The Ghost Breakers
Written by Walter DeLeon
Based on a play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard
Directed by George Marshall
I am a big fan of Bob Hope comedies, from the Road movies to the My Favorite movies to just the random wacky situations that are send ups of popular genres. Hope regularly brings the entertainment, sometimes just enlivening dull scripts and sometimes making classic cinema.
The Ghost Breakers is a murder mystery and a haunted house movie, but much of that is just setting for events to happen that Bob Hope and Willie Best can react to. A huge mansion in Cuba is gifted to a distant relative, and she returns in the midst of murder and deception. Featuring a Scooby-Doo-style plot by the villains to scare the owner away to seize the treasure in the house for themselves.
“You look like a blackout in a blackout” – Bob Hope to Willie Best
The Ghost Breakers is a product of it’s time, with Willie Best as Larry’s black man servant Alex. Alex isn’t really Shuckin’ and jivin’, but he plays up being the scared character during the haunted house scenes. His character is not a moron, he continually saves Larry and Bob Hope has spoken very highly of Willie Best. It is hardly as embarrassing as other black roles from the 1940s, but not the kind of role you’d hold up as a good example.
A bit more disturbing is the portrayal of the housekeeper at the mansion, the old black woman (who is a blackfaced Virginia Brissac) and her son the zombie. Not the brain eating zombies, but old school voodoo zombies. Sure, this is Cuba and not Haiti, but we’re in the era when no one bothered to keep track of which Afro-Caribbean country was which.
Noble Johnson plays the zombie. He’s another black entertainer of old Hollywood who had quite his own storied career. As we briefly mentioned when we covered the Oscar Micheaux film The Girl From Chicago, Noble Johnson and his brother George Perry Johnson founded their own studio in 1916 to produce black films for black audiences. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company created films where blacks were depicted as actual people and not the racist caricatures found in mainstream cinema. Though not the first black owned film company, it is among the first. Their first picture was the now lost 1916 short The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition, and the company lasted until 1921 (Johnson resigned a year earlier to focus on his acting career.) Johnson had parts in the classic films The Mummy, King Kong, and Son of Kong.
Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard teamed up once prior in The Cat and the Canary (1939), and would reteam again in Nothing But the Truth (1941), along with Willie Best. Paulette Goddard not afraid to show some skin, constantly stripping to her nightie, and later wearing a swimsuit. She even has part of her dress rip off when being chased by the zombie. At this time she was married to Charlie Chaplin.
This is the third (of four) film adaptations of the play “The Ghost Breaker” by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard. The first two – 1914 (by Cecil B. DeMille) and 1922 – were both silent productions and are considered lost. The fourth was George Marshall directing again in 1953’s Scared Stiff with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (Bob Hope made a cameo appearance!) Bob Hope liked this role (which was heroic instead of his usual cowardly roles) and reprised it in two separate radio versions of the play, both on Screen Director’s Playhouse (a 30 minute version in 1949, and a 60 minute version in 1951)