Friday, November 13, 2009
THE LIVE GHOST (1934)
RATING: **** out of ****
PLOT: A tough sea captain has to shanghai a crew because everyone is convinced his ship is haunted. Laurel & Hardy, enjoying a day off by fishing on the pier are approached by the captain who offers them a “dollar a head” for each crew member they snag. Of course, we’re talking about Stan & Ollie here – and as long as they’re on the job you can be sure that they will get themselves shanghaied as well! This is most inopportune as now they’re surrounded by several angry men who aren’t thrilled that they’re stuck on a “ghost ship.” One angry crew member says as much, but is immediately laid flat by the captain, who threatens that if anyone mentions the word “ghost” to him again, he’ll twist his head around so that “when you’re walking north, you’ll be facing south!” Furthermore, the captain vows that as long as Laurel & Hardy are on the ship, they are under his protection and not to be harmed. Complications arise when the captain asks Stan & Ollie to watch over the ship’s drunk. Before too long, the pair think they’ve accidentally killed the drunk… and when he resurfaces doused in white paint, they’re convinced they’ve seen a ghost!
REVIEW: Laurel & Hardy are my favorite comedy team of all time, and two of the reasons are the subtle nuances their characters contain as well as their carefully constructed, methodical build-ups to gags, often piled one on top of the other, leading to one explosive payoff after another. However, these attributes don't appeal to all modern-day audiences. Many find the team "slow" and prefer the more rapid-fire pace of Abbott & Costello or The Three Stooges.
"The Live Ghost" provides the best of all worlds. While it retains many of the lovely subtle character touches that make Stan & Ollie so special, its pace is a bit quicker, a foreshadow of things to come for the team when the studios they worked for in the 1940s insisted they quicken their pace a la then box office kings, Abbott & Costello. It is one of the fastest-moving of Laurel & Hardy’s two reel (approximately 20 minutes) shorts.
For Abbott & Costello fans, there is the madcap scene where Stan and Ollie scam the saloon patrons to help the “ghost ship” captain shanghai a crew. This con plays out similarly to a Bud & Lou routine, though of course with more facial expressions and arm and hand flourishes than snappy banter. The scam works like this: Stan bets the unsuspecting drinkers that they can’t hold an egg in their mouth without breaking it. This is a bet they can’t refuse – surely anyone can place an egg in their mouth without breaking it. The surprise comes when Stan clonks said challengers on the chin, causing the egg to break! The inevitable chase out the saloon door ensues, where Ollie is waiting to bash the victim on the head with a frying pan.
Later in the film, there are more foreshadows of Bud & Lou in a scene where Stan & Ollie are convinced they’ve accidentally shot the souse they’ve been charged with keeping on the boat and out of the bar. Little do they know he’s put some luggage under the covers while sneaking off to the saloon. The situation is exacerbated when, in his alcohol-induced stupor, the drunk falls into a tray of white wash. This leads to one of the most hysterical and perfectly timed scare takes ever committed to film… a masterful double take from Stan Laurel, who perfectly in character stares blankly at first and without emotion at the all-white drunk… then as if awoken out of a deep sleep, shoots his head back up in sheer and utter panic. Surely, the ghost of the man he and Ollie “killed” has come back to seek vengeance!
Stan isn’t the only one who registers fear on a grand scale. Hardy’s expressive face also conveys the terror the duo face. Hardy gives his usual overall masterful performance, essaying emotions including frustration, agitation, disbelief and fear with his putty face. There is also a lot of great Hardy body language in this short, from his fluttery mannerisms when trying to con the crew to his wobbly quakes and quivers as the ghostly going-ons unfold.
The film definitely has more than its share of black humor. It’s interesting to note how differently the black humor plays when delivered by naïve men-children like Laurel & Hardy as opposed to the more worldly-wise Abbott & Costello, who were to tread similar ground in 1949’s “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff." It’s more palpable in the Laurel & Hardy situation while more farcical in the Abbott & Costello scenario. Since both teams are masters at what they do, they make the dark material work to their advantage, producing laughter out of fear.
“The Live Ghost”’s settings and the way they’re shot add to the macabre feel. Most horror-comedies take place in a haunted house, creepy castle or terrifying tomb. Like the Hugh Herbert/Allen Jenkins film “Sh! The Octopus” that would follow three years later, “The Live Ghost” manages to make seafaring environs – a dock, the saloon on the mainland and the “ghost ship” itself suitably spooky. Dark shadows and a foreboding mist in the air complete the cinematographer’s task.
Laurel, Hardy and the cinematography aren’t the only stars of “The Live Ghost,” however. The film is enhanced by the presence of some outstanding supporting actors, including several who could be deemed “regulars” in the Laurel & Hardy universe. Imposing Walter Long as the gruff sea captain could scare with a scowl and a single eyebrow raised. He appeared in several films with Stan & Ollie, most notably “Going Bye Bye” where he played a convict put away by Stan & Ollie’s testimony (“Aren’t you going to hang him?,” asks an incredulous Stan as the verdict is read). The fun begins when he escapes from the police! Average guy Charlie Hall could go from cheerful to cranky in a heartbeat. He appeared in dozens of classic Laurel & Hardy films, including the only Laurel & Hardy sequel, “Tit for Tat” and its predecessor, “Them Thar Hills.” Hall also worked with Chaplin, Wheeler & Woolsey, W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and many more comedians from Hollywood’s golden age. Arthur Houseman portrayed the perennial drunk – whenever a film needed a comical drunk for surefire laughs, the role went to either Houseman or another Laurel & Hardy co-star, Jack Norton. If you think Houseman’s funny in “The Live Ghost,” check out the feature “Our Relations,” where he gets stuck inside a phone booth with Stan & Ollie! Last on the scene in “Live Ghost” but still making an impression is Mae Busch. The versatile blonde actress, an ingénue in silent films became a major comic presence in 1930s two-reelers. Mae could play a shrewish wife, sexy and sassy independent woman and off-the-deep-end loon with equal aplomb.
A very well-constructed plot, “The Live Ghost” delivers on its premise in spades. And like most Laurel & Hardy classics, while the punchline is inevitable and devoid of surprise, the journey to the final gag is a sheer delight. The captain is serious about his threat to all that if anyone mentions the word “ghost,” he’ll twist his head around so that “when you’re walking north, you’ll be facing south!” Of course, it is Stan and Ollie who are convinced they’ve seen the walking dead… and at film’s end, they certainly do end up seeing him north as they’re facing south!
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
STAN (after he and Ollie load the sack they think contains the drunk with coal, and Ollie tells him the drunk will probably go to “the other place” instead of heaven):
Do you have to take your own coal when you go to the other place?
Also, Stan declaring that he’s going to have “ghost trouble” all night.
BEST GAGS: The egg-in-mouth scam, Stan’s amazing double take, Ollie reprimanding Stan… or rather, he thinks the person lying next to him is Stan but it’s really “the ghost!”
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Pete Gordon… who most Laurel & Hardy fans know even if they don’t know his name, as he played the “Cat” (covered in full furry costume) who played the fiddle and chased after Mickey Mouse (portrayed by a monkey!) in “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”). Here Gordon plays a Chinese cook.
WATCH THE FILM: It’s actually coming up to that time of the year when “The Live Ghost” can be seen on TV. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s shown in a horribly “colorized” print following another great but equally horribly colorized Laurel & Hardy film, the aforementioned “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” Anyway, various local TV stations across the nation annually run these two films for the Thanksgiving and sometimes Christmas holidays.
BUY THE FILM: I’m not going to take the time here to talk about how the bulk of the library of classic Laurel & Hardy films has been mishandled by its US rights holders, keeping the majority of their gems off the DVD market. I’ll just say that if you still have a working VHS player you can get “The Live Ghost” and a few other classic Laurel & Hardy horror-comedies together in one videotape collection called THE LAUREL & HARDY SPOOKTACULAR. And if you really want to have the best of Stan and Ollie on DVD, then you’ll need to get an ALL-REGION DVD PLAYER and order the 21-disc DVD Collection from England. You can buy both the VHS and the DVD collection here:
FURTHER READING: There are so many great Laurel & Hardy books out there that it’s a shame to pare down the list, but as far as “The Live Ghost” is concerned there are two that stand out. One is a handsome coffee table book simply called "Laurel & Hardy" by John McCabe and Richard W. Bann that I borrowed from my local library on nearly a continuous basis as a child. The book is loaded with both production and promotional stills from nearly all of Laurel & Hardy’s shorts and features, with a synopsis of each film and in some cases interesting background information. If more detailed background information is more your thing, then you’ll want to move directly to Randy Skretvedt’s essential, impeccably researched “Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies.” Both books have entries on “The Live Ghost,” as does this entry which was part of a fantastic overview of the majority of Laurel & Hardy’s horror-comedies from the Missing Link website.
There’s no trailer for this as it’s a short, but clips from this short are sprinkled throughout this fan-made collage of scenes from spooky Laurel & Hardy films. You can see shots from “The Live Ghost” at 0:19-0:21 (the soused man Houseman becomes a doused man!), 0:36-0:39 (Houseman stumbles about), 1:06-1:09 (the beginning of Stan’s amazing double-take – although the second half of the take isn’t shown here!), 1:33-1:40 (a ghostly guest in the bed!), and 2:07-2:10 (a fast Phantom!) Watch the montage here:
TOMORROW: OUR COUNTDOWN TO THE BORIS KARLOFF BLOGATHON BEGINS WITH ALL SORTS OF RARE BORIS GOODIES, FOLLOWED ON NOVEMBER 23rd BY OUR FIRST KARLOFF ENTRY, “YOU’LL FIND OUT” (and you will, too!)…