Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Favorite Film: THE GHOST BREAKERS starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard

Okay, I know it's Bob Hope and all, but this remains one of my very favorite films ever. Certainly, my favorite Bob Hope flick. Since the first moment I saw it on early TV, I was smitten by this sly, comedy-noir, mystery tale. It's kind of a family tradition because my brother and daughter both love it as well. (I think this is one of the few black and white films, Skye will tolerate. Ha!) It's one of those quacky films that you either fall in with or you don't. I say introduce it to your kids early and they might, just might agree that black and white wasn't so dreadful after all. (Not that it's, necessarily, a kid's film, but it's a fun way to share your youth. Ha!)

Bob Hope plays talk show radio personality Larry L. Lawrence ("My middle name is Lawrence, too. My parents had no imagination.") whose shtick is revealing mobster gossip on his program - tips he gets from a minor mob informant named Raspy. The mob doesn't seem to mind the extra publicity just as long as Larry doesn't cut too close to the bone. But when Larry reveals a new mob venture on his show (a certain mobster has moved in on New York's diaper delivery services - a sideline none of the named mobster's pals knew anything about), said mobster decides that someone ought to have a chat with Larry L. Lawrence.

In the meantime, Paulette Goddard, playing Mary Carter, a young woman who has just inherited an island off the coast of Cuba - Maldito Island - is anxiously packing and finalizing some paperwork which the accommodating and very sinister Senor Parada (Paul Lukas) has dropped off at her hotel. Later that same evening they are joined by another accommodating sort, the Cuban consulate, Senor Havez (Pedro de Cordoba) who has dropped in to wish her a safe trip. Both men try to dissuade Mary from going ahead with her plans -Parada even makes an offer to buy the island - siting stories of death and mysterious doings. No one has ever spent the night on Maldito Island and lived to tell about it. "I bet I will," says the plucky Mary.

(As an aside: there's one unintentionally funny moment when the Paul Lukas character, Senor Parada, who is supposed to be Cuban but in reality, is not (I think he was German) tries to say the word: voodoo and the best he can come up with is woodoo. You have to laugh. In those early days of film making accents were indivisible, I suppose.)

All this story info is revealed in one of the best opening sequences of any film I've ever seen. I kid you not. First off we have a terrific night time lightning storm in NYC, all flashing of lights and then a city-wide black out. The hotel goes dark too. We meet Mary Carter and the two men - one sinister and one not so - who have come to warn her off her trip and her inheritance. There's lots of pertinent just-right dialogue, lots of sinister implications, lots of lightning flashes and spooky shadows.

Then, while the black-out is still on-going, we switch over to Larry Lawrence's dark apartment as he is dressing to go down to the station for his evening broadcast - a phone call assures him that the station will stay on the air no matter what. Larry's valet and general factotum, Alex (Willie Best) is doing his best to handle phone calls, the jangling door bell and Larry's complaining - he can't find his pants in the dark! All this is handled in a very breezy, fun way. Hope and Best are just fabulous together, their dialogue bright and snappy and spoken in fast-forward, especially Hope's. There are a couple of race-related lines, common for this period of time (1940), to be expected I suppose. When both men are stumbling about in the dark, Hope says to Best: "If this keeps up I'm going to have to paint you white." But it's said in such a non-objectionable way that I've never thought it that outrageous. Not when compared to some dialogue and attitudes abroad in films at that time.

During these scenes, Larry and Alex receive a visit from Raspy the informant and Larry gets a juicy tip about some new mobster doings which he will reveal on the air that night.

Okay, then we switch from the apartment to the radio station later that evening where Bob Hope as Larry Lawrence bids his audience goodnight and goodbye since he's off for his annual fishing vacation.

But before he leaves the station, he gets a phone call from the aforementioned mobster asking him [Larry] to drop by his hotel room (which happens to be in the same hotel where Mary Carter is staying) for a little chat before he takes off. A frightened Larry and Alex drive to the hotel where Alex gives Larry a gun to carry, just in case.

Within a few minutes of entering the building, Larry thinks he's killed someone in the hallway - you have to see the film to find out how and why. "Is it murder to kill a perfect stranger?" When the hotel is surrounded by police, Larry must find a way out.

How all these disparate threads come together, how Larry and Mary meet, is revealed so inventively and so quickly that you're sailing off to Cuba almost before you realize it.

My favorite parts of the film are the razzle-dazzle beginning, the boat trip, then finally the landing in a Cuba that, maybe, never was, except in movies - a lovely fun place full of palm trees, rumba dancing and margaritas. But wait a minute - zombies? I've never heard tell that voodoo and zombies made it to Cuba's shores. I guess I was wrong. At least according to this movie.

The second half of the film takes place on the very spooky Maldito Island where an old castle (?), Mary's inheritance, waits in the gloomy shadows for her to take possession. Oh, and of course, there's buried treasure to be had and an evil villain to deal with. Not to mention, a zombie and a ghost or two that pick the oddest times to walkabout.

This is a terrific film that I, for one, never get tired of watching. It always makes me smile.


  1. One of my favorite old movies too!

  2. I've never been a Bob Hope fan but I may have to give this one a shot.

  3. Oh Ryan, you HAVE to! It's such a fun film and a good mystery to boot. :)

  4. Hope seems to be very unfashionable these days. I suppose my love for his cowardly persona came from watching the Road films with my grandparents. I like most of his 30s and 40s stuff, especially The Cat and the Canary. Paulette Goddard has great chemistry with Hope, so I'm looking forward to seeing The Ghost Breakers one day! It seems that the DVD available in the UK is taken from a poor quality print, unfortunately.

    Thanks for the tip, Yvette!

  5. Nicolas: We set the fashion around here, didn't you know that? HA! I've never seen THE CAT AND THE CANARY but I've always wanted to. For some reason, it's a rarity here. What a shame you can't find a good copy of GHOST BREAKERS. You don't have Netflix over there?

    One of the main things I like about Hope in GHOST BREAKERS, by the way, is that he's not the sniveling coward he plays in a lot of his other films. I mean, he's still leery of action, but he has his hero moments, too. Fun.


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