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.
Per usual in these early Abbott and Costello movies, the plot is mostly just a bit of nonsense upon which to hang several of the boys' finely-honed routines, patented schtick and slapstick business. The movie opens with Chuck Murray (Abbott) and Ferdinand "Ferdy" Jones (Costello) trying to make a go of it as fill-in waiters at a posh restaurant and nightclub. Needless to say, things don't go so well, as Ferdy makes one cock-up after another, under the baleful eye of a snooty maitre-d' (Mischa Auer). An example of the quick, witty dialogue woven throughout the movie occurs in this early exchange between Ferdy and his first customers: an attractive young gold digger and her grouchy sugar daddy:
Ferdy: Good evening, folks. Want to start off with some soup?"
Old man: I don't like soup.
Ferdy: Gimme a reason.
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 whole party are forced to hole up in the creepy old building during the rainswept night. No sooner does the shady Charlie start searching for Matson's hidden loot than a big pair of hands sneaks out of a hole in the wall and strangles him. This is just the first in a whole slew of seemingly supernatural shenanigans that ensue, nearly all of them witnessed solely by the increasingly put-upon and hysterical Ferdy. It's left to the group to get to the bottom of the mysterious goings-on, before they all end up stiffs like Charlie...
Abbott and Costello were a well-oiled comedy machine by this point in their careers, Bud the snarling straight man and Lou the child-like goofball. The best of their stuff is, in my opinion, still pretty darn funny today. Besides some nice verbal back-and-forth, we also get lots of pratfalls and other great physical comedy from Lou, whose rotund appearance belies an impressive speed and agility. Some aspects of the pair's style has worn less well, however - I for one get tired of the endless rough manhandling and slapping around Bud dishes out to Lou, at which the latter barely utters a peep in protest. Watching Lou's first-class pummeling of a bunch of gangsters later in the film made me wish he'd serve Bud back in similar fashion, but he's mostly content to remain a wussy old pussycat around his bossy pal. That said, watching Lou freak out seeing a candle move of its own accord, or finding a ghostly figure in bed beside him, and his resulting reaction (huffing, whistling, stammering, then eventually resorting to panicky shrieks of "Chuck! Chuck!") gets me laughing every time.
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.
Opinionated ramblings about new and old movies (mostly old, as that's the way I like 'em!)
Blogs of Note
Stuart Galbraith IV's World Cinema Paradise
Movie Morlocks (TCM's Classic Movie Blog)
50 Westerns from the 50s
Riding the High Country
Tipping My Fedora
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Classic TV and Film Cafe
Just a Cineast
She Blogged By Night
Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema
Out of the Past -
A Classic Film Blog
Pretty Sinister Books
They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
In So Many Words...
Greenbriar Picture Shows
My Love of Old Hollywood
Tales of the Easily Distracted
Another Old Movie Blog
Lasso the Movies
Kevin's Movie Corner
Films From Beyond the Time Barrier
Carole & Co.
Rupert Pupkin Speaks
Vienna's Classic Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
ClassicBecky's Brain Food
Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed below, to be informed of new postings!