Monday, July 6, 2015

Ha, Ha, Boo!

Today, we will lift the cobwebs off old news journals and examine by the flickering light of a tapered, bone-white candle a few of Hollywood's little known scare comedies. 

Funny spooks and strange doings were evident in the earliest days of film.  At first, the film titles could be plain.  Take, for example, a 1907 film in which an old miser wears a sheet and emits hideous noises to convince the townsfolk that a house is haunted.   The film, produced by Independent Moving Pictures Company, was simply called The Haunted House.  But the title of a haunted house comedy became more original and amusing in the coming years.  Possibly the best title belonged to a 1922 short comedy called The House of a Thousand Trembles.  Another amusing title, a play on an old war term, was They Shall Not Pass Out (1929).  An intriguing title was The Unemployed Ghost (1931).  Film Daily reported that Tom Howard starred in this "creepy yarn," which featured "a lot of skeleton and mysterious clutching claw business."  The film’s twist, which was plainly revealed by the title, was that Howard's new ghostly acquaintance bemoans his inability to find work haunting houses.

The 1909 play "The Ghost Breaker," written by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, had a major influence on the "Dark Old House" horror films that became popular in the 1920s.  Many of the genre's familiar elements were present in the story.  An heiress, Maria Theresa, is aided by a Kentucky gentleman, Jarvis, and his valet, Rusty, as she searches an ancient Spanish castle for a hidden family treasure.  The heiress' cousin Carlos, who has also arrived at the castle in search of riches, has his henchmen pretend to be ghosts to frighten away the heiress and her friends.  A suit of armor seems to be possessed by a ghost as it ambles forward and attacks Jarvis with a sword.  But it is soon revealed that the true occupant of the armor is Carlos' chief henchman, Maximo.  Jarvis pushes Maximo through a trapdoor, causing the man to drop to his death in the water below.  According to the Green Book Magazine, Jarvis discovers Carlos "hiding behind a cobwebbed portrait."

Frances Raymond, Walter Hiers and Wallace Reid in The Ghost Breaker (1922).  This was the second of four screen adaptations of the 1909 play. 

Filmmakers never tired of allowing heirs and crooks to be a bigger part of these films than ghosts.  In A Haunted Heiress (1926), a crooked estate lawyer has some shady reason to make an heiress (Edna Marion) believe that her late grandfather's house is haunted.  The Film Daily reported, "The lawyer hires several men to dress up as spooks and scare the girl so she will sell cheap.  But the lawyer's clerk dresses up also as a spook, mingled with the others, and crabs their scheme."

This is what the Film Daily had to say about The Ghost of Folly (1926): "[A] sick, nervous man. . . refuses to sell his property.  The villains take advantage of his nervous condition, take a portable projector and shoot spooky visions into his room from the apertures in the walls and the ceiling.  Alice Day assumes the role of a nurse and, together with her sweetheart, tries in vain to restore peace to the haunted house.  Her two brothers and a Keaton-faced messenger boy aid immensely to the comedy value."  It may not be a coincidence that Eddie Cline, the co-director of Keaton’s Three Ages (1923), was the director of this film.

Thelma Todd and Flora Finch in The Haunted House (1928).

Various heirs rummage a dead millionaire's mansion to find his fortune in The Haunted House (1928).  The film's comic highlights were mostly provided by Keystone veteran Chester Conklin.  In Cold Shivers (1929), heirs attend the reading of a will, which just happens to occur at a creepy old mansion on a stormy night.

Other plots became equally commonplace.  Take, for instance, the plots of The Ghost in the Garret and The Dollar-a-Year Man, both made in 1921.  In The Ghost in the Garret, an amateur detective played by Dorothy Gish tracks thieves to a spooky old house.  In The Dollar-a-Year Man, Roscoe Arbuckle battles shady kidnappers that he has tracked to a spooky house.  The idea of crooks using a spooky house as a hideout was to be found in many haunted house comedies.

Dorothy Gish flees from Ray Grey in The Ghost in the Garret.
The ghosts come tall in The Ghost in the Garret.

Another standard plot had a newlywed couple experience car trouble in the middle of nowhere and have to spend their honeymoon night in a haunted house.  Films in this genre include The Haunted Honeymoon (1925), Bridal Night (1930), Haunted Honeymoon (1940), The Ghost and the Guest (1943), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986).

A cowardly comedian in a scary situation was always good for a laugh.  Raymond Ganly of Motion Picture News liked that Creeps (1926) featured heroes that were "profoundly dumb" and "susceptible to fears."  Ganly concluded, "The numerous sequences of veiled apparitions, of encounters with dead bodies lying strewn about, and with mysterious figures arrayed in black— all these lend an element of uncanniness which, mixed with a generous assortment of gags, tends to elevate this comedy above the ordinary."

It was bound to happen that many critics would grow weary of scare comedies.  Take, for instance, a Motion Picture News critic who had to review Arthur Lake's 1930 short comedy called Follow Me.  The critic noted, "The plot is stale and Arthur Lake's alleged humorous antics are proving monotonous.  They should persuade him to deviate a little from that long-legged looseness of his, which is no longer funny.  The story concerns the time-worn haunted house gag, so old that it kills whatever angles Director H. Edwards used to put it across."

Alice Day in In the Next Room (1930).
Another critic with Motion Picture News was greatly displeased with First National's In the Next Room (1930).  He wrote, "We thought this type of picture had died with the demise of other unlamented films of the 'My God, what was that?' variety."  A Variety critic was upset about an overly provocative crepe nightgown worn by Alice Day in a key scene of the film.  He wrote, "On the film fare menu, cobwebs and scream are a regular dish though In the Next Room tries to disguise its tastelessness."

A Dangerous Affair (1930)

Despite the repetition, people still responded well to this type of film when it was done right.  The critics were particularly pleased with a 1931 Columbia feature A Dangerous Affair (aka The Ghost Walks).  Motion Picture Herald reported, "An audience at the Fairfax on the Coast, where this latest Columbia Jack Holt-Ralph Graves effort was screened, was actually convulsed with laughter at some points and chilled by thrills at others, indicating real entertainment in the film, a combination of comedy, drama and mystery.  Murder, laughs, thrills, ghosts and all the rest have their share of time on the screen.  The audience apparently enjoyed hugely the comedy lines throughout the film, and was equally taken by the mysterious moments."  The film’s heroes were a police lieutenant (Holt) and a newspaper reporter (Graves) who have become good friends and have combined forces to investigate a murder case.  According to the Film Daily, much of the film’s humor comes from the pair "scrapping good-naturedly."  Film Daily further reported, "Some big stuff comes their way when a clan of fighting heirs gather in a dreary mansion at midnight to read the will of an eccentric relative.  The rest, except for variation in plot, is pretty much along familiar lines.  It is action and comedy pretty nearly all the way, and at the finish Graves gets the girl who inherited all the dough."

Filmmakers tried to disguise their lack of novelty.  The Hal Roach studio had the idea to combine a western comedy with a ghost comedy when they made Prairie Chickens in 1943.  But the critics weren't buying it.  The Film Daily reported, "Prairie Chickens is out-and-out slapstick aimed strictly at kids and adults not particular about the entertainment they get.  This sort of stuff has been done to death on the screen.  Only a person whose risibilities are easily touched will be able to work up more than a smile over the doings in the picture. . . Time has worn some of the tricks in Prairie Chickens pretty thin.  It is one of the film's assets that it runs but 46 minutes." 

Little did these critics know that the haunted house comedy genre was just getting started.  It has never ended and likely never will.



The remake of The Ghostbusters stands today as one of the most highly anticipated films on the 2016 release schedule.  Let's see if just one actor in that film can match Don Knotts' scared act from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966).

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