Ghosts, it turns out, are like wild mustangs and must be broken. And thus the hastily improvised profession of Bob Hope's character in 1940's The Ghost Breakers, a funny film that allows Hope's naturalistic performance to contrast with a sincere investment in the danger of the threats, a comedy that works because of the performers' investment in the suspense. The film features a supporting character who exhibits behaviour reflective of abhorrent racial stereotypes but despite this is still a film that can be appreciated.
Larry's valet is a black man named Alex played by Willie Best whose dull gaze and references to fried chicken are intended to evoke humour related to what was considered the fundamental nature of black people by mainstream white America in 1940. But Best actually also exhibits a keen sense of comic timing in the movie, ironically requiring an intelligence at odds with the very stereotypes his character was reinforcing. It's worth noting, too, that Alex and Larry speak to each other as equals, Alex often displaying more sense than Larry and even figuring out a crucial plot point before Larry does.
As a radio announcer, Larry's got connexions with the mob which, as the film begins, look like they're about to get him killed. Due to a mix up in gunplay at a hotel, he finds himself caught up in another deadly drama involving Paulette Goddard as a young woman named Mary Carter. She's inherited a castle on Black Island off the coast of Cuba but is warned to stay away by sinister figures who tell her the place is haunted and she'll be killed for sure if she stays there.
Goddard, who was married to the very liberal Charlie Chaplin at the time and co-starred with Chaplin in The Great Dictator that same year is interestingly paired with the very conservative Bob Hope and yet the two have a great chemistry. A scene where the two dance to the radio in her cabin perfectly exploits the talents of both actors--Goddard displaying the warmth and intelligence to create a complete circuit of the subtext in the room generated by Hope's self-deprecation and the attraction between them.
This was of course what made Hope an ideal host--in much the way Jon Stewart or David Letterman might do to-day, Hope had the ability to laugh with us at the ridiculousness of himself in a way that seemed neither like he was abusing himself or admiring himself. Goddard reciprocates with a sympathetic humanity rather than merely being the indulgent maternal figure of so many female leads in comedies. They look at each other and you can see the excitement of mutual understanding.
Twitter Sonnet #633
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Stem cells are just miniature frozen peas.
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Frightened caricatures cut by surgeon.
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Stop light solidarity drips'll blur.
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Annexed Greeces yield syndicate Homers.