Saturday, June 30, 2018
The Smiling Ghost (1941)
Horror-comedies were quite a common thing back in the 1940s, which was both a blessing and a curse. The former because I love horror comedies, especially from this period! The latter however because a lot of them were either crap, or just not that great. Today I'm looking at The Smiling Ghost, to see which category it falls into...
Down-on-his-luck guy 'Lucky' Downing is hired by the wealthy Bentley family to pretend to be the socialite Elinor's fiancee. She's been plagued by a curse that manifests in the form of a nefarious ghost that kills or cripples every man she's engaged to. Keen on finding out who's responsible for this, Elinor and her family use the unwitting Lucky as bait. Fortunately for him, the ace reporter Lil Barstow is on his side, telling him what's going on, and and together they set out to solve the mystery of the Smiling Ghost...
The Smiling Ghost is rather a mixed bag. For a start, it's a much better comedy than it is horror. It focuses so much on trying to be funny that most genuine scares are pushed to the sideline a bit, though the ones that are present are nicely spooky.
The mystery does get interesting at about the 40+ minute mark when we get the first clue. But by that point my interest had waned considerably, not surprisingly given that's the 40 minute mark. The most trying moments of the film are all before that point, while I impatiently waited for the good stuff to get going.
Something that irked me is how the movie goes to all the trouble of introducing a large cast of suspects that it expects you to keep track of, only for the first clue to pretty much reveal the killer's true identity, until the last 5 minutes, when there's a twist I did not see coming! I won't reveal it, but I will at least mention that there is a twist to save you from switching off early.
One moment of note is when a character is juuuust about to impart an important clue...and actually does! I was very grateful that he didn't immediately get killed. The amount of times that happens in old mysteries is infuriating, even when it's intended as a joke.
Lucky is a bit of a dope, but a somewhat courageous dope, even if he comes off a bit unlikeable early on. Elinor is a character I wasn't sure how to feel about. At first she doesn't act too bad, even if you wonder how much of her lovey-dovery feelings towards Lucky are an act, considering she only hired him to pretend. It's when Lil starts having feelings for that Elinor starts behaving a bit sketchily. Then there's a specific act she committed in the past that ends up being surprisingly relevant, as opposed to being ignored like I thought it'd be. Until the ending, Elinor ends up being a bit of a non-entity as the investigation progresses, but that's ok, as it allows Lil Barstow takes on more of a role from that point forwards. She's definitely a much more deserving side protagonist.
As for the more minor players, the Bentley family butler is amusing, but his presence kinda highlights how annoying it is that the white butler is allowed to be an assertive guy, but the black one has to be subservient
The weirdest thing about The Smiling Ghost is one character's fascination with shrunken heads, and his desire to turn Willie Best's head into one, as it's a 'perfect specimen of the negroid variety'. This is a plot point that could've been super awkward in a movie from the 1940s, but it thankfully comes across more quaint and eccentric, and the wants of an intentionally bad character (though that turns out not to be the case in the almost shockingly ghoulish ending). Speaking of, the ending itself is the second weirdest thing about the movie. Ah well, at least more screentime for Willie probably meant he got more pay!
The acting in The Smiling Ghost is competent enough. Wayne Morris is a decent enough performer even if his character veers on the insufferable. Of note is that he kinda resembles a young Regis Toomey. Willie Best is an endearing presence as usual, even if I was a bit tired of the 'scared black butler' archetype/stereotype, especially given the presence of a more snarky white butler. Of note for Maltese Falcon fans is the presence of Lee Patrick, but she doesn't do much.
While the dialogue can sometimes be a bit annoying (only to a small degree), there are moments of greatness, like/such as "Nobody is gonna put me in a coffin and get away with it!". This almost makes up for the hopelessly American way everyone pronounces 'valet'.
The titular 'Smiling Ghost' looks nicely spooky, somewhat reminiscent of Lon Chaney in London After Midnight. One interesting note about the effects is a comparison to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. I won't say specifically what for fear of spoilers, so let me just say that The Master's 'real actor from a distance-super fake mask close-up' masks have nothing on The Smiling Ghost! I'm genuinely impressed! The special effects person earned their paycheck that day!
The Smiling Ghost isn't that great a picture, but it's tolerable, never bad, and has got enough neat aspects to recommend it if you're into this sort of movie, but otherwise you could find some better examples...