Tuesday, December 7, 2010

East Side Kids, No. 14 - Ghosts On the Loose (1943)

The East Side Kids never lacked for star power, since by Monogram standards the “East Side Kids” were their biggest stars…

That’d now be Leo Gorcey as Mugs – nee Muggs – Huntz Hall as Glimpy, Bobby Jordan as Danny, Ernie Morrison as Scruno, Billy Benedict as Benny, Stanley Clements as Stash, Bobby Stone as Dave, and Bill Bates as Sleepy. Just had to get that out of the way.

Anyway, given this wattage of Monogramesque superstars (and also Bill Bates), it’s saying something to indicate that 1943’s Ghosts on the Loose is exceptionally star studded for an East Side Kids affair. For Monogram, that means the presence of their other giant celebrity, a post-dignity Bela Lugosi. (This is still but halfway in Bela’s decline, though, for Universal > Monogram > Ed Wood.) ‘Tis Bela’s second appearance with the “East Side Kids,” Ghosts on the Loose coming two years after Spooks Run Wild.

Given that they have basically the exact same title (other ideas: Poltergeists Galore, Banshees Dash Free, Specters Go Helter Swelter, Unrestricted Ghouls, Phantoms Unphastened), it is understandable to expect the exact same formulaic haunted house comedy Monogram gave us in 1941. The basic gist is there, haunted house and all, and yet…it’s not quite right.

For given that title, it is unforgivable that it takes half the running time for a haunted house to make its appearance. Ditto Bela Lugosi! (There are new problems once we reach the house, but we’ll get to those later…) Instead, of all the things, they waste our time on a wedding. Now…14 entries into a franchise can be an opportune time for a wedding, when it concerns an ongoing relationship we’re all deeply invested in. But when the two characters getting married are entirely new (that is, not East Side Kids) – OH NO! All attention is diverted to a lugubrious and respectful depiction of a standard wedding ceremony, leaving the “East Side Kids” in the lurch struggling to squeeze their patented comedy routines in wherever they can.

Of those distracting spouses-to-be, one of them has some claim to regularity. For even while the character Jack Gibson is a brand new cipher, actor Rick Vallin is familiar to this series. There’s very little else he brings to the table, though…

As for his fiancé, well she’s a different story – and arguably another huge piece of Ghosts’ “star power.” For the bride, Glimpy’s elder sister Betty, is none other than Academy Award nominee Ava Gardner. This is her first ever film role, so all the importance that comes from The Barefoot Contessa, Mogambo, On the Beach, The Night of the Iguana…er, Earthquake, all that is posthumous to Ghosts. Still, that’s some extra added interest, and the presence of a 1940s sex symbol is always welcome.

The thing with a wedding (possibly at Hays’ request) is that a movie absolutely cannot treat it with anything less than the maximum amount of pomp, circumstance, respect, all other things diametrically opposed to the anarchic shenanigans of the “East Side Kids.” They’re relegated to the sidelines, and tossed a few gags when appropriate – so thankfully those gags are all mostly amusing. Danny, the wedding choir’s soloist, is hoarse. Dave, the pianist, is asleep. And Glimpy, the “best” man, has been dressed in an ill-fitting suit procured from the mortician’s (which also supplied the flowers). I’d’ve liked to have seen more done with this mortician/marriage mix-up, but by ‘40s standards this is already some pretty dark humor.

So where on Zeus’ great green Gaia does a haunted house come into all of this?! Well, it seems Jack has purchased a honeymoon cottage for himself and Betty, sight unseen, way up in the countryside. Ah hah!, so that’s the haunted house, right?...Actually, not quite. It’s the house next door, on Elm Street – sadly not 1428, but 322. Oh whatever, we’ve got an estate full of spooks one way or another, and also presumably full of rotating bookcases and paintings with eyeholes. That’s something, at least, enough to get the other neighbors up in whatever place this is to call up the cops in New York City to report a haunting. Because that’s exactly what you do when ghosts are near.

In a series of arbitrary, farcical mix-ups, the East Side Kids make their way en masse up to the haunted house. Why? They intend to clean up the honeymoon cottage for the newlyweds, never mind the fact that place is already immaculate. Possibly they really intended the chance to “accidentally” see Ava Gardner naked. But due to those aforementioned ridiculous mix-ups, somehow (in ways I do not follow) the East Side Kids instead go over to the haunted house right next door. At vaffunculo last!

Oh well, it took half the movie, and a greater degree of suspended disbelief than I’m comfortable with, but it’s time for East Side Kids vs. Lugosi, Round 2!

But there are complications. Hauntings as we’ve come to know them resolutely refuse to pop up. (On the positive side, that means no disgusting “me’s so scared o’ dem ghos’s, me is” comedy from Scruno the Token.) But the main reason for diminished spookery is something Bela Lugosi demanded. See, the old hambone was sick of being forever asked to play Dracula types, as he was known best for 1931’s Dracula. Bela, and Bela alone, believed Bela more skilled than that, and sought non-horror roles therefore. So Emil, the caretaker of “Spook Central,” is not a monster, but rather a Nazi.

…A Nazi?! Oh, those 1940s! In a way, this is the pinnacle of the era’s B-cinema, with ghosts, Nazis and urban thugs all mixed up in one place. (It only lacks racism.)

Anyway, Bela (or Emil, but I prefer to stick with “Bela”) and a team of 5 other spies – including the always-entertaining Minerva Urecal – use the phantom manor to run a “Scooby” scheme. You know the drill, pretending as spooks to keep folk away from their true purpose – running a Third Reich propaganda publishing facility right there in the house’s basement, printing out tired tracts that wouldn’t win over anyone. But vilifying the Nazis is so all-important, even their rinky-dinky propagandists must take occasional lumps.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Even without Bela embracing ghostliness, much of Ghosts on the Loose is allowed to follow the standard contours of a “spirited” 1940s comedy. That means basically one joke, repeated ad nauseam – see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein for the most successful example of this. That joke: one character sees something, say a Lugosian face peeking out from a painting, and tells the others. They look, and that face is gone. Then the first guy alone sees it again – repeat, repeat, repeat. Nothing unique can come of this.

Well, one interesting thing can! The first use of a swear word in Hollywood, notwithstanding Gone With the Wind’s scandalous fucking use of the word “damn.” I speak of the moment where Scruno dusts the painting Bela is peering out of, prompting Bela to say, mid-sneeze:

Some will tell you this is simply a Hungarian’s way of sneezing, that it’s acceptable because everyone in Hungary says “Oh shit!” while in mid-convulsive expulsion. Another answer is to chalk it up to director William “One Shot” Beaudine, just about the most prolific helmer in Hollywood’s Golden Age of the Sequel. For old “One Shot” doesn’t do more than his name implies, meaning if your non-Dracula is going to curse, it’s just gonna happen. This approach works for the “East Side Kids’” endless adlibs, so that’s the price you pay.

That’s the one thing enlivening a very standard ghost comedy. Of course, these things always descend into creeping scenes, too slow to be funny, too comic to be remotely scary. It’s all so lugubrious, as is the score, but in a totally different way than the lugubriousness of the wedding.

While initially it’s just Bela lurking the East Side Kids, and vice versa, in a watery shadow of Spooks Run Wild, soon William Beaudine’s farcical inclinations demand two more parties arrive to add to the confusion. So the cops are here too, to shoots ghosts for the neighbors. Husband and wife are here too, and also creeping around everywhere. There’s not much more to say, for how does one continue on in light of Bela Lugosi’s potty mouth, so rather I’ll let the rest of Ghosts on the Loose unspool in image only…

Oh, but there is the closing gag! Glimpy has measles, and not just any measles. German measles! That means his face is covered in swastikas and – Oh my God!!!

Ghosts on the Loose was the final East Side Kids film for three whole “East Side Kids” – Bobby Jordan, Ernie Morrison and Stanley Clements. Okay, forget Clements, he was never all that important. As for Morrison and Jordan, they’d both just been drafted into WWII, soon to be joined by certain of their pals. So that means no more Scruno, and no more Danny. Once again the “East Side Kids” are all white, and are without a straight man. That’ll really make it “The Mugs and Glimpy Show,” even more than it already is.

Of course, some of the other important “East Side Kids” could still soon leave to fight oversees, much like some of their fictional counterparts had already done. It’s a crapshoot; drafts are like that. In the worst-case-scenario, the franchise would lose Leo Gorcey. Well, they did…sort of. Gorcey was drafted, but first he decided to get himself into a near-fatal motorcycle accident, of uncertain causes. This rendered Gorcey 4-F, unfit for military service. And despite needing a year to physically recover, Gorcey remained the star of the East Side Kids films that whole time. (Of the 22 East Side Kids films, Gorcey is only MIA from the first East Side Kids.) I’m not even sure just when all this happened; it simply makes most sense to mention it in conjunction with other Tales of the Draft.

So Ghosts on the Loose marks the end of a certain cycle for East Side Kids. There are still 8 entries to go (thankfully, only 1 available to watch, though)…8 Danny-less, Scruno-less entries.

Related posts:
• No. 1 East Side Kids (1940)
• No. 2 Boys of the City (1940)
• No. 3 That Gang of Mine (1940)
• No. 4 Pride of the Bowery (1940)
• No. 5 Flying Wild (1941)
• No. 6 Bowery Blitzkrieg (1941)
• No. 7 Spooks Run Wild (1941)
• No. 8 Mr. Wise Guy (1942)
• No. 9 Let's Get Tough! (1942)
• No. 10 Smart Alecks (1942)
• No. 11 'Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)
• No. 12 Kid Dynamite (1942)
• No. 13 Clancy Street Boys (1943)
• No. 16 Million Dollar Kid (1944)

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