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Ava Gardner and Bela Lugosi. Not two actors you expect to see in the same movie. And certainly not in supporting roles. But that's certainly the case in Ghosts on the Loose (1943), a low-budget comedy from Monogram Pictures with the East Side Kids getting star billing. The title is a bit of a misnomer too as there is not a ghost in sight. Nazi spies, yes, but no spooks. The plot, like most East Side Kids vehicles, is merely a framework on which to hang a string of gags. In this one, the boys help organize a wedding and honeymoon for their friends Betty (Ava Gardner) and Jack Gibson (Rick Vallin). En route to decorate the couple's new home, the gang mistakenly picks the wrong house, one that is actually the secret headquarters of some undercover Nazis. You can guess the rest.
Ghosts on the Loose marked the first time Ava Gardner was loaned out by her studio MGM to another one; it was also her first official screen credit. In her biography, Ava: My Story, the actress confessed, "I don't remember much else about the film because it was shot at such enormous speed. We had one film stage and it took one week. Action - film - print! Even the little experience I'd had with Metro told me that this was not a quality film. In one scene the hero accidentally stumbled over a prop and fell. Nobody cared. No retake. Print it! All part of the glorious fun...Ghosts on the Loose was a piece of sweet, unsophisticated rubbish. But it did give me one sudden thrill that I've never forgotten...High up, outside one of the movie houses, there was this huge blazing sign in electric lights: GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE WITH AVA GARDNER....at that moment I didn't really care about the hows or whys. My name was up in lights for the very first time in my life. I've got to say it was a thrill. Then it wore off, and I've never had that feeling again. Ever."
While Ava Gardner was just beginning her career and a new marriage to Mickey Rooney, Bela Lugosi was sinking deeper and deeper into poverty row horror quickies such as The Devil Bat (1940) and The Corpse Vanishes (1942). Still trading on his success as Dracula (in Tod Browning's 1931 film adaptation), the Hungarian actor never bothered to adjust his heavy accent for American audiences or practice any discretion in choosing roles, decisions which contributed to his being stereotyped in horror roles for the rest of his career. Ghosts on the Loose was also not the first time Lugosi had played straight man to the East Side Kids (who changed their name to the Bowery Boys in 1946 after some cast changes). He had been tormented by them previously in Spooks Run Wild (1941). Capitalizing on this, the film was marketed in some regions with the alternate title, The East Side Kids Meet Bela Lugosi.
As you've probably guessed, Ghosts on the Loose is no masterpiece and even among the East Side Kids comedies, it's probably not their finest hour. Authors David Hayes and Brent Walker wrote (in The Films of the Bowery Boys), "The biggest problem with Ghosts on the Loose is that the East Side Kids don't play East Side Kids. They play middle-class kids. There are no references to the slums. They drive a fairly respectable car. The lack of a slum setting was not so much by design as by circumstance. The series had been using Hal Roach Studios for backgrounds. In 1943 the Army moved in and turned the studio into a center for making training films. Commercial filmmakers were turned away. [The film's producer Sam] Katzman needed to find a new studio backlot before he could use exteriors again."
Despite the low pedigree, Ghosts on the Loose had no problem reaching its intended audience and turned a profit for Monogram which wasted no time in producing the next East Side Kids extravaganza, Mr. Muggs Steps Out (1943). But it lacked the unique casting cache of Ghosts on the Loose - Gardner, Lugosi and oh yes, Sunshine Sammy Morrison (who appeared in the original Our Gang shorts from 1922-1924).
Producer: Jack Dietz, Sam Katzman
Director: William Beaudine
Screenplay: Kenneth Higgins
Cinematography: Mack Stengler
Film Editing: Carl Pierson
Art Direction: Dave Milton
Cast: Leo Gorcey (Muggs McGinnis), Huntz Hall (Glimpy Williams), Bobby Jordan (Danny), Bela Lugosi (Emil), Ava Gardner (Betty Williams Gibson), Rick Vallin (Jack Gibson).
by Jeff Stafford