Thursday, May 31, 2012

GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE (1943)

RATING: ** out of ****

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PLOT: Mugs (Leo Gorcey) and the gang are excited to help Glimpy (Huntz Hall) prepare for his sister Betty’s (Ava Gardner) wedding. They form a chorus to sing at the ceremony, give Glimpy instructions on his duties as “best man,” and volunteer to tidy up the country house that the newlyweds plan to call home. Except… this being the East Side Kids… they “tidy” up the wrong house! A house that just happens to be headquarters to Bela Lugosi and his nest of Nazi spies! Before the gang discovers this, they encounter some spooky scares that have them believing the rumors that the house is haunted. Can the East Side Kids prevail against the enemy agents without scaring themselves silly in the process?!

REVIEW: This film marks a bit of a transition. It is the third East Side Kids film (after “Boys of the City” and “Spooks Run Wild”) in the “horror-comedy” genre and technically the last. I qualify it with the word “technically” because this particular film is the biggest departure yet from the East Sde Kids/Little Tough Guys formula and anticipates the tone that would permeate the majority of films in the follow-up Bowery Boys series to come. The focus is squarely on comedy in “Ghosts on the Loose.” The “Kids” are more of a group of friends who hang around with each other and share misadventures as opposed to being considered “juvenile delinquents” (something that actually sets the plot of “Spooks Run Wild” into motion – not that that the Kids don’t pull off some dubious and downright unlawful shenanigans in this film). There may still be some gangsters afoot for the boys to foil but they’re less directly involved with shady types (many of the earlier entries had healthy doses of drama where one or some of the kids could get entrenched with the wrong crowd – a typical plot being becoming a boxer for the mob).

The film just escapes “horror-onable mention” status, primarily on the strength of Bela Lugosi once again co-starring with the boys. There isn’t much time spent in the “haunted house,” and the moments that do exist are a bit underwhelming but the actors playing the East Side Kids display so much energy and comic invention that the scenes play better than they must have read on paper. Again, this is the team in transition, really going after the laughs with gusto and developing a flair for comedy that would come to full fruition in the ensuing “Bowery Boys” series.

The plot is a bit convoluted and not worth much more than a passing mention. As a result this will be one of the shorter “Scared Silly” reviews, as I concentrate more on the scares and ensuing comedy. As it stands, here are the basics: Young lovers Betty and Jack get married. Bride’s brother Glimpy and his pals (the “East Side Kids”) decide to spruce up their new digs. Through a comedy of errors, the group starts tidying up the wrong house. The Elwoods, former owners of the house warn the newlyweds that there are strange happenings at the house next door and they call the police. While the East Side Kids are “tidying” they encounter all manner of spooky incidents common to “old dark house” thrillers. Undaunted, they soldier forth discovering hidden passageways, and worse, a printing press used to print Nazi propaganda! Assuming the press belongs to the previous owners but worried that Glimpy’s sister’s husband will be held accountable, the boys move the press to the alternate house (which is the real house). This leads to a series of further misunderstandings with the printing press being moved back and forth between houses more than indiscreet lovers being moved between bedrooms in a standard screwball comedy farce. Confused yet? As I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, the plot really doesn’t matter much. Consider the mention to have passed!

Now onto the comedy and scares.

The film treats us to an early example of what would become a trademark for Leo Gorcey in his later Bowery Boys incarnation as Slip Mahoney: malapropisms. It kicks right in as the picture opens with the East Side Kids warbling “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.” The gang are rehearsing so they can perform the song at Glimpy’s sister’s wedding. Mugs is not impressed by the off-key cutups, and goes down the line criticizing them with such gems as “you’re dimming a little on your diminuendo,” “your moderato obligato was just a little bit staccato” and “it’s a little bit on the stinkato side.”

Gorcey’s Mugs character peppers the film throughout with similar malapropisms and together with Huntz Hall displays a unique (mis)understanding of life, such as when the duo discuss that the suburbs are a place filled with poor people and no running water.

The opening scene also establishes the hierarchy that would become standard in the later pictures: Leo Gorcey’s character is clearly the leader with Huntz Hall a close second-in-command. The other kids don’t have as much of a pecking order in this but just like in the previous East Side Kids/Bowery Boys outing, “Sunshine” Sammy Morrison as Scruno probably gets the next best showcase, no doubt due to his facility with scare takes (including a great “going stiff” take – when Scruno is certain a painting has come to life he straightens up and and falls back onto couch).

East Side Kids Ghosts on the Loose

The “Kids” are real loose here, ad-libbing all over the place and having a ball. The script allows them to stretch and when it does give them business, it’s true to their characters as good-natured hooligans. A good example is when they rig a string to the back of the flower truck so that a festive wreath will just “accidentally” fall out. Another example has them borrowing a corpse’s suit from the undertaker for Glimpy to wear at the wedding! These gags are reminiscent of the early comic book adventures of Archie Andrews, Jughead Jones and their friends. When I was editing the “Archie Americana Series” of trade paperbacks collecting vintage Archie stories, gags like Jughead getting poison ivy-laced flowers from the cemetery for Archie to use as corsages at the prom were standard fare (In fact only a year separates the above-mentioned scene from ARCHIE COMICS #1 and this movie’s release).

Bela Lugosi is back for his second and final outing with the Kids, and sad to say, it’s a wasted opportunity. At least in “Spooks Run Wild,” even though he was a red herring Bela got to play a mysterious magician whose ability to scare the Kids was understandable. Here, as the Nazi leader he’s not much more than an Eastern European hood, He looks disconcerted and sneers a lot, taking every chance he can to belittle and berate his henchman. This is either a plus or minus depending upon the individual viewer. I admit that for me it’s always fun to hear Lugosi spit out lines like, “Idiots! Imbeciles, all of you!,” ”Some more of your bungling you stupid fool!” and “Why do I keep such idiots around me?!” Still, I’d trade the spine-tingling boogeyman version of Bela any day over the insult-hurling gangster. It’s not a total loss; Lugosi does get a couple moments in which to “scare,” including a rather infamous slip of the tongue that somehow slipped by the censors (more on that to come).

Speaking of spine-tingling, while it takes its time getting there the film does ultimately deliver some scare comedy. The scares are mild at best but the freewheeling Kids tackle the scenes with enough energy and playfulness to put them over.

Some of the typical horror-comedy trappings to be found in “Ghosts on the Loose”:.

• When the gang arrive at the property (or what they think is the property), it’s the dead of night with dark shadows everywhere, evocative of a graveyard. This foreboding feeling continues inside the house, until they flip the light switch.
• The picture inside the frame rotates out so a real person can peer through. The bad guys use this to scare and confuse the Kids (one moment it’s the real painting; the next moment it’s a real person). It’s the type of gag that only really works in black & white.
• The first one to spot the gang is Minerva Urecal – not only is she a mainstay of horror and horror-comedy films, but she enters the room through a revolving bookcase fa├žade – another horror-comedy staple!
• Disembodied voices emenate from a hidden loudspeaker, laughing, making comments and echoing the boys’ dialogue like parrots.

As mentioned above, a comedy of errors and misunderstandings ensues revolving around the printing press. Ultimately the Kids and the newlyweds compare notes and call the cops. Of course when the cops arrive, the printing press is gone, spirited away by the Nazis. This happens several times and in the process of the Nazi gang trying to cover their tracks, Mugs and Glimpy are captured. Luckily their loyal friends rescue them and Bela and his band of baddies are carted away.

None of the plots, subplots, scares, gags or jokes ever gels into a satisfying whole, however, there are also a few oddball elements that make “Ghosts on the Loose” a curio (beyond the fact that it is the last film Lugosi did for Monogram and his second and final teaming with the East Side Kids):

• Beautiful starlet Ava Gardner, on loan from MGM makes an early appearance here in the incongruously unbelievable role of goofy Huntz Hall's sister!!!
• When the Kids fib to get a police escort for their betrothed friends, Glimpy refers to a fictional gang as “the Katzman mob” – a reference to the film’s producer, Sam Katzman.
• Two notorious moments involve the “s-word” curse, which somehow slipped past the censors. First, when Scruno sticks a feather duster into Lugosi’s nose (Lugosi is spying on the Kids from a picture frame), Lugosi sneezes, but the conventional “Ah-choo” is clearly an “Ah, sh$#!” Later, Glimpy tells one of the other Kids to “Sh$# your mouth!”
• Even more infamous is the film’s closing gag: after the Nazis are hauled away, it’s revealed that everyone must be quarantined for catching German measles, represented by swastikas all over the actor’s faces. Clearly this was before the full scope of war crime atrocities committed by the Nazis was revealed. It is hard for some modern audiences to take with the hindsight of history, but for contemporary World War 2 audiences not yet aware of the horrors of the Nazis, it was just another way to get them rallied toward a common goal.

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For all of the Kids’ efforts and goodwill, “Ghosts on the Loose” simply can’t match their previous Bela horror-comedy, “Spooks Run Wild.” This is due more to the topical wartime script and uninteresting supporting characters though. When the Kids are let loose with the familiar scare gags, they make it all work. More importantly, we can clearly see the seeds planted here that would lead to such Bowery Boys horror-comedy classics to come as "Spook Busters," "Master Minds" and "The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters."

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Our old friend Snub Pollard, the classic silent comedian last seen here in my review of “Grab the Ghost,” makes a brief, silent cameo here as the flower truck driver. Unfortunately it’s just a basic role – Snub is given no funny business to do by the script nor does he invent any.

Also in the film is Blache Payson as Mrs. Elwood. Payson has the distinction of being New York City’s first-ever police woman! As if that weren’t enough, she also appeared alongside some of movie comedy’s greatest names including Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon, the Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, the Little Rascals, Abbott & Costello and Olsen & Johnson.

BEST VISUAL GAGS:

Glimpy’s suit collar doesn’t fit and the gang’s attempts to loosen it only end up tightening it!

Glimpy gets so scared he jumps far into the air so he can cower in-between antlers atop a stuffed moose’s head!

BEST DIALOGUE:

The afore-mentioned malapropisms from Gorcey’s Mugs character, sprinkled liberally throughout the film constitute the majority of good dialogue. Still, there are a few other choice exchanges:

MUGS: Why don’t you use some diplomacy?
GLIMPY: I got my diploma when I graduated from school.
MUGS: When’d you graduate – kindergarten?
GLIMPY: Nah, I skipped kindergarten – I was too old!

MUGS: Glimpy, you can sweep!
GLIMPY: Thanks, chief (runs to the couch and pulls up the covers).
MUGS: What are you doing?
GLIMPY: You told me I could sleep!
MUGS: Not sleep… SWEEP! Now get up and go to work!
GLIMPY: What’re you gonna’ do?
MUGS: I gotta’ think – I’m the supervisor!

MUGS: I’m gonna’ send you to an optimist to get those eyes examined!

MUGS: You’re imagining things – it’s all in your mind!
BELA (disembodied, creepy off-camera laughter): Ha ha ha ha ha ha!
SCRUNO: Now who’s mind is that in?!

MUGS: There’s nothing to be scared of!
BELA (disembodied voice): That’s what you think!

BUY THE FILM: “Ghsots on the Loose” is in the public domain, and as such can be found as a free streaming video on several websites, a video download and as a DVD from several manufacturers. You can order a DVD that presents the film as a double-feature with the other East Side Kids/Bela Lugosi team-up "Spooks Run Wild" here:



FURTHER READING: There are several books out relating to the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys troupe. The one that focuses specifically on the movies is “The Films of the Bowery Boys” by David Hayes and Brent Walker. It is out-of-print but you can find it from second-hand booksellers. The authors also have a site that acts as an addendum to the original publication, which you can access by clicking here.

Two more recent books that I haven't read yet but that come highly recommended are "From Broadway to the Bowery: A History and Filmography of the Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys Films" by Leonard Getz and "Hollywood’s Made-to-Order Punks: The Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys" by Richard Roat.

Another great book is “Poverty Row Horrors” by film historian Tom Weaver. Also out-of-print, it is an in-depth evaluation of the major horror-themed releases from Monogram, PRC and Republic from 1940 through 1946. As such, it features reviews of several horror-comedies, including three from the East Side Kids. Weaver is no fan of horror-comedies, but the book is essential for the great background information he offers as well as first-hand interviews. Not to mention the fact that it features reviews of ten Bela Lugosi films!

WATCH THE FILM: …or at least parts of it by enjoying the trailer right here:

3 comments:

  1. Reader Gary Rafferty sent the following comment via email:

    Paul,

    Just read your review of "Ghosts on the Loose." As usual, you were very fair to a film that's not exactly a classic. The East Side Kids don't rate as highly with me as do The Dead End Kids or the Bowery Boys, but they do have their moments. Of course, the (minimally) spooky aspects of "Ghosts" helps this one a good deal for me.

    I've long suspected that Leo Gorcey's malaprop shtick was "inspired" by Ed Gardner's grammar-challenged character of Archie the Manager on the popular "Duffy's Tavern" radio show.

    As side note, don't you think it's odd that there was never a Bowery Boys comic book, especially in the Boys' humor-oriented 1950s heyday? I have a (never substantiated) theory that Gorcey and his co-producer agent were approached with a deal, but wanted too much of a percentage. I suppose we'll never know.

    I always look forward to new stuff on your site!

    Best,

    Gary Rafferty

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  2. Actually, when Lugosi is sneezing, he's saying "Hapci!" (pronounced "hop-shee"), which is the Hungarian way of sneezing. I don't know where the "swearing" rumor began, but it's 100% false.

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  3. Interesting, Dr. Watson. The rumor of course began because everyone who isn't Hungarian is hearing something that sounds like cursing (which I'm sure you can understand). Tom Weaver made particular note of it in his book, "Poverty Row Horrors" in addition to the Glimpy slip, so that has kept it alive.

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