With the success of 1939’s The Cat and the Canary, Paramount Pictures were quick to re-team Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard for another go and what better way to ensure success than star them in another horror-comedy, one with both a spooky local and nefarious villains for our leads to run from.
The hero of the film is a crime reporter Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope) who is touted as “A man who knows all the rackets and all the racketeers” and it’s his latest broadcast about notorious gangster Frenchy Duval (Paul Fix) that sets the plot in motion. A nervous Lawrence heads over to his hotel to discuss his latest broadcast so that Frenchy can “give it” to him straight and it’s there that he crosses paths with poor working girl Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) who has inherited a plantation and mansion on a small island off the coast of Cuba. A Cuban solicitor named Parada (Paul Lukas), who delivers the deed to Mary, tries to discourage her from taking the place and even mentions that there is an interested party willing to pay $50,000 dollars for the place.
Things get even more interesting when she receives a phone call from a man named Mederos (Anthony Quinn) who warns Mary about selling the property and states his desire to meet with her. Sadly, this meeting never takes place as the man is later shot dead in the hallway by Parada, and because this is a bit of a screwball comedy Lawrence was in that very same hallway on his way to meet Frenchy. Guns go off and before you can sing a single bar from “Cuban Pete” Lawrence is hiding in Mary’s hotel room under the false belief that he was the one who shot Mederos. Hijinks ensue.
What follows is a brilliant comedy with Bob Hope providing his trademark fast-talking patter and nervous energy that borders on volcanic at times, and once again the chemistry between Paulette Goddard and Hope is simply amazing and the fact that Goddard’s character isn’t your typical damsel in distress makes this pairing a highlight of the genre. These are two cinema legends at the top of their game and the balancing act of thrills and laughs is handled beautifully by director George Marshall and cinematographer Charles Lang who creates a dark and foreboding world that is one part film noir and two parts Universal horror movie. When our protagonist reaches the haunted castle not only does the comedy ratchet up a notch or two but the scares as well, with a real ghost walking the halls of Castillo Maldito.
Bob Hope’s portrayal of Lawrence isn’t as cut and dried as one would first assume, he does trot out some of his trademark cowardly mannerisms but he is far from a coward in this outing, once he discovers that Mary is in actual danger he sets aside his own problems and sails off to Cuba with her, and when Parada warns him about the dangerous ghosts that roam the castle halls he tells Parada, “You know, that gives me an idea that scares me out of my wits. I’ll go there first.” This leads to one of my favourite exchanges in the movie.
Parada: “You are a brave man.”
Lawrence: “Me? No, my nerves are the breakaway kind. I’ve got rabbit blood in me. Why, do you know what’s libel to happen if I see a ghost there tonight?”
The definition of courage is the bravery and or strength to do something that could be dangerous, and that pretty much sums up Bob Hope’s character in this film, but he’s not alone in these acts of courage and this leads us to the other main character in this film, that of his manservant Alex (Willie Best). At a glance, modern audiences may find the character of Alex to be very politically incorrect – which it is – with all the stereotypes about African Americans and superstition in full force here, but not only does actor Willie Best rise above such material he is allowed to go toe to toe with both Hope and Goddard and he provides some of the film’s funniest moments. It should also be noted that he is the one who dispatches the villain and saves the day, not Bob Hope.
• As in The Cat and the Canary Bob Hope plays a radio personality, one could say this was a clear case of typecasting as that is what he was most known for at the time.
• The castle Mary inherits is called “Castillo Maldito” which means “Castle of the Damned” and one must wonder if it earned that name or if was it just a strange choice by the original owner.
• To save Lawrence and Alex from a zombie Mary dresses up as her ancestor to distract the creature, proving that she’s not just another pretty face.
• Paulette Goddard repeatedly bumps into comedic actor Lloyd Corrigan throughout the film’s running time, making us suspicious of his role in the scam, but his presence comes to nothing and he vanishes from the movie without a clue.
• The zombie in this movie predates the type created by George Romero and is best described by Parada who informs us that these creatures have no will of their own. “You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring” or as Bob Hope puts it, “Democrats.”
If one can look past the moments of uncomfortable racial stereotyping and avoid cringing at such lines as “Oh, you look like a blackout in a blackout. This keeps up, I’m gonna have to paint you white” then you will have a great time with The Ghost Breakers, a horror-comedy that truly set the template for the genre and films like Ghostbusters owe a great deal to this entry. So, if you like spooky castles, nefarious villains, lumbering zombies and mysteries revolving around riddles and murder then this could be the movie you’ve been waiting for.
The Ghost Breakers (1940)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
On the mystery side of things The Ghost Breakers may be a little thin, with plenty of loose ends dangling at the end, but there’s nothing at skimpy about the comedy and Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard and Willie Best all fantastic provide fantastic performances in this hilarious spook show.