Wednesday, July 11, 2012

SPOOK TO ME (1945)

RATING: 2 & ¾ out of ****

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PLOT: Andy Clyde takes his ersatz Boy Scouts outfit, the “Bloodhounds” camping for the troop’s one year anniversary. Only trouble is, the campsite is walking distance from an allegedly haunted house! Andy and his valet, Dudley Dickerson investigate and encounter one frightful scare after another. Is the house truly haunted, or are its occupants up to something more sinister?

REVIEW: Here’s another two-reel short subject from Columbia. It’s rather standard in general but a few novel scenes and the seasoned antics of its stars, Andy Clyde and Dudley Dickerson raise it to “above average” status.

Andy Clyde was an interesting comedian in that he had a “shtick.” His persona was one of an old man, equally genial and doddering (and occasionally cantankerous). Clyde played the character going back to silent movie days and was so popular for so long – forty years to be exact – that ultimately he scarcely needed to use his trademarked “old man” makeup! Clyde had character parts in features including several westerns but it was his starring series of two-reel shorts for Columbia that remain most fondly remembered.

Of course, we’ve encountered Dudley Dickerson before here at Scared Silly and we all know how much of a riot he could be.

As so many horror-comedy shorts do, especially those from Columbia, this one hangs its laughs on just the barest of plots. It all begins at the Clyde home where Andy is handing out awards to his “Bloodhounds” troop. This Boy Scouts-like group seems even more survival-oriented than the real Boy Scouts - they practice self-defense and clever escape tactics that would make MacGyver look like an amateur.

The awards scene is brief, no doubt used just to set up how resourceful the kids are. There are some mildly funny touches. As one boy explains how he exterminated a skunk from under a schoolhouse Andy cuts him off mid-sentence. Another kid demonstrates how he stopped a prowler and crunches Andy’s hand so hard that Andy goes flying into the wall!

When Andy announces to the kids that he’s taking them camping as a reward for all their hard work, Andy’s wife provides the next bit of plot-revealing exposition: “That’s fine, Andy – but won’t you be too close to that haunted house,” she asks.

Andy disregards his wife’s comment and the group soldiers forth.

Once at the camping site, it’s the kids that stumble upon the old deserted house and cajole Andy into investigating (it’s hard to tell initially whether the do this for sport or if they really think the house is haunted, but either way soon enough the kids do start to believe it may very well be haunted).

When Andy enters the house he is greeted by people in sheets and suits of armor but he doesn’t notice…. even when he trips into the lap of one of the would-be ghosts. When the armored mystery person throws a battle ax past Andy’s head, he exclaims “bats!,” mistaking it for the winged creature.

Dudley Dickerson enters the film as if he’s always been part of the story (he may have been cut from an earlier scene – or I may have viewed an incomplete print) and we quickly learn that he’s a driver for Andy. In a bit reminiscent of the ending of “Tall, Dark and Gruesome,” Dudley zooms past Andy who slows him down to get an explanation. Dudley explains that his car levitated as he drove by the “haunted house.” Now the kids think it’s haunted for real and call the police.

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Dudley and Andy then explore the house together, and have additional encounters with suits of armor and men in sheets. It’s all very standard stuff, except that both Andy and Dudley are quite hysterical with their animated scare takes.

Things quickly take an upswing as a door behind Andy opens to reveal a skeleton… and Andy reaches back behind him to knock on the skull’s head, not looking at what he’s doing. It’s a very funny little shot helped along by the typical wood block sound effect as Andy pounds away.

As Andy and Dudley back into each other there is more taking off screaming. Andy runs down the stairs and hears a disembodied voice, “This is your last warning, foolish mortals. This is the abode of the spirits. Why are you trespassing here?”

Andy awkwardly tries to answer, “I’m a dog catcher… I mean I’m a bloodhound master!”

“You defile the sacred precincts with your earthly presence. Leave while the breath of life is still in you!”

The next bit follows through on the promise of the skeleton scene by offering something lively and unexpected. A weird animal head is mounted on the wall. It resembles a dog except for its unusual ears begins growling at Andy. Andy is scared at first, but realizing it’s mounted and can’t chase him, Andy begins to fight back. His first move isn’t too bright – taunting the animal by waving his finger by its mouth and whipping it away before it can bite him… until it does! This leads to Andy slapping it in the face as if he’s Moe Howard. It’s obviously a puppet and yet at the same time it’s so odd that it’s simultaneously goofy and creepy.

After Dudley has his own unnerving experience with the disembodied voice, he backs up to the wall where a fellow in a sheet pulls him into a back room.

Meanwhile, Andy is trying to get out and asks a headless fellow in a tuxedo for directions (although he’s not looking at the man when he asks the question so he has no idea the man is headless). The humor here is that the headless man initially answers Andy in a very nonchalant, way. When Andy realizes the man is headless and asks if he’s living, suddenly his voice turns sonorous as he delivers a multi-syllabled “Noooooooo!”

As Andy runs further amok, he stumbles into a room that (pardon the pun) gives up the ghost: it’s a room full of counterfeiting equipment! Andy’s initial reaction when he finds all the money is to exclaim that he’s “rich” and to start allocating the funds (“this is for a new car”… “this is for income tax”…).

This leads to a funny gag where the crooks come into the room and Andy starts stuffing the money into their pockets to share. When he gets his hand stuck in one of the pockets, he pulls out a gun. “A gun, huh? Been hunting,” Andy asks before the truth becomes obvious.

We are then treated to a standard chase finale with the Andy and Dudley on the run from the crooks. Caught, our heroes are tied to a table to face a death-gimmick the likes of which are usually seen in serials and reruns of “Get Smart” and “Batman.” The crooks have rigged a huge blade above the table, suspended by ropes held down by weights. They light a candle to burn through the rope that will do away with Andy and Dudley in rather gruesome fashion (especially for a horror-comedy) by lopping off their heads!

Fortunately, the Bloodhounds have entered the house and are doing a little rigging of their own. They knock out one of the thugs with some bottles tied overheard and then trip others with some rope. Ultimately, one of the boys, Pee Wee unties Andy and Dudley in the nick of time while the others go get the police to arrest the crooks.

The police reveal to Andy that there’s a thousand dollar reward but Andy protests that that isn’t enough and starts unloading his pockets of all the counterfeit bills! Andy still thinks the money is real but when the policeman tells him otherwise he pretends he knew it all along.

As Andy goes to leave, he starts saying goodbye to everything: “Goodbye old house… goodbye funny chairs… goodbye old solider,” this last a wave to the suit of armor. When the suit of armor waves back, Andy flips its visor to reveal a beautiful girl inside. He goes to kiss her but the visor slams shut on his nose leading right into the end credit.

The supporting cast is serviceable but unremarkable. For Violet Barlowe, this short was only one of three film appearances. As Andy’s wife she’s barely on film but she does get to deliver the key setup line about “the haunted house.” It’s no wonder Barlowe didn’t have too many film credits – she was too busy entertaining the troops, having appeared in over 400 USO shows during World War 2 (including emceeing an entire Hollywood Canteen show).

As Blackie the chief crook, actor Frank Hagney doesn’t make much of an impression. His dialogue is stilted as if he didn’t take time to memorize it or just couldn’t get into the rhythm of the proceedings. It must have just been an “off” day for him though as he was readily employed during a lengthy career playing characters on both sides of the law in both movies and TV shows. Among the actors and characters he rubbed shoulders with were Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Harold Lloyd, Dick Tracy, Superman, the Invisible Man and many more.

And the kids? Well, they’re uncredited. Most of them are just fine, with Pee Wee a standout. It’s worth pondering if Columbia could have fashioned their own Our Gang/Little Rascals-esque series utilizing these kids. Worth pondering until you find out the studio actually did shoot a kid shorts pilot nine years after this short that failed miserably. They named the kid group, “The Mischief Makers” and according to Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, authors of the essential “Columbia Comedy Shorts” book it was “unquestionably the worst two-reel comedy in the history of the department, bar none.” Perhaps Columbia should have tried nine years earlier with Andy’s Bloodhounds gang instead.

Also worth pondering is whether Andy Clyde had any influence in the story setup for this short. At this stage of his career, when not subjecting himself to Columbia’s breakneck pace of shorts production (something he would do for another eleven years after “Spook to Me!”), he appeared in several outdoor adventures and westerns (including a stint as Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick, California Carson). The “Bloodhounds” motif of outdoor scouts could possibly have been inspired by Clyde’s experiences filming frontier adventures.

As mentioned upfront, this short is full of typical horror-comedy gags and would be unremarkable if not for its trio of unexpected gags (the skeleton knock, the mounted dog head and the headless man) as well as the comedy expertise of Clyde and Dickerson. The pair are masters of timing and scare takes, and help make this worth a look.

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SPOTTED IN THE CAST: One of the two henchmen was played by Wally Rose. Like Violet Barlowe, his on-screen credits are sparse and typically he’s playing a henchman or guard or some other burly character. More notably, though he was a founder of both the Screen Actors Guild and the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures.

BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:

ANDY (after his wife mentions the haunted house): Haunted house? There isn’t any such thing! Just because the Bancroft family disappeared overnight doesn’t mean it’s haunted.

DISEMBODIED VOICE TO DUDLEY: “Where do you think you’re going? You’ll be sorry you came here!”
DUDLEY: “Brother, I’ve been sorry a long time!”

ANDY: “Say that’s a durn bright idea. The candle burns the ropes, the weights fall… if this works good I’ll tell the Bloodhounds.”
DUDLEY: “If this works good, boss we ain’t gonna’ tell anybody but us angels.”

BEST VISUAL GAGS:

Nothing in the short tops the aforementioned gags of Dudley speed-running, Andy knocking on the skeleton’s skull as if it’s a block of wood, and Andy’s encounter with the mounted dog head and headless man.

FURTHER READING: Ted Okuda and Edward Watz wrote an indispensible book called “The Columbia Comedy Shorts” and Leonard Maltin wrote one called “The Great Movie Shorts” (also known as “Selected Short Subjects”). You can order them here:

Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to the Three Stooges (Da Capo Paperback)












I also encourage you to visit The Columbia Shorts Department – Greg Hilbrich’s excellent site dedicated to the fun and frolics of this studio that gave the world The Three Stooges and so much more.

WATCH THE FILM: Here’s an opportunity to view a short clip containing some of the best gags from “Spook to Me” – enjoy!

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