The third out of four films Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made for Universal in 1941, Hold That Ghost is the duo's first foray into spooky territory, and finds the former vaudevillians in fine fettle, pretty much at the height of their physical and comedic powers. Alas, it also features that bane of the 30s and 40s comedy film - unnecessary musical numbers. The 86 minute film wastes nearly 10 minutes of that screentime by bookending performances by annoying "talk-singing" bandleader Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters. The sisters are terrific, but seem shoehorned in, mainly because they previously featured in A & C's first film, Buck Privates, and that was such a smash that the studio apparently figured it was best to keep to the same formula. Luckily the songs are pretty painless and it isn't long before the movie proper kicks into gear.
Ferdy: Good evening, folks. Want to start off with some soup?"
Old man: I don't like soup.
Ferdy: Gimme a reason.
Young woman (cooing in a little girl voice):
I don't have to give you a reason, other than I don't want any soup.
Well, maybe the young lady'd like to have some soup.
She doesn't like soup either.
It's good soup.
I don't care how good it is, we don't want any soup!
Somebody's gotta eat the soup!
Well, feed it to the chef.
The chef's all souped up now.
Daddy, I think I will have some soup.
You'll do nothing of the kind.
After all, don't talk back to your father.
I'm not her father!
Well, why don't you let the young lady have some soup, then? Why don't you let her?
All right, give her some soup, give me some soup...give us both some soup!
I'm sorry, but we ran outta soup.
Fired from their waiter jobs, Chuck and Ferdy resume work as service station attendants, and soon wind up in the same car as gangster Moose Matson (William B. Davidson) during a high-speed chase and shootout with the police. Matson is shot and killed, and to their surprise the boys learn that, through a peculiarity in Matson's will, they've become sole inheritors of his estate, a deserted, run-down old tavern. This doesn't sit well with many of Matson's gangland cronies, who know he's got a fat wad of ill-gotten cash secreted somewhere on the premises. Matson's crooked lawyer (Russell Hicks) and rival mobster Charlie Smith (Mark Lawrence) plan to "take care" of Chuck and Ferdy by stranding them at the old tavern, but get a monkey wrench thrown in their scheme when a few extra passengers tag along. These include the lovely Norma (Evelyn Ankers), the bookish yet studly Doctor Jackson (Richard Carlson, later the he-manly hero of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, amongst others) and a lanky radio show "screamer" named Camille (Joan Davis).
The plot is a pretty flimsy affair, with more than its fair share of holes and dead-end subplots, and director Arthur Lubin (of Francis the Talking Mule, Rhubarb and Mr. Ed fame), while deft at handling comedy, is less so at the creep factor, and doesn't manage to drum up quite the same level of eerie atmosphere that made similar "old dark house" comedies like The Cat and the Canary or The Ghost Breakers so memorable, but the film pretty much flies by (other than those interminable, aforementioned musical numbers) with all sorts of action and laughs along the way. The supporting cast is great, with fine work not only from Ankers and Carlson as the "straight" romantic couple, but Joan Davis pretty well going toe-to-toe with Costello and holding her own (their very funny dance routine together is a comic highlight). The movie also features the wonderful Mischa Auer, plus an amusing cameo by Curly replacement Stooge, Shemp Howard, as a soda jerk.
The next time Abbott and Costello ventured into the horror realm would be in 1948's beloved, hilarious Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein. Hold That Ghost isn't in the same league, but it's just the ticket if you're looking for something light, breezy and with a whiff of a haunted house vibe, to get you in the Halloween spirit.
DVD Note: The above screen caps were taken from Universal's The Best of Abbott & Costello, Vol. 1, the 2 disc, 8 film set released in 2004. This earlier version is minus the commentary track on Hold That Ghost which appears on the later Complete Universal Pictures Collection, the most comprehensive and affordable way to go for the A & C completist.