Shoot the Berkeley to me, Hector: A Defense of Ghost Catchers (1944)

The way I have it figured, if I can make a persuasive case for GHOST CATCHERS (1944), I can pretty much write my own ticket in this cruel, cruel world. The movie has a lousy reputation, abysmal, about eight clicks down river of Stinkeroo… on the Communist side! And I’m not just talking exclusively among the squares, the mundanes, the Beaumonts whose home DVD libraries are restricted to CASABLANCA (1942), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1964) and TITANIC (1997). No, I’m here to tell you that folks who own copies of REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936), PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) and WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS (1971), who never miss a Monsterpalooza or Wonderfest or Chiller Theatre convention, and who own lots and lots of black tee shirts will run screaming from the room rather than watch a frame of GHOST CATCHERS or hear anybody speak in its defense. You’ve got to to know when you pick up a book called Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946, that you’re knee deep in a nerd bog but even these die hard spookshow geeks (namely Michael Brunas, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver) hate this film and they do not mince their words:

GHOST CHASERS represents a flagrant waste of 67 minutes of film stock. The film is just another noisy Universal attempt to wring laughter and box office bucks out of a combination of low comedy and haunted house hijinks — but the film fails on every count.

The authors hate this movie on the atomic level. No one escapes their ire. Even bit player Jack Norton, who pops up late in the feature as a ghost, is branded a “repellent one-note actor who made a sorry career out of playing drunks.” Repellent! And they don’t just hate on the guy here… no, Brunas, Brunas, and Weaver follow the guy home so they can hate him there, too. Can I get a sheesh on that?

Lest anyone think I’m declaring a turf war or a jihad on these guys, I consider Tom Weaver a friend (in a real, actually-know-him way, not a crazy stalker way) and I have it on good authority that the Brunas brothers are sweethearts, too. But I do take exception, I do object, and I will defy this anti-GHOST CATCHERS axis to stick up for the film. I confess, I too avoided it for years, having heard that stars Olsen and Johnson were a poor man’s Abbott and Costello (of course, some would say that A&C are a poor man’s Laurel and Hardy) and I was never as a youngster a horror comedy fan. But things change, we change, and we often look back at things with a different eye. Since I first heard the bad news about GHOST CATCHERS, I’ve aged about 30 years and seen all the movies that it was judged to be inferior to: THE GHOSTBREAKERS (1940), GHOST CHASERS (1951), GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) and all of the Universal horror films whose success between 1931 and 1944 inspired it. I also developed an interest in early jazz, swing, and big band music — in fact, I added a dancy little number to my iShuffle last Halloween called “Quoth the Raven” with no clue it was from GHOST CATCHERS. I made the connection only this week when I decided, at age 51, to take the plunge. Maybe it was my status as a horror movie geek or a ghost movie compleatist or maybe it was just my post-Halloween ennui softening me up but I had fun with GHOST CATCHERS and wish I hadn’t waited so long to give it a try.

The deal breaker for a lot of GHOST CATCHERS’ potential customers is leads Olsen and Johnson. Graduates of both Northwest University and Vaudeville, John Olsen (called Ole) and Harold Johnson (called Chic) had spent a quarter century playing music and cracking wise on the nightclub and burlesque circuits before hitting it big on Broadway in the musical and comedy revue HELZAPOPPIN.’ That show ran for three years and provided the comedy team with an entree to Hollywood, where they headlined a string of madcap vehicles at Universal, beginning with a film adaptation of their breakthrough on the Great White Way. (The pair had appeared in a scattering of early films, without distinction, for Vitaphone and Republic.) The success of HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941) led to CRAZY HOUSE (1943) and GHOST CATCHERS before the duo bottomed out with SEE MY LAWYER (1945). Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson had an interesting approach to comedy. Eschewing the straight man/funny guy dynamic of Abbott and Costello or the happy guy/angry guy shtick of Laurel and Hardy, Ole and Chic were equally daft and that sense of anarchy radiated outward, which left their productions with an Absurdist, anything for a laugh aesthetic whose influence can be seen in such subsequent acts as ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS, and the films of the Zucker Brothers. A lot of critics found this style a demerit and complained that they couldn’t tell Olsen and Johnson apart. I confess, given that GHOST CATCHERS was my first ride-along with the funsters, I can’t distinguish between them either — but it doesn’t matter. Olsen and Johnson didn’t develop distinctive and separate personalities because clearly they didn’t want them. Their stories aren’t about a character arc, they’re about doing stupid stuff until the film runs out of the projector. And based on the example of GHOST CATCHERS, mission accomplished!

In the film, Ole and Chic run a New York nightclub that happens to adjoin an old mansion currently being sublet by a Georgia colonel (Walter Catlett) and his two daughters (Gloria Jean and Martha O’Driscoll) in anticipation of the girls’ debut as singers at Carnegie Hall. When secret panels slide open, hands clutch from behind bookcases, and the ghost of the mansion’s former tenant, Wilbur Duffington (the repellent Jack Norton) walks, the girls run screaming next door, where the action is even more lunatic. The stage show at Olsen and Johnson’s nightclub is like one of those old Hollywood nightmare scenes, where they truck in Surrealist imagery for added weirdness, except it’s all really happening. Assuming she’s just another player in the game, the boys strap O’Driscoll into an electric chair while Apache dancers biff and fling one another across the stage, an old man cries like a baby (truly one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in my life and it just goes on and on until you think it’s never going to stop) and there’s midgets and I don’t even remember what else. Eventually, Ole and Chic catch on and agree to help the girls and their father exorcise the ghost of Wilbur from their temporary digs. Concluding that Wilbur died long enough ago that he would hate modern music, the boys stage a hepcat throwdown to the tune of the aforementioned “Quoth the Raven,” and it goes a little something like this:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/NvxkfX_gYO0]

Does that seem like the best-ever Halloween party or what? (When the action cuts up to the roof, I couldn’t help but think of the “America” number from WEST SIDE STORY.) Vocalist Ella Mae Morse (who had a hit with “Cow Cow Boogie”) really sells that song (look fast for Mel Tormé, who plays drums and gets up and dances for a bit), and she’s not half bad in an acting role that finds her vying with O’Driscoll for the affections nominal leading man Kirby Grant (later, my childhood hero Sky King). Believe it or not, it’s after this song ends that GHOST CATCHERS gets really crazy, with Andy Devine and Lon Chaney, Jr. turning up in animal costumes, and there are gnomes and Tor Johnson and people get walled up like in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and a creep who skulks around in a weird mask that looks for all the world like a castoff from one of Universal’s later Mummy sequels (and may very well be). The cognoscenti maintains that this bouillabaisse bespeaks desperation and a lack of artistic vision, that Olsen and Johnson are a cut-rate Abbott and Costello (whose HOLD THAT GHOST merits a name-check), that Chaney, Jr. is wasted — aw, nuts to that! It’s fun and wacky and it’s 67 minutes long, and there’s a real ghost, so if you’ve seen THE GHOST BREAKERS and THE GORILLA (1939) and  ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) and THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940) and SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937) and every other Old Dark House movie, then give THE GHOST CATCHERS a chance. Oh for a clean copy. It’s probably too early to mount a Criterion Collection campaign, yeah?

0 Response Shoot the Berkeley to me, Hector: A Defense of Ghost Catchers (1944)
Posted By Marty McKee : November 9, 2012 12:13 pm

I read that whole piece thinking, “Um, yeah, but what about SH! THE OCTOPUS??” And you came through. My man!

Posted By Marty McKee : November 9, 2012 12:13 pm

I read that whole piece thinking, “Um, yeah, but what about SH! THE OCTOPUS??” And you came through. My man!

Posted By Will P : November 9, 2012 12:14 pm

I’d kill for an Eclipse set of Olson and Johnson — why not?

Posted By Will P : November 9, 2012 12:14 pm

I’d kill for an Eclipse set of Olson and Johnson — why not?

Posted By Bob Gutowski : November 9, 2012 12:17 pm

You make it sound irrestible! So, this is shortly before Martha got humped…got her hump for HOUSE OF DRACULA, I suppose?

Posted By Bob Gutowski : November 9, 2012 12:17 pm

You make it sound irrestible! So, this is shortly before Martha got humped…got her hump for HOUSE OF DRACULA, I suppose?

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 9, 2012 12:19 pm

Martha didn’t wear the hump in House of Dracula — that was Jane Adams. Martha was the eye candy and she’s pretty much on that assignment here, leaving poor Gloria Jean to get manhandled and pinched by the restless dead.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 9, 2012 12:19 pm

Martha didn’t wear the hump in House of Dracula — that was Jane Adams. Martha was the eye candy and she’s pretty much on that assignment here, leaving poor Gloria Jean to get manhandled and pinched by the restless dead.

Posted By David Kilmer : November 9, 2012 2:05 pm

Having seen Ghost Catchers (long ago) I was a bit surprised to learn from your piece that it’s hated so much. It’s not on par with Helazapoppin’, but very worthy of your defense. Nevertheless, it’s probably all a matter of taste and no defense, however strong, is going to convince everyone of its merits.

Posted By David Kilmer : November 9, 2012 2:05 pm

Having seen Ghost Catchers (long ago) I was a bit surprised to learn from your piece that it’s hated so much. It’s not on par with Helazapoppin’, but very worthy of your defense. Nevertheless, it’s probably all a matter of taste and no defense, however strong, is going to convince everyone of its merits.

Posted By Doug : November 9, 2012 2:36 pm

RH Smith-thank you for this-my eyes lit up when I saw Ella Mae Morse’s name on the poster. Cow Cow Boogie is fine, but I love her song “The House Of Blue Lights”.
Seeing Olsen and Johnson in zoot suits in the video reminded me of how Bob Hope in his TV specials would tweak whatever the current fashion happened to be-for example: Bob and Jack Benny dressed as ‘hippies’ in the 1960′s.
Possibly Universal will deliver a ‘cleaned-up’ version of this movie and other treasures,as they are on their centennial kick
and these old films are basically ‘found money’.
I like comedic horror just fine-it’s worlds above the torture porn being excreted by Hollywood today.

Posted By Doug : November 9, 2012 2:36 pm

RH Smith-thank you for this-my eyes lit up when I saw Ella Mae Morse’s name on the poster. Cow Cow Boogie is fine, but I love her song “The House Of Blue Lights”.
Seeing Olsen and Johnson in zoot suits in the video reminded me of how Bob Hope in his TV specials would tweak whatever the current fashion happened to be-for example: Bob and Jack Benny dressed as ‘hippies’ in the 1960′s.
Possibly Universal will deliver a ‘cleaned-up’ version of this movie and other treasures,as they are on their centennial kick
and these old films are basically ‘found money’.
I like comedic horror just fine-it’s worlds above the torture porn being excreted by Hollywood today.

Posted By Anthony C.Fitzsimons : November 9, 2012 11:06 pm

FYI it’s “Shoot the birdseed to me, Hector”

Posted By Anthony C.Fitzsimons : November 9, 2012 11:06 pm

FYI it’s “Shoot the birdseed to me, Hector”

Posted By Michael Ritchie : November 10, 2012 2:00 pm

That’s a great clip; maybe the best B-movie musical number of all time. Thanks! And as far as Universal bothering to dust off some unseen classics for their anniversary year, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Mostly they are just re-issuing the same old “important” films, like Jaws and To Kill a Mockingbird. And it’s also nice to run across other Sh! The Octopus fans!

Posted By Michael Ritchie : November 10, 2012 2:00 pm

That’s a great clip; maybe the best B-movie musical number of all time. Thanks! And as far as Universal bothering to dust off some unseen classics for their anniversary year, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Mostly they are just re-issuing the same old “important” films, like Jaws and To Kill a Mockingbird. And it’s also nice to run across other Sh! The Octopus fans!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 11, 2012 5:35 am

FYI it’s “Shoot the birdseed to me, Hector”

Well, that makes no sense — how perfectly appropriate!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 11, 2012 5:35 am

FYI it’s “Shoot the birdseed to me, Hector”

Well, that makes no sense — how perfectly appropriate!

Posted By swac44 : November 11, 2012 9:42 am

I found a good copy of this on a table of “grey market” DVDs at a classic film fest and snapped it up right away, having loved the anything goes zaniness of Hellzapoppin. It’s certainly not of the same caliber (and a notch below Crazy House, which I also later discovered), but it’s hard to imagine anyone having much objection to it.

It was also a treat to see Ella Mae Morse, I have a collection of her greatest hits, but had never actually seen her perform before this, and she’s great (I think my fave track of hers is 40 Cups of Coffee). I believe Cow Cow Boogie was Capitol Records’ first million seller, kind of a sad fact now considering its parent company EMI is about to be swallowed whole by Universal Music (whose film company made Ghost Catchers, how apropos).

Funny that kept reading slings and arrows for Sh! The Octopus in movie newsgroups, but when I finally saw it (in 16mm at that same classic film fest, with an appreciative crowd), it was a delight. But then again, I have a high Hugh Herbert tolerance.

Posted By swac44 : November 11, 2012 9:42 am

I found a good copy of this on a table of “grey market” DVDs at a classic film fest and snapped it up right away, having loved the anything goes zaniness of Hellzapoppin. It’s certainly not of the same caliber (and a notch below Crazy House, which I also later discovered), but it’s hard to imagine anyone having much objection to it.

It was also a treat to see Ella Mae Morse, I have a collection of her greatest hits, but had never actually seen her perform before this, and she’s great (I think my fave track of hers is 40 Cups of Coffee). I believe Cow Cow Boogie was Capitol Records’ first million seller, kind of a sad fact now considering its parent company EMI is about to be swallowed whole by Universal Music (whose film company made Ghost Catchers, how apropos).

Funny that kept reading slings and arrows for Sh! The Octopus in movie newsgroups, but when I finally saw it (in 16mm at that same classic film fest, with an appreciative crowd), it was a delight. But then again, I have a high Hugh Herbert tolerance.

Posted By swac44 : November 11, 2012 9:46 am

Oh yeah, I also have a copy of See My Lawyer sitting at home, so far unwatched, but I have a week-long staycation coming up, and I guess I’ll finally have some time to experience what Olsen & Johnson bottoming out looks like. I’ve also seen PD copies of their 1936 film Country Gentlemen floating about, which predates Hellzapoppin, so I don’t have high hopes for that one, but at least it’s got Olin Howland in it.

Posted By swac44 : November 11, 2012 9:46 am

Oh yeah, I also have a copy of See My Lawyer sitting at home, so far unwatched, but I have a week-long staycation coming up, and I guess I’ll finally have some time to experience what Olsen & Johnson bottoming out looks like. I’ve also seen PD copies of their 1936 film Country Gentlemen floating about, which predates Hellzapoppin, so I don’t have high hopes for that one, but at least it’s got Olin Howland in it.

Posted By Commander Adams : November 11, 2012 2:53 pm

GHOST CATCHERS also gets an *ahem* spirited defense by David Sindelar: http://www.scifilm.org/musing490.html

Count me in as another fan of the stream-of-consciousness surreal silliness of HELLZAPOPPIN.

Posted By Commander Adams : November 11, 2012 2:53 pm

GHOST CATCHERS also gets an *ahem* spirited defense by David Sindelar: http://www.scifilm.org/musing490.html

Count me in as another fan of the stream-of-consciousness surreal silliness of HELLZAPOPPIN.

Posted By Heidi : November 11, 2012 7:18 pm

Oh, boy, it sounds fantastic! I love Tor Johnson. I have not seen the movie but will be on the look out for it. I own a copy of what I think is Tor Johnson’s last movie, “The Beast of Yucca Flats.” That is… abysmal, but what are you going to do? Love the man, love the movies.

Posted By Heidi : November 11, 2012 7:18 pm

Oh, boy, it sounds fantastic! I love Tor Johnson. I have not seen the movie but will be on the look out for it. I own a copy of what I think is Tor Johnson’s last movie, “The Beast of Yucca Flats.” That is… abysmal, but what are you going to do? Love the man, love the movies.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : November 15, 2012 10:31 am

Clearly Leonard Maltin isn’t one of the “haters” if you read his description of the film in his book MOVIE COMEDY TEAMS. I, for one, would also welcome a set of Olsen & Johnson’s Universal films. It’s a pity that they have fallen into such obscurity, because as you stated, their over-the-top, anything-for-a-laugh craziness seems to have had more of an impact on modern comic sensibitities than its been given credit for, critics be damned… As I wrote somewhere else: “any film that can pull off a musical exorcism in jazz is bound to have its charms.”

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : November 15, 2012 10:31 am

Clearly Leonard Maltin isn’t one of the “haters” if you read his description of the film in his book MOVIE COMEDY TEAMS. I, for one, would also welcome a set of Olsen & Johnson’s Universal films. It’s a pity that they have fallen into such obscurity, because as you stated, their over-the-top, anything-for-a-laugh craziness seems to have had more of an impact on modern comic sensibitities than its been given credit for, critics be damned… As I wrote somewhere else: “any film that can pull off a musical exorcism in jazz is bound to have its charms.”

Posted By swac44 : November 15, 2012 10:51 am

Just watched See My Lawyer, and I’ll concur that it’s the lesser of the Universal O&J pictures, by a long shot. Even so, there’s still a fair bit to recommend it, with a handful of clever sight gags scattered throughout the minor plot that’s just a clothesline for a number of music, dance and vaudeville acts. The highlight for me, besides checking another title off my “see every film Franklin Pangborn ever appeared in” project, is a couple of musical numbers by the (Nat) King Cole Trio, although for some reason they’re dressed up in chef’s outfits, looking every bit like the man on the Cream O’ Wheat box, which is a tad demeaning to say the least.

Plus, it’s another opportunity to spot one of my favourite unsung players, George Chandler; possibly best known as playing Chester, the wastrel son in the W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer, but who was in everything from The Beast of the City to The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.

It would be great if there was some sort of Universal Archive Collection of the O&J films (See My Lawyer is worth a watch, if not a purchase on its own) although until they settle whatever legal wrangling is required to get Hellzapoppin out in North America, the folks that want to see them can easily find watchable copies in the grey market.

Posted By swac44 : November 15, 2012 10:51 am

Just watched See My Lawyer, and I’ll concur that it’s the lesser of the Universal O&J pictures, by a long shot. Even so, there’s still a fair bit to recommend it, with a handful of clever sight gags scattered throughout the minor plot that’s just a clothesline for a number of music, dance and vaudeville acts. The highlight for me, besides checking another title off my “see every film Franklin Pangborn ever appeared in” project, is a couple of musical numbers by the (Nat) King Cole Trio, although for some reason they’re dressed up in chef’s outfits, looking every bit like the man on the Cream O’ Wheat box, which is a tad demeaning to say the least.

Plus, it’s another opportunity to spot one of my favourite unsung players, George Chandler; possibly best known as playing Chester, the wastrel son in the W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer, but who was in everything from The Beast of the City to The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.

It would be great if there was some sort of Universal Archive Collection of the O&J films (See My Lawyer is worth a watch, if not a purchase on its own) although until they settle whatever legal wrangling is required to get Hellzapoppin out in North America, the folks that want to see them can easily find watchable copies in the grey market.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 15, 2012 11:48 am

Jeffrey, you’re right – and Brunas, Brunas, and Weaver all but called him to the mat for it!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 15, 2012 11:48 am

Jeffrey, you’re right – and Brunas, Brunas, and Weaver all but called him to the mat for it!

Posted By Kevin Kusinitz : January 4, 2013 10:55 am

I’ve always found Olsen & Johnson much funnier than Abbott & Costello. One important reason (for me) is that O&J seem to genuinely like each other, while there’s a constant undercurrent of nastiness between Bud & Lou. A&C were also too low-rent for my taste (and that’s coming from a Three Stooges fan). And after having listened to several “Goon Show” episodes, I wonder if Spike Milligan was influenced by O&J’s constant barrage of jokes.

My only complaint about “Hellzapoppin” is that after the first 15 minutes, it seems to be about everyone but Olsen & Johnson. No one can tell me Martha Raye is funnier than them.

Posted By Kevin Kusinitz : January 4, 2013 10:55 am

I’ve always found Olsen & Johnson much funnier than Abbott & Costello. One important reason (for me) is that O&J seem to genuinely like each other, while there’s a constant undercurrent of nastiness between Bud & Lou. A&C were also too low-rent for my taste (and that’s coming from a Three Stooges fan). And after having listened to several “Goon Show” episodes, I wonder if Spike Milligan was influenced by O&J’s constant barrage of jokes.

My only complaint about “Hellzapoppin” is that after the first 15 minutes, it seems to be about everyone but Olsen & Johnson. No one can tell me Martha Raye is funnier than them.

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