy team [is] outside!”  “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.)

I still argue that Universal’s shoehorning of specialty acts into their comedy features (you not only get the Apache dancing of Armando & Lila…but Morton Downey warbling These Foolish Things [Remind Me of You]) makes for some glancing-at-your-watch viewing…but Ghost Catchers does make an effort to work the musical performers into the plot with Ella Mae Morse (singer of hits like Cow Cow Boogie and Blacksmith Blues) and Kirby Grant (billed here as “Kirby Grant and His Orchestra”) as actual characters.  (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.)

Weaver and the Brunases (Bruni?) conclude: “In the twenty-first century, Ghost Catchers is the kind of movie that you’d be embarrassed to have someone walk in and catch you watching—but watch it we Universal devotees must, at least once, because it’s a Universal ‘haunted house’ movie and because it features Lon Chaney, Jr.”  (You guys are really sitting on the fence about this one, aren’t you?)  Pish and tosh, says I; the movie makes me laugh, and if I have a nitpick (and this is a major one) it’s that the film is not available on legitimate DVD (it was released on VHS in the 1990s, which is when I first saw it).  Amazon offers a bootleg copy for twenty bucks from the now out-of-business Nostalgia Home Video…but it’s a terrible print (I have a copy), and missing the opening Universal titles.  You can probably wait until this one makes it to legitimate DVD.

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