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Smiling Ghosts, Hidden Hands & Negro Stereotypes in 'Warner Bros. Horror/Mystery Double Features'

From The Smiling Ghost (1941)

This collection of six B pictures in the comedy-mystery genre that thrived in the '30s and '40s all tell us something about their time.

The Patient In Room

Director: Various
Cast: Various
Distributor: Warner
Release Date: 2010-12-01

Warner Bros. Horror/Mystery Double Features is a three-disc set freshly available from the Warner Archives made-on-demand service. It collects six B pictures in the comedy-mystery genre that thrived in the '30s and '40s, with several falling into the "old dark house" subgenre. While none is a classic, all tell us something about their time.

Find the Blackmailer should be called Find the Bird, as the briskly absurd plot involves a down-at-heels private eye being hired by a politician to track a talking crow that might incriminate him. This feels like it could be meant as a parody of The Maltese Falcon. At no point are we expected to take seriously the investigations of a hero who alternates between slinging wisecracks ("getting the bird" is a popular theme) and smacking guys down or pulling a "rod" or a "gat" on them. There's the stereotypical efficient but love-starved honey of a secretary, and a femme fatale whose hair looks like a carpet brush. It's all aiming for fast, brainless, facetious, throwaway entertainment and gets it about right, for what that's worth.

The Smiling Ghost is an above-average example of the old-dark-house brand of comedy-horror-mystery with an obvious plot, breathless pacing, wacky personalities, and myriad character players. The grinning villain is the missing link between The Man Who Laughs and Mr. Sardonicus. Brenda Marshall and Alexis Smith are a sassy pair of dueling love interests for the dull hero. Alas, the one element we're most apt to focus on today is a big embarrassing blot right in the middle that spoils the movie as entertainment for most viewers born after WWII: a "funny Negro" named Clarence, played by Willie Best.

Clarence begins the movie as an almost reasonable character. He is the only employee of Lucky (Wayne Morris), who owns his own chemical lab and owes Clarence six months' pay. When Lucky is hired to masquerade as an heiress' fiancé in order to smoke out whoever's been killing her boyfriends under the guise of the Smiling Ghost, Lucky brings Clarence along. As the film goes on and the goings get spookier, Clarence turns more into a shivering, knee-knocking idiot. He says things like "I'm not afraid, but my feets won't stand around and watch my body being abused." (That's an example of how his lines can be both witty and disturbing.) The final gag shows him outrunning a horse.

A running gag involves a crazy uncle who would like to complete his collection of shrunken heads with a "Negroid type". Lucky tells him not to mention it to Clarence because he's a friend and "he's sensitive". Lucky spends the picture trying to warn Clarence away from the man, but this subplot turns out not to be as we are made to assume. Here, depending on the viewer's tolerance for the self-conscious absurdity of it all, what was once whimsically macabre might have crossed through the offensive into the politically incorrect. Or it might just stop at offensive. How different is the comical butler played by Alan Hale, who talks in tough-guy slang; the writers were more willing to subvert some servant stereotypes than others.

Let's take it as read that Best plays a degrading stereotype and that we've all spent five minutes expressing righteous indignation to demonstrate our superiority to such things, for all the good it does us, before we go back to enjoying the kind of modern blackface farces exposed by Spike Lee in Bamboozled. Instead of looking away from Best in discomfort, let's focus our attention upon him and consider his paradoxes.

One paradox: even though I tend to shudder when I see him, I can't take my eyes off him. I realize that he's strangely welcome whenever he shows up on screen, because he has real charisma and talent. He's a more magnetic and attractive presence, even when acting the fool, than almost anyone else in the picture. He certainly outshines the hero. Forty years later, he'd have been Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock smart-alecking his way through similarly lightly-plotted nonsense. Best was about 25 in this film (and would die at 45 of cancer), and to see him is to wish (again) that he and other talented African-Americans had been given better things to do in mainstream Hollywood films of this era. It's better to play a maid than be one, as Hattie McDaniel observed, but it would have been even better not to have to play the same one all the time.

Consider that when Mantan Moreland (best known for the Charlie Chan films) showed up as a variant of this same comic-relief character in such all-black westerns as Two Gun Man from Harlem, the context makes all the difference. Surrounded by heroic black cowboys, he's just a funny person without the burden of representing Negroes. However, when Best is the only black person in the movie's world, and even when that world is populated by comical white people, it's difficult to avoid realizing that white audiences accepted and to some extent expected, even demanded these patronizing depictions (as we accept different patronizing depictions now). I suspect that in different ways for white and black viewers, these things make us uncomfortable not so much as an unwelcome reminder of how movies were in the '40s but as an uneasy hint of how some of today's mainstream depictions might seem 50 years from now.

A deeper paradox is embodied in the whole "valet" angle, or what we might call the Rochester ruse. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson was a beloved co-star of Jack Benny's radio show, and later his TV show, because Benny knew he was great and wanted him on the show. But how to explain the presence of a black man as a regular co-star? Why is he hanging around Benny all the time? Why is he even living in the same house--a privilege not even shared by Benny's girlfriend Mary Livingston (even though she was really his wife)?

Well, it's simple. You see, Rochester was the "valet". The Smiling Ghost makes fun of this convention by pointing out that neither Lucky nor Clarence actually know what a valet is, but we know. A "valet" is a word that, by defining the relationship in master/servant terms, offers a socially acceptable explanation for why men of different races are joined at the hip. The Smiling Ghost offers "reasonable" excuses for Clarence's presence (unpaid employee, valet), but the most honest and unacceptable explanation is when Lucky simply refers to Clarence as his friend, as he does a couple of times.

When Lucky proposes marriage at the end, he puts it in curious terms: "You wouldn't want me to hang around for the rest of my life with just Clarence, would you?" Yes, it's only a joke, and it's a joke that spells out the visual meaning of the valet's social alibi: we see Lucky and Clarence together everywhere. Clarence is always somehow given something to do to justify his presence--answering the phone, hanging up clothes, driving the car. These are all things Lucky could do himself, and he can't afford to pay anyone to do them. Clarence is for some reason hanging around taking care of the domestic tasks, and he will be passing off Lucky to the skirt who's unlucky enough to marry him. Lucky is essentially "the wife", just as surely as the black woman in the two versions of Imitation of Life is acting as the wife and mother in a two-woman household while the white woman is the provider who goes out and brings home the bacon. They fill social functions that look like employment, even when neither is actually the other's employee. At the very least, this convention demonstrates how some domestic relations resemble employment.

Before dropping this subject, it's instructive to quote Bosley Crowther's entire two-paragraph review of this film from the New York Times of September 26, 1941. The review is titled "Poor Ghost", a reference to Hamlet. Notice how he assumes his readers aren't unlettered dolts.

"The Warners can't fool us. We know why their new mystery comedy, The Smiling Ghost, has such a sly and guilty look. It has just swallowed The Cat and the Canary—and it hopes some one will notice it. Well, for the sake of the record and to ease the Warners' mind, we do. We notice that the Globe's new tenant has its locale in a strangely haunted house, the same as Paramount's horror antic did two years ago. We notice that Wayne Morris is cast as a dopey sort of wag—a somewhat forlorn Bob Hope—who happens by in response to an ad. And we notice that panels slide, the lights grow dim and there are shrieks in the dark.

But we don't particularly notice that the nourishment has helped The Smiling Ghost. For, unlike its predigested predecessor, it too cleverly reveals its bones. All the way through, the humor and the goose-flesh are too obviously piled on. Much of it seems like the nonsense at a party or Halloween. And the pay-off, for mystery addicts, is as patent as one plus one. Willie Best is very funny as a terrified blackamoor, and Alexis Smith, a Warner newcomer, makes a decorative kiss-of-death girl. But Mr. Morris is not exactly an easy player of farce, and the remaining stock Warner cast overacts outrageously. So let's call The Smiling Ghost a fair Bguiler—and say no more."

I like this picture better than he did as an example of its subgenre, but Crowther's right that Bob Hope's The Cat and the Canary is much better. (By the way, Best co-starred with Hope in another knock-off, The Ghost Breakers.) I also like Crowther's wordplay and allusions, but the review's most revealing aspect to me is that without questioning the convention of a "terrified blackamoor", Best was perceived as the best part of the picture. Almost 70 years later, Best still seems the best thing in the movie even though his presence is more disturbing now.

Best gets fourth billing in The Hidden Hand (1942) on Disc 2. He spends the whole movie running from ghosts and gets to toss off his own racial slur. "You just cain't trust them Japs," he says apropos an Asian servant. The line was actually dubbed during post-production; it's dropped in when Best turns his back to the camera. Why? It was added as a reference to America's entry into the war. There are a couple of other lines that refer in passing to the situation, such the hero who plans to sign up instead of waiting to be called. When Best says he could have a good job if not for his flat feet, he's referring to the army. There's also a remark about the draft in The Smiling Ghost, all to remind us that even the characters in these trivial items know there's a war on.

More than half-spoofy, this the liveliest and craziest movie in the set apart from the ramshackle Octopus thing. Elizabeth Fraser plays the matriarch of the "mad Channings". She arranges for her homicidal brother to escape from a local asylum so that the two of them can concoct a bizarre plot involving their vicious relatives. They live in a house with more secret passages, sliding panels and trapdoors than you can shake a stick at. Craig Stevens (TV's Peter Gunn) and Julie Bishop play the dull lovers who learn to accept all the absurd goings-on without skipping a beat. Alas, never mind the poor ghost, it's poor Best who's literally left hanging as this movie's idea of a punchline.

Sharing Disc 2 is the determinedly, aggressively wacky Sh! The Octopus (1937). The only problem with this 54-minute spectacle is the first 50 minutes. The last four minutes are brilliant. Everything before then is a ridiculous, senseless, tiresome, loud, and most of all unfunny spoof set in a lighthouse where most of the characters are pretending to be somebody else. The leads are two veteran comic actors who play police detectives: snarling Brooklynite Allan Jenkins and muttering, chortling Hugh Herbert.

Crazy characters drop through sliding panels from which large tentacles now and then come snaking, and everyone runs around screaming and shooting and overacting. The only resolution to the deliberately tangled nonsense is the one they come up with, which begins with a startling transformation sequence. If the movie's famous for anything, it's that moment. Depending on your tolerance, the ending does make it all worth sitting through.

The two films on Disc 3, Mystery House and The Patient in Room 18 (both 1937), star Ann Sheridan as Nurse Keate, a sleuth created by novelist Mignon Eberhart. This character had been played by Aline MacMahon in While the Patient Slept and Jane Darwell in The Great Hospital Mystery. Sheridan is here because they're going for glamour over efficiency. Alas, the take-charge nurse plays second fiddle in mystery-solving to her brash detective-boyfriend Lance O'Leary (Dick Purcell in the first film, Patric Knowles in the second).

The first film is a very standard thriller where interchangeable characters get shot in locked rooms of a snowbound cabin. The prospective victim loudly announes that he suspects somebody here is guilty of theft and he'll give them 24 hours before he calls the police to this cabin in the middle of nowhere. Then he says something like "Well, I'm going to my room to lie down now." His death is initially ruled a suicide, and that's not far wrong when you think about it. From then on, all kinds of people know all kinds of things but nobody ever does more than drop broad hints (along the lines of "I could say plenty if I wanted to!") until they're found dead. It's that kind of thing.

The second film begins more interestingly as O'Leary is afflicted with sleepwalking and wanders the streets in gaudy pyjamas. He gets committed to a hospital ward for rest, and of course it's the same ward where his girlfriend works. They indulge in the kind of bright, brash, unconvincing banter that's supposed to tell us they're modern lovebirds.

One of the patients gets bumped off and everybody begins casting suspicious glances at each other. This is the kind of movie where an eyewitness drops out of the story for long periods of time and nobody asks what he knows when they have the chance. It's the kind of movie where the killer leaves a valuable object in a certain place and never goes back to retrieve it when there's plenty of time to do so. And it's the kind of movie where the detective pulls off a startling surprise that nobody suspected, not even the police, and which makes no sense when you think about it so you're not supposed to. The revelation of the killer is both uninteresting and ridiculous. At least it's less tedious as a time-passer than the previous entry.

At the end of the day, or even the beginning or middle of it, the best among these is hardly more than they were intended to be--disposable throwaways. You were supposed to sit through these as an option along with the main feature, which cost more and had more stars but wasn't always more memorable. The B's were a training ground for up-and-comers like Sheridan, Marshall, Smith, and Stevens, and they were populated with reliable characters like Jenkins, Herbert, Fraser, and Best. Some people spent their whole careers there.

These examples are of interest today for diehard fans of their particular genre (and you're out there) or any of these players. If you're interested in "old dark house" films, you should start with the Hope version of The Cat and the Canary, and don't neglect the delightful silent version directed by Paul Leni. Also check James Whale's early talkie The Old Dark House, from which the genre takes its moniker. Then look for obscurities like The Phantom of Crestwood and One Frightened Night, and the '40s comic nonsense of The Boogie Man Will Get You or Hold That Ghost or Ghost Catchers. Perhaps after all this, you will be prepared to expose yourself to Sh! The Octopus. Don't say you weren't warned.


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