Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard return for another spooky comedy, but where The Cat and the Canary (1939) inhabited – literally and figuratively – the haunted house film, The Ghost Breakers takes its sweet time developing much of anything. While not ineptly constructed or suffering from egregious film failure, The Ghost Breakers misleads as a spooky comic outing, being more of a whodunit involving treasure and a house in Cuba. The whole endeavour ends up feeling meager flimsy despite some more great work from Hope and Goddard.
On her way to visit her ancestral home, Castillo Maldito, in Cuba, Mary Carter (Goddard) runs afoul of various shadowy figures who don’t want her to go. Running away himself is radio host Lawrence Lawrence (Hope), who ends up stowing away with Carter. The two wind up in the spooky castle where they’re soon besieged by ghosts and zombies.
Since I watched both so close together it’s nearly impossible to not compare this to The Cat and the Canary which is the superior film. I understand Hope and crew trying to avoid a near remake but they obviously want audiences to remember the previous feature; the opening credits are a carbon copy to Canary’s, both involve a house with money involved and ghosts. The changes present push the ship away from the same port, such as Hope finally playing a heroic character, but too often the script falls on horror tropes, especially those seen in other films of the era. (Horror 101, if the film involves your group leaving English-speaking countries (US and UK), then you will run into voodoo.)
But where The Cat and the Canary had a clear path, The Ghost Breakers wanders in search of its scares. At a scant 85-minutes over 60 minutes leaves no ghosts seeking breaking. Character development’s all well and good, but it comes off like the film is scared to actually search for ghosts. Mary Carter and Lawrence Lawrence are introduced in both serious and comical fashion, respectively. The opening blackout gives us the air of foreboding required. Mary is being threatened by persons unknown and it all culminates with Larry, who adheres to open carry laws apparently, believing he’s shot someone which is funny because it’s Hope.
Mary and Larry (haha, that rhymes) meet up, and while Mary has absolutely no reason to trust Hope, he could be a murderer after all, she decides to help him. These plot contrivances were easily swatted away in Cat because Hope and Goddard were relatives. With them being strangers, the entire nature of trust is left to the audience remembering their past pairing and going along with their respective personas; the two are meant to be together, and so they should trust each other. The first half is also frontloaded with some fun gags from Hope like being stuck in a trunk with nothing but his finger beckoning out of the mouth of a sticker.
And before everyone actually ends up at Castillo Maldito, Mary meets Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson) with hints of a romance. All of this is weak meat to feed a horror story as more characters are introduced merely to fill the stew pot and give us more suspects. And much like Hope and Goddard’s pairing, they’re all suspects by their presence alone. Unlike Cat and the Canary, none of the suspected characters come with background or context as to motive, so when the eventual threatening presence is unmasked I had to remind myself who they were.
There’s also questionable content depending on how far your racism meter goes. Willie Best plays Lawrence’s valet Alex. Alex is probably the safest character I’ve seen in a film of this era. Does Hope make some crass comments pointed at Alex’s race? “You look like a black out in a blackout. We’ll have to paint you white.” That’s a yes. But the majority of the movie sees Alex utilized as a character of action, mixed in and a part of the plot alongside Larry and Marry. He talks in the typical Stepin Fetchit style most black actors were required to, but outside of the joke above (which ends up with Alex dusted white in a grandfather cloak as the punchline), there’s no real mistreatment to him. He’s scared because who wouldn’t be and his facial expressions remind us of that? And he ends up being the film’s third wheel in a rather solid trio.
Once the group lands in Cuba, an hour into an hour and twenty-four minute feature, what was a mystery turns into a spooky house film. This is where The Ghost Breakers becomes true fun. Hope becomes the point man, taking an active role in the investigation. (Hope said he enjoyed this film the most as it allowed him to be courageous.) Pepper’s Ghost effects are used for the ghostly entities and the “female relative resembles a long-lost ancestor” convention lets Goddard run around in a beautiful gown.
Hope and Goddard remain a great screen team, and The Ghost Breakers gives Willie Best ample screentime as a serious member of the cast. As a haunted house story the film fails at establishing the house or its significance, acting as a MacGuffin more than anything else. Taken in total, The Ghost Breakers is cute, but can’t live up to the superior Cat and the Canary.
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