Posted by Richard Harland Smith on November 9, 2012
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:
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:
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?
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