In Manhattan, during a particularly scary thunderstorm, Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) learns she has inherited a plantation and mansion, “Castillo Maldito”, on a small island off the coast of Cuba. Suave, yet sinister solicitor Parada (Paul Lukas) insists the property is haunted, but plucky Mary refuses to sell. Elsewhere, wisecracking crime reporter Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope) winds up on the wrong side of a local kingpin by revealing one detail too many about his illegal activities. Summoned to a showdown, jittery, gun-toting Larry lands smack in midst of a shootout between Parada and Ramon Mederes (Anthony Quinn), another sinister gent eager to purchase Castillo Maldito.
Mederes is shot dead and Larry wrongly thinks himself responsible, but with help from Mary and his nervous manservant Alex (Willie Best), he ends up hidden inside a crate aboard a ship bound for Cuba. Smitten with the beautiful heiress - who gains another suitor in the shape of handsome occult expert Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson) - Larry sets out to solve the mystery behind the haunted mansion, following a trail that leads to Mederes’ vengeful twin brother, a voodoo witch (Virginia Brissac), her hideous zombie son (Noble Johnson) and a hidden treasure.
The Ghost Breakers was the follow-up to The Cat and the Canary (1939), re-teaming stars Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in another deliciously atmospheric horror-comedy. As with the earlier hit, the gags are woven around, yet never detract from, a genuinely suspenseful murder mystery and you need a speed-o-meter to clock those zesty Hope one-liners as they whiz by. Much of its strength lies in placing lovable comic characters in genuine peril, so we actually fear for their lives while the film sustains a remarkably delicate balance between chills and laughter. Just marvel at how big a laugh Hope gets after Parada’s spine-tingling ghost story when he wisecracks: “A good laugh would be worth a lot of money at this point.” Although he later settled into a more cowardly comic persona, here Hope is more faceted than the average screen comedians who go traipsing around a haunted house, by turns heroic, clever, fearful (“I don’t mind dying, it’s the preliminaries I can’t stand”), romantic and charming. In one great scene his bravado rattles the ghost-mongering Parada (“If I saw a ghost I’d be so scared I’d be liable to take a shot at it. How about that?”).
The incredibly gorgeous Paulette Goddard, the bigger star of the two at the time, is a sublime heroine and her interplay with Hope is a crucial part of maintaining that aforementioned balance. Note the scene where Larry and Mary lift their spirits with an impromptu impersonation of snooty society types. A skilful actress, the then Mrs. Charlie Chaplin combines ingenuity and vulnerability. It is Mary who solves the clues leading to the missing treasure and, in an eerily poetic touch, stops the zombie in his tracks when she ascends the staircase dressed in her great-grandmother’s black gown. Plus, whether in a flimsy white slip or black swimsuit, Goddard is a pioneering example of the erotic allure in horror films where skimpily attired heroines are lost in lush, haunted jungles. She and Hope teamed again for the final time in Nothing But the Truth (1941), while in 1949 Hope recreated his role as Lawrence Lawrence (“My middle name is also Lawrence. My parents had no imagination”) on radio with Shirley Mitchell playing Mary.
Based on a stage-play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, “The Ghost Breaker” had twice been filmed as silent movies, including once by Cecil B. DeMille of all people (which lends irony to Hope’s wisecrack about their biblically backward surroundings looking like a DeMille movie), and would be remade again as Scared Stiff (1953), a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle by the same director, George Marshall. Hope puts in a cameo and the movie has its admirers, but Ghost Breakers is the superior effort with Marshall working at the top of his game. George Marshall was a prolific actor, screenwriter, producer and director for film and television, with comedy classics like Destry Rides Again (1939), You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946) under his belt. He introduced the world to Martin and Lewis with My Friend Irma (1949), though he ended his career with the horribly misanthropic Jerry Lewis vehicle Hook, Line & Sinker (1969).
As director, Marshall weaves a marvellously evocative atmosphere, from the opening thunderstorm above New York which carries an almost Lovecraftian sense of foreboding, to the scenes where his camera creeps through the cobwebbed catacombs that lurk beneath Castillo Maldito. Cinematographer Charles Lang - who later won an Oscar for another spook-fest, The Uninvited (1944) - makes brilliant use of the interplay between velvety shadows and ghostly light, making the swamp surrounded gothic mansion ooze menace. Listen out for the scary voices imploring Mary to “run away before it’s too late.”
Some may take offence at the “yes sir, boss” caricature foisted on Willie Best and with some justification. However, aside from one slightly cringe-inducing one-liner (“You look like a black out in a blackout”), by and large Best’s race is not the source of humour, he is playing a funny character. A scene with Larry trapped inside a trunk while a drunk mistakes Alex for a ventriloquist, is one of several instances where Best gets a chance to shine and he makes a brilliant double-act with Hope.
Alongside White Zombie (1932), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Zombies on Broadway (1945) - yes, that really happened - this is one of the earliest living dead movies. Though the climax isn’t quite as thrilling as The Cat and the Canary, scenes featuring the zombie and his voodoo mama are far creepier than you would expect from a movie that supposedly inspired the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.