By Ed Garea
Hold That Ghost (Universal, 1941) – Director: Arthur Lubin. Writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo (story & s/p), John Grant (s/p), Edmund L. Hartman (uncredited). Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello. Richard Carlson, Joan Davis, Evelyn Ankers, Mischa Auer, Marc Lawrence, Shemp Howard, Russell Hicks, William B. Davidson, Milton Parsons, Ted Lewis & The Andrews Sisters. B&W, 86 minutes.
Filmed right after their breakout hit, Buck Privates, but not released until after In the Navy, Hold That Ghost is, in this author’s opinion, their finest film, a wonderful send-up of The Old Dark House genre, even though the studio panicked and almost ruined it.
It was originally titled Don’t Look Now, and later, Oh, Charlie!, but just before its release, the studio – reacting to audience fervor for the musical interludes in Buck Privates – decided to re-tool the film by adding musical interludes and a new opening. It made the film almost incoherent at times, as characters came and disappeared and others entered without introduction to the audience. That it remained as funny as it is was a tribute to both the writing and the comedy stylings of the boys.
The movie opens with Chuck Murray (Abbott) and Ferdinand “Ferdie” Jones (Costello) working as relief waiters at Chez Glamour, a nightclub where The Andrews Sisters and Ted Lewis and His Orchestra are appearing. A subplot involves gangster Moose Matson (Davidson), his lawyer Bannister (Hicks), and torpedo Charlie Smith (Lawrence), who threatens to rat out Moose to the DA unless he’s given a cut from Moose’s latest heist. Chuck and Ferdie end up being fired after head waiter Gregory (Auer) catches them eating a patron’s food.
The next day Chuck and Ferdie are back working at the gas station when none other than Moose Matson pulls in for gasoline. As they service his car the cops spot Moose and the boys find themselves inadvertently kidnapped as Moose speeds away. Moose is killed in a shootout with the pursuing police, and as he dies he pulls a copy of his Last Will and Testament from his jacket.
During a meeting with Banister they learn they are the sole beneficiaries of the will, but Bannister tells them there is no money: “Moose Matson always said that he kept his money in his head. We never learned what he meant.” The only tangible asset is an old tavern on the highway out of town. Bannister buzzes for his associate, Charlie Smith, to accompany the boys to their inheritance. Charlie makes plans with Chuck and Ferdie to meet him at the corner the next day, where they will catch a private bus driven by Harry Hoskins (Parsons) to the tavern. “It’s going to be a pleasure to take you boys for a ride,” Smith tells them. As Chuck and Ferdie leave the office Ferdie has second thoughts about the inheritance. Chuck chides him for his attitude, but then shots ring out from a passing car, missing Ferdie, but hitting his hat. As the car speeds away we see Charlie Smith inside along with other gang members.
Arriving on the corner at the prescribed time the boys learn that other passengers have also hired the bus: Norma Lind (Ankers), Dr. Jackson (Carlson) and radio actress Camille Brewster (Davis). As they drive to the tavern a thunderstorm breaks out and it’s decided to rest for the night at the tavern until the weather clears. They unload the groceries and enter the tavern, hear a backfire and run outside, only to see Hoskins driving off with their luggage. They’re stuck.
As the night progresses, strange things happen. Smith disappears while searching the basement, and later his corpse turns up unexpectedly several times. The water in the tavern is undrinkable. Ferdie's bedroom turns out to be rigged with hidden gambling equipment. The girls are scared by what appears to be a ghost. Two detectives show up but vanish soon after starting their investigation. Chuck and the doctor decide to search for the detectives while Ferdie examines a map to find the quickest route back to town. However, the candles on the table move mysteriously and scare Ferdie.
Chuck takes Ferdie to a room they deduce is Moose Matson’s bedroom. A long cord hangs by the bed. Ferdie asks what it’s for and Chuck tells him “you pull that when you want your breakfast.” As Ferdie yanks the cord the curtains separate to reveal a closet door. Chuck tells him to open it, but Ferdie refuses: “I know what happens in those mystery pictures. A guy walks up to a perfectly ordinary door, he opens it up and zowie!Out falls a body right on its kisser.” Chuck opens the door and there is nothing there. Ferdie feels ashamed and slams the door. As he does so Charlie Smith’s body, bound and gagged, falls out from behind some curtains. Ferdie faints and Chuck drags him out, calling for the doctor. The doctor examines Smith and tells the others that he’s been strangled. “Is that Serious?” asks Ferdie. “The man is dead,” Chuck replies. “Oh, that’s serious.”
Later, Chuck tries to find Ferdie another room, but the problem is that, in each room, as Ferdie tries to go to bed, he finds his room has changed into a gambling parlor, thanks to a trick coat tree; but when he goes to get Chuck he takes the article of clothing off the tree, which causes the room to change back when Chuck enters. Downstairs, Norma finds Jackson testing the tavern's water, and the two begin to feel a mutual attraction. Unable to find the police, and convinced that someone is trying to scare them out, the group decides to leave the tavern. Chuck seats Ferdie at a table and gives him a map of the area to find a way out. Later, Camille joins him and we are treated to one of Abbott and Costello’s classic bits – the moving candle routine – before they are jumped by a “ghost,” a thug with a sheet over him.
As Chuck and Camille are trying to figure out what Moose meant when he said he kept his money in his head, Ferdie arrives to join the discussion. This leads to a funny bit on “figures of speech,” with Ferdie hitting on the solution about Moose’s money when he points to a moose’s head on the wall, and says, “You mean he kept his money in that thing?” Chuck and Camille think he’s crazy and Ferdie begins reaching into the head to prove himself wrong when bills suddenly begin coming out, followed by what Ferdie thinks is a tonsil (roll of bills).
Members of the gang appear and demand the money, leading to a chase through the building with Ferdie knocking them out one by one with the bag of money. Alerted by the sound of a police siren, the gangsters scamper out of the tavern, unaware that the "siren" was actually Ferdie.
With the gangsters gone, Chuck and Ferdie count the money, but the doctor tells them that the water they drank last night has therapeutic properties, and Ferdie and Chuck are inspired to transform the club into an nightclub. The boys hire Ted Lewis and The Andrews Sisters to headline, and even Gregory, the maitre d' who fired them from Chez Glamour, turns up as a waiter. Jackson and Norma arrive fresh from their honeymoon, and when they ask Ferdie about Camille, he tells them that he and Camille had a “runaway wedding,” she got the license and he ran away. Ferdie works the cash register, but when Chuck checks it, he finds it nearly empty, then discovers all the money hidden in Ferdie's tuxedo.
The problem with Hold That Ghost is, though it is hilarious at times, it has a choppy plot. Characters enter and disappear with no explanation and plot threads are suddenly dropped with no explanation.
Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo completed the screenplay on January 14, 1941, a week or two after Buck Privates wrapped. Their vision for the film was to move Bud and Lou from supporting players in a romantic plot with music to the focus of the film – real characters who do much more than simply come in to supply a routine or two to liven the pace.
As written, it’s a funny, though incoherent, film. The problem is that the cuts that were made in order to fit in the musical sequences, led to the loss of several plot lines. Characters come and go without sufficient explanation. A prime example are the detectives who arrive after Smith’s body is found. We see them looking about, but they suddenly disappear and no more is said. Several supporting characters, members of Smith’s gang (such as Paul Fix), also have had important scenes cut.
Perfectly paced by director Lubin, the film is filled with funny gags and classic routines. The idea of Matson as a gangster who doesn’t trust anyone adds to the fun as the boys discover that due to their kidnapping, they are his only heirs. (“Whereas anybody who would associate with me in the first place must be a rat; and Whereas I can’t tell my friends from stoolies, leeches or chiselers; and Whereas it’s impossible to foresee who will turn yellow when the going gets tough; therefore I hereby bequeath all my worldly possessions to those with me at the final moment when the coppers dim my lights.”) But as mentioned before, the only asset is the roadhouse, where it’s suspected to be the hiding place for the Moose’s dough.
While waiting for Charlie at the corner we meet the other passengers, the most memorable of which is Camille Brewster (Davis), who introduces herself as “Camille Brewster the radio actress.” In spite of Camille’s self-introduction, the only thing she’s known for is the opening scream from a radio show called Tales of Terror. She tells the boys, “I told them I was an actress, not just a sound effect, so I quit. Guess I’ll have to go back to the movies.” Chuck asks, “Movie actress?” “No,” she says, “usherette.”
Once they reach the tavern, Chuck and Ferdie help Camille and Norma with dinner while Charlie Smith goes down to the basement to “rustle up some heat.” As he searches for Moose’s bankroll a pair of hands emerge from the furnace, grabbing Smith around the neck and pulling him in.
Upstairs the evening meal is punctuated with classic bits of Abbott and Costello dialogue as soup is prepared and everyone minus Charlie sits down to eat. Ferdie reaches out with his hand and is given an etiquette lesson by Chuck: “Don’t reach! You want something, ask for it. You have a tongue, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but I can reach further with my hand,” replies Ferdie.
Ferdie and Camille then perform one of the best routines ever seen in an Abbott and Costello film as they take part in a “water ballet” on the dining room floor where there is a large puddle from a leaking roof. Though the scene itself was scripted, the improvisation from both Costello and Davis raises the dance to hilarity. Running through the puddle Ferdie slips and falls down, which leads to the two splashing each other like a pair of kids before Camille, attempting to rise, falls backwards into a bucket, which Ferdie plays like a bongo to a Latin beat as they depart the room. In Joan Davis, Costello has met his match, a comic who can perform pratfalls and rattle off witty lines as well as he. Almost stealing its from Costello, it’s a shame they never worked together again.
Afterward, when the group decides to look for Charlie Smith, Chuck, Ferdie and the doctor search the basement. Ferdie opens the furnace only to find a pair of glowing eyes that blows out his candle. “Ah, it’s only the wind,” Chuck says. “Since when does the wind eat garlic?” Ferdie asks.
Watch for the next scene where Norma and Camille decide to look upstairs and are scared by an owl. Their screams bring up the men from the basement, but Ferdie wants no part of going upstairs. As he shouts, “Did you see the puss she (Camille) made?” we see Joan Davis trying to keep from cracking up. When we realize that this scene must have been rehearsed and gone through earlier blown takes, it’s a testament to the comic ability of Lou Costello.
As the group continues to search for Smith, they discover hidden rooms and come to the realization that Moose used the tavern as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Meanwhile, Ferdie becomes convinced that the tavern is haunted, as strange things continually happen to him when he is left alone.
After Ferdie chases off the gangsters by imitating a police siren, everyone watches while the boys count the money. However, in the original version the money turns turns out to be counterfeit. That’s when Dr. Jackson tells Chuck and Ferdie that could mask more money right here. The water that tasted so bad turns out to have therapeutic qualities. “It’ll make sick people feel like dancing,” he says.
In the original ending, the boys have turned the roadhouse into a health spa with Camille as the dietician. In the last scene a rich woman is in Moose Matson’s old bed and asks Camille what the long cord is for. Camille says its purpose is to ring the staff. The woman pulls the cord and out falls Charlie Smith. The movie ends with a close-up of Camille screaming.
The new scenes required a rewriting and reworking of the existing footage. Joan Davis was not available for all the retakes, which explains her absence at the end of the edited film. having by that time reported to 20th Century-Fox for a role in Sun Valley Serenade (1941). As she was unavailable for the re-shoots, Davis had to be written out of the new scenes (including the new nightclub finale). In one scene, the tavern money counting scene, her back is to the camera and it was assumed that this was not Davis but a double. According to studio records, Davis was on hand for retakes during that sequence. However, in the rush to complete the retakes she just happened to be facing the wrong way.
Universal said it changed the movie at the behest of patrons at test screenings who “missed the music.” However, the studio would have been better served by releasing the musicals first, as they did with In the Navy, and held Hold That Ghost over until the next year when the musical fad ran its course. Despite the butchery, though, the film holds up better today than do their service comedies.
Co-writers Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo would later work together and write Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. They both ended up being blacklisted for supposed Red connections during the Hollywood witch hunt.
The animated opening was done by studio animator Walter Lantz’s crew.