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Think of Bob Hope in a scary haunted location and our initial expectation is of a series of jittery one-liners masking a coward who would push the leading lady ahead of him in a dangerous situation. In 1940, that Bob Hope persona was still a few years away, so the Hope character we find in Paramount's The Ghost Breakers seems downright brash and brave by comparison. This movie was the second of three Hope pairings with leading lady Paulette Goddard. In 1939 they had co-starred in another comedy chiller, The Cat and the Canary. That film was the third version of a then-creaky standard the 1922 Old Dark House play by John Willard. Its novel tongue-in-cheek approach in mixing laughs with chills proved to be a big hit, and exhibitors and the public alike wanted a follow-up. Paramount's first order of business, though, was to team Hope with Bing Crosby for the first in their series of pictures together, Road to Singapore (1940). Following that release, the studio set about combining nearly all of the same Cat and the Canary elements for The Ghost Breakers.
In addition to reuniting Hope and Goddard, Paramount and producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. brought back cinematographer Charles Lang and art director Hans Dreier to create a similarly eerie atmosphere. To direct, Hornblow enlisted the prolific George Marshall, a veteran of Laurel & Hardy and W. C. Fields comedies. Marshall had also just finished helming the very successful genre-bending Western Destry Rides Again (1939). For their story, the studio knocked the dust off another old spook property. The Ghost Breaker was a play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard that the studio first filmed in 1914. Cecil B. DeMille directed that version, which starred H. B. Warner and Rita Stanwood. A 1922 version featuring Wallace Reid and Lila Lee followed, with Alfred E. Green directing. By 1940, Paramount not only pluralized the title, they also realized that a more sophisticated audience weren't likely to take yet another film version of this oft-filmed ghost story very seriously so, as with The Cat and the Canary, they mixed generous doses of humor in with the chills.
The film opens as Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope, who says "My folks had no imagination"), a New York radio personality who dishes the dirt on crime figures, is preparing to leave town with his valet Alex (Willie Best) on a fishing trip. After a particularly inflammatory broadcast he is called to the hotel of gangster Frenchy Duval (Paul Fix). Alex gives Lawrence a gun for protection, and Larry mistakenly thinks he has used it to kill a man in the hotel corridor. He hides out in the room of heiress Mary Carter (Goddard), escaping the hotel in her steamer trunk. Carter is sailing for Cuba to claim her inheritance of a haunted castle on Black Island. Along for the ride are her Cuban advisor Parada (Paul Lukas), her old friend Geoff (Richard Carlson) and last-minute passengers Lawrence and Alex. In Cuba, they encounter many others; Black Island is crawling with assorted shady characters who want to prevent Carter from taking possession of the castle, not to mention ghosts, a zombie (Noble Johnson), and even Mederos (Anthony Quinn) the twin brother of the man killed at the hotel back in New York!
The most successful horror comedies are those that present a convincing case for the horror elements (perhaps the best example is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which the classic Universal monsters play it straight, while Bud and Lou cut up around them). Fortunately, The Ghost Breakers spares little expense in presenting a horror atmosphere. The castle sets are huge and convincing, with careful attention paid to lighting and general creepiness. An appropriate sense of menace is established in the initial scenes at Black Island, as well. Though it looks stage-bound, the swamp setting is murky and spooky. The most genuinely horrific element in the picture, though, is the appearance of Noble Johnson as the Zombie. Here director Marshall pulls out the stops in his attempt to induce goosebumps. The Ghost Breakers pre-dates the Val Lewton classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943) by three years, and it is easy to imagine that film's director Jacques Tourneur taking his visual cue from this film. The ambling, staring zombie on view here is every bit as effective as the walking dead of the Lewton film. Of course, even the startling sight of a zombie is fodder for a Hope one-liner:
Geoff: A zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.
Larry: You mean like Democrats?
The Ghost Breakers was a box-office hit, and following another "Road" picture with Crosby, Paramount again teamed Hope with Paulette Goddard, in Nothing but the Truth (1941). Willie Best also appeared in that film in a major role. Meanwhile, other major studios noted the success Paramount had with horror in comedies. RKO teamed horror stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre in the Kay Kyser vehicle You'll Find Out (1940), and a year after The Ghost Breakers, Universal rushed their resident team, Abbott and Costello, into their first comedy chiller, Hold That Ghost (1941). (Richard Carlson also shows up in that film as one of the straight juvenile leads). Even poverty row studios like Monogram Pictures got into the act with their release of Spooks Run Wild (1941) starring the Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi.
The horror comedy sub-genre proved to be durable through the years. George Marshall remade his own The Ghost Breakers in 1953 as Scared Stiff, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis updating the Hope and Best roles, and with Lizabeth Scott as the heiress. Bob Hope makes a cameo appearance in the film alongside his "Road" picture cohort Bing Crosby.
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon, based on a play by Paul Dickey, Charles W. Goddard
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Film Editing: Ellsworth Hoagland
Music: Ernst Toch
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Costume Design: Edith Head
Cast: Bob Hope (Larry Lawrence), Paulette Goddard (Mary Carter), Richard Carlson (Geoff Montgomery), Paul Lukas (Parada), Willie Best (Alex), Pedro de Cordoba (Havez), Virginia Brissac (Mother Zombie), Noble Johnson (Zombie), Anthony Quinn (Ramon and Francisco Mederos).
by John M. Miller