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Gildersleeve's Ghost

Gildersleeve's Ghost(1944)

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Gildersleeve's Ghost (1944)

The character of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve was one of the first spinoff characters in radio/television history. Spinoffs from successful television shows became the norm by the seventies but in the forties it was all still relatively new. The original radio series that introduced Gildersleeve to the public was Fibber McGee and Molly and the year was 1939. The character, a befuddled blowhard, distinctively voiced by Harold Peary, became so popular that by 1940 he was given his own series and not long after that, his first theatrical film, The Great Gildersleeve (1942). The film proved popular enough that more were ordered up and before you could say, "You're a haaaard man, McGee," Peary had himself a successful movie series. The last of these, Gildersleeve's Ghost (1944), is undoubtedly the silliest but contains two winning elements: Harold Peary and Nick Stewart, who keep things entertaining during a plot that, even for a quickie, beggars belief.

As the movie begins, a newspaper headline trumpeting Gildersleeve as a candidate for Police Commissioner tumbles, windblown, through a cemetery where two of Gildersleeve's ancestors, Jonathan Q. and Randolph Q. (both played by Peary), rise from the grave and decide to help Gildersleeve win (this is a movie that absolutely demands an unwavering suspension of disbelief). Their plan? Go to the lair of a mad scientist who has been testing invisibility potions on a showgirl and a gorilla, release the gorilla, lead it to Gildersleeve's house, wait for Gildersleeve to trace the gorilla back to the mad scientist, expose him, become a hero to all those people insisting invisibility potions shouldn't be tested on showgirls and gorillas, and naturally glide to electoral victory. Believe it or not, this isn't even the silliest plot device used in the movie. It probably goes without saying, though we'll say it anyway, that back at Gildersleeve's house, his nephew Leroy happened to pick tonight to wear a gorilla costume around the house. It just so happens that Gildersleeve's orphaned niece and nephew, who live under the care of Gildersleeve, have decided to help him win by appealing to animal lovers. Mistaken identities between gorilla costume and real gorilla are in store as well as a trip by everyone, including the kids, the current Police Commissioner, the maid, the chauffeur, and, of course, the invisible showgirl and gorilla, to the decaying, foreboding mansion of the mad scientist. And this is only the setup for the rest of the movie where the silliness somehow gets amplified beyond even two ghosts deciding that setting loose a gorilla is the best way to get someone elected.

Playing the real Police Commissioner's chauffeur, Chauncey, is the amazing and talented Nick Stewart, going by Nicodemus Stewart here, who displays such precise and brilliant comic timing that every second he's on the screen makes it that much harder to accept it when he's not. Stewart was most famous as Lightnin' on the infamous TV series Amos and Andy and spent the majority of his career playing stereotypical characters that were far beneath his talents. In 1950, he and his wife, Edna, founded the Los Angeles Ebony Showcase Theater, a place where black actors could take on the great roles of the theater instead of being relegated to the demeaning roles Hollywood offered them.

Others in the cast include Marion Martin as the showgirl who goes in and out of invisibility in front of Gildersleeve and Chauncey, making both men think they're crazy. Starting out her career as an actual showgirl, and winding up in The Ziegfeld Follies, playing the part of one came naturally and ended up being her typecasting fate for the rest of her career (albeit with some great legends, including The Marx Brothers). She retired early, in 1951, when it was clear Hollywood had no intention of ever using her for anything else.

The star of the show, Harold Peary, does superbly as always as Gildersleeve. Once the Gildersleeve gravy train ended, there wasn't much choice for Peary as to where to get off other than small parts in television but he made a career of it. Until he retired in 1979, he appeared in dozens of television shows, often multiple times a year.

Directing honors go to Gordon Douglas, the man who helmed each Gildersleeve's movie. He cut his teeth on shorts for Hal Roach in the thirties, both as a writer and director for the Little Rascals series so presiding over the lunacy of a Gildersleeve's movie was right up his alley. Coming in at just over an hour, Gildersleeve's Ghost manages to pack in a lot of plot, even more silliness, and the talents of Harold Peary and Nick Stewart all in one place. Not bad for 63 minutes, even if Gildersleeve's campaign doesn't stand a ghost of a chance.

by Greg Ferrara

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