The Ghost Breakers is a film starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard from 1940 that follows the exploit of a radio show host and an heiress to Cuba. Normally these reviews would follow a format where the story, acting, and scenery are discussed, but this film requires a deviation. Instead we will explore the good, the bad, and the ugly housed within this film.
The Good: The Ghost Breakers is surprisingly well acted compared to the stilted and theatrical performances of its contemporaries, with Bob Hope encapsulating the somewhat dim but fast talking protagonist and Paulette Goddard as the decidedly not damsel in distress (I was surprised that by 1940 standards we had such a strong female lead) extremely well. The chemistry between costars was great, and although the film ends with the two showing some unearned affection toward each other, it is forgivable given the plot. An excellent visual effects team provided some visuals that the Ghostbusters 2016 should be jealous of (there are bones to pick with you, CGI), and the sets feel about as real as can be expected for a film set on the eve of World War II. A special shoutout to the naming of the castle and the pun that it implies in Spanish.
The Bad: The plot itself is a little simplistic and feels like a rehash of movies that have come before and has been replicated to greater effect afterward. Some Like It Hot utilizes a lot of the same elements from the first act to much greater effect, and I cannot begin to tell you how absurd it is for Hope to confront ghosts with a firearm. Were the writers under the impression that the loud noise would scare the incorporeal away? Furthermore, there are elements of this film lifted from previous works like White Zombie that don’t mesh well with the setting. These elements could easily be lost on an audience from 1940 with little exposure to the more “exotic” elements of the film, but for an audience in 2020 there are things that will stick out like a sore thumb.
The Ugly: Even by the standards of 1940, there are some things that need to be discussed. First, there is the assumption and negative portrayal of people of color in this film. The Latinos portrayed are shown to be duplicitous, playing into stereotypes. Those of African descent are shown either in context with voodoo or as the cruel African American stereotypes of the day. A lot of the humor directed at Willie Best’s character Alex (who doesn’t even get a last name) seems mean spirited, even by the standards of the time. It is also a good time to point out that humor does not age well, and as such a lot of the jokes (even for a trained historian) do not necessarily land. I did chuckle at some, especially Hope’s puns, but there were also a lot of moments I found that made me cringe.
All in all, The Ghost Breakers is an interesting time capsule that captures an escapist comedy on the eve of World War II. While the humor itself may not have aged well, there are redeeming qualities to this film that make it worth a watch. Pair with Liver and Onions, a bottle of Cuban rum, and a big Cuban cigar. (Don’t forget your fedora!)
First, I think the film deserves proper context. Based on a play written by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Gifford, also entitled The Ghost Breaker, the film was the third adaptation out of four (with the Martin and Lewis version, Scared Stiff, being most remembered today).
Now, I’m not going to deny Willie Best’s jokes and demeanor are racist African American stereotypes personified. Sadly though, that’s usually a given in classic films. I liked referring to historian Marc Bloch’s ideas on this one: “Were they right or wrong? What do I care for a historian’s bloated decision on this point? We should only beg him not to be so hypnotized by his own choices as to forget that at the time another was possible.” Obviously I am not saying racism should be excused, but I do think viewers need to face the commonality of racist depictions, and their popularity in American culture.
Ghost Breakers is a great example of how American zombies were portrayed on film before their transition from Haitian zombie lore to mindless brain eaters. It’s nowhere near Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, of course–think Shaun of the Dead 30 years before Simon Pegg’s birth.
As always, Hope comes across as smug. I find people tend to love Hope or hate him–very rarely are they somewhere in the middle. He hams it up while still letting you know he is “in” on everything, almost like breaking the fourth wall. Personally, I quite enjoy Hope’s humor; however, I also understand why people find his persona rather grating. Goddard radiates her usual mix of wholesome but strong (sometimes I do wish we could have seen her as Scarlet in GWTW), and gives Hope a run for his money.
For me, Ghostbreakers is one of Hope’s finest films. It’s screwball comedy with horror elements wrapped up in a nice little package (and is scheduled for release on Blu-ray next month). Is it the best film you’re ever going to see? No, it’s not, but it definitely is enjoyable. While my colleague wants you to go way back with liver and onions, I recommend Bob Hope’s lemon meringue pie.