THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940) Reviews and overview

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‘Love and laughter with’
The Ghost Breakers is a 1940 American comedy horror film directed by George Marshall. The film was adapted by Walter DeLeon from the 1909 play ‘The Ghost Breaker’ by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard.

The Paramount production stars Bob Hope (That Little Monster; The Cat and the Canary 1939), Paulette Goddard (The Cat and the Canary, Richard Carlson (TormentedIt Came from Outer SpaceThe Creature from the Black Lagoon; The Maze; The Magnetic Monster; Lights Out TV series; Hold That Ghost), Paul Lukas, Willie Best (The Smiling Ghost; The Monster Walks), Pedro De Cordoba, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Anthony Quinn, Tom Dugan, Paul Fix, Lloyd Corrigan and Jack Norton.

It was remade by George Marshall as Scared Stiff in 1953, a vehicle for comedy team Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

In a Manhattan radio studio, a broadcast is being made by crime reporter Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope)—”Larry” to his friends, as well as his enemies, who are many in number among the local underworld.

Listening in on the broadcast is pretty brunette Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard), whose high-rise hotel room goes dark as a violent thunderstorm causes a citywide blackout. In the near darkness, a knock comes at her door. It is Mr. Parada (Paul Lukas), a suave, vaguely sinister Cuban solicitor. He delivers the deed to her inherited plantation and mansion, “Castillo Maldito”, on a small island off the coast of Cuba. Despite Parada’s discouragement, she impulsively decides to travel to Cuba by ship to inspect her new property…

“The acting is decent, which isn’t surprising given the cast, and the cinematography is strong, emulating the Universal horror classics from the preceding decade. There’s one scene late in the movie where a zombie stalks Mary within Castillo Maldito and it’s wonderfully handled. Another character trying to climb out of a glass coffin is another spooky highlight. This is no horror movie though, it’s firmly a comedy first and an old dark house mystery second.” Apocalypse Later

“Outdoing even The Cat and the Canary, Marshall lays the atmosphere on thick. The approach to Castillo Maldito is undertaken under broiling skies, with a swarm of bats to greet Hope and Best at the entrance. Inside, louvred doors spray spindly shadows across a monumental staircase and Don Santiago rises in a wisp of ectoplasm from a gilt-edged ottoman.” Jonathan Rigby, American Gothic, Signum Books, 2017

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“For reasons of political correctness, contemporary critics tend to be a little hard on The Ghost Breakers, principally for the zingers Bob Hope bounces off the head of Willie Best. Some of these are beyond the pale but most of the jokes are good natured and Best gives it back as much as he takes it.” Arbogast on Film

“While the film is dated and sometimes uncomfortable in its political incorrectness – especially its characterization of Hope’s black servant (Willie Best) – there are a couple of effectively eerie scenes and Hope and Goddard are excellent.” Glenn Kay, Zombies Movies: The Ultimate Guide, Chicago Review Press, 2008

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“As director, Marshall weaves a marvellously evocative atmosphere, from the opening thunderstorm above New York which carries an almost Lovecraftian sense of foreboding, to the scenes where his camera creeps through the cobwebbed catacombs that lurk beneath Castillo Maldito.” The Spinning Image

“The scenes at Castillo Maldito are the film’s highlight, and Marshall milks them for all they are worth, with specters, an organ that plays itself, secret passages, cobwebs on cobwebs, and one stunning moment when Goddard descends the staircase dressed in her ancestors black gown to the shock of zombie Johnson. There are some genuine frissons in these scenes…” Mystery File

“The movie is a perfect example of the blending of genres, with the horror taking a backseat to the laughs, and being used almost as a set-piece more than anything else.  The ghosts, the zombies and the castle were there to just seemingly further the story along and get the two main characters to end up together in the end…” The Telltale Mind

“The emphasis is first on the humor, second on the characters, third on the mystery, and finally on the ghosts. All of it mixes wonderfully. A mood of mischievous tension pervades the film one scene into the next, as the plot surprises us with intrigue as well as laughs.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers, Lulu, 2012

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“The film is lifted considerably by Bob Hope, tossing off a barrage of one-liners with great comic timing. With Hope on top form, director George Marshall keeps the film snappy and fast paced. This results in some wonderfully goofy and nonsensical scenes […] As with many of the films of the era, there is a racist element that kind of takes you aback today.” Moria

” …one of the funniest horror comedies of all time […] Though mainly concerned with ghosts (and the various human villains – and accompanying red herrings – skulking about ), the story also tosses out a few voodoo bones in the form of a “death ouanga”…” Bryan Senn, Drums of Terror: Voodoo in the Cinema, Midnight Marquee Press, 1998

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“Sprightly comedy thriller, an agreeable blend of wisecracks and thrills on very similar lines to the same team’s earlier success, The Cat and the Canary. Production excellent.” Howard Maxford, The A – Z of Horror Films, Batsford, 1996

“This is considered to be among Bob Hope’s finest pictures, and the direction is smooth and the lines delivered flawlessly, but black actor Willie Best’s jokes about fried chicken are no longer funny, and smarmy Hope isn’t funny to begin with.” Peter Dendle, The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, McFarland, 2001

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” …there is genuine menace in the zombie lurking in a tumbledown shack by the fog-laden pier (Johnson), and real flair in scenes like the discovery of Lukas’ body sinisterly laid out in a coffin. This is probably Hope’s best film.” Phil Hardy (editor), The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

” …The Ghost Breakers is obsessed with issues of race. It certainly seems significant that the castle is located on Black Island, was built by “Cuba’s greatest slave trader” and is haunted by “those lost souls who were starved and murdered in the castle dungeons.” Nor does its come as any surprise to learn that the zombie and his mother are black.” Jamie Russell, Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema

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“First-rate comedy horror with Bob Hope in fine fettle and George Marshall neatly orchestrating the chills and laughs.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook, Batsford, 1982

“It looks as though Paramount has really discovered something: it has found the fabled formula for making an audience shriek with laughter and fright at one and (as the barkers say) the simultaneous time […] It worked out very nicely in The Cat and the Canary last year, and it is working quite as nicely—and even more amusingly, in fact—in The Ghost Breakers…” The New York Times, July 4, 1940

” …solid comedy entertainment that will generate plenty of laughs and roll up some hefty b.o. figures along the way.” Variety, June 12, 1940

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Choice dialogue:
Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope): “Basil Rathbone must be having a party.”
Alex (Willie Best): “Speak up, I can’t hear you in the dark.”
Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope): “You look like a black out in a blackout. If this keeps up, I’ll have to paint you white.”

Film Facts:
The Ghost Breakers was adapted for radio on Screen Directors Playhouse on April 4, 1949. Bob Hope re-created his film role, and Shirley Mitchell starred as Mary. Hope appeared again on the program for an hour-long version on June 14, 1951.

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