The Smiling Ghost (1941) **
It’s nice to see that once in a while, people really try, even when the standard for comparison is so low that it probably isn’t necessary. The Smiling Ghost is an unassuming little horror comedy from Warner Brothers, with the usual combination of secret passages, inept hero, improbable murder plot, and offensively demeaning comic relief from a black actor without the slightest apparent trace of self-respect. The poverty row companies cranked these things out by the truckload during the early 40’s, and with the likes of King of the Zombies providing the main competition, it wouldn’t have taken much for the major-studio version to come out ahead. So it is much to be appreciated that, whatever its faults, The Smiling Ghost offers much greater sophistication in nearly every department than was usually to be had from these things. Not all the humor is slapstick. The sets, for the most part, are not on the standard (and by 1941, totally played out) spooky house model. The script displays some hints of imagination, and credits the audience with more intelligence than was generally assumed by the writers of cheap 40’s horror films. And perhaps most importantly, despite being a comedy first and foremost, The Smiling Ghost occasionally makes a good-faith effort to be scary.
One of the fun things about The Smiling Ghost is that even the good guys’ motivations are not completely on the up-and-up. The first character we meet is an old lady named Bentley (Helen Westley), who is occupied in looking over newspaper classified ads with her lawyer, the Dinwiddie (George Meader, from Man-Made Monster and The Monster and the Girl) of Dunlap and Dinwiddie, Attorneys at Law. They’re looking to hire a man for some mysterious undertaking, but they need somebody a little more polished than your typical dishwasher or day-laborer. Eventually, Dinwiddie finds a notice advertising an out-of-work engineer, claiming to be willing to go anywhere and do anything legal; the ad also specifies that the man in question is unmarried, and old Mrs. Bentley immediately orders the lawyer to get on the phone.
That out-of-work engineer is Alexander Thorndyke Downing (Wayne Morris, from The Return of Doctor X), known to his friends as “Lucky;” the ad was placed by his secretary, valet, and all-around sidekick, Clarence (Willie “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” Best, of The Monster Walks and The Ghost Breakers). The call from Dinwiddie comes none too soon for Downing, for Mrs. Bentley is offering $1000 for whatever she has cooking, and Downing has apparently spent the last week or so holed up in his office, besieged by yammering creditors. When Downing meets with his prospective employer (talking his way through the encirclement with promises of a paying job and consequent remittance for all and sundry), he discovers that the engagement is literally that. Mrs. Bentley wants to give Downing a grand simply for becoming engaged to her granddaughter, Eleanor (Alexis Smith, from The Woman in White and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane), for one month— he doesn’t even have to marry the girl at the end of gig! Lucky thinks it’s a little weird, but he does need the money, and pretending he wants to get married sounds like pretty easy work.
What Downing doesn’t realize is that Eleanor Bentley has a reputation. The newspapers call her the “Kiss of Death Girl,” and all three of her previous fiances have wound up dead or crippled. The first, Johnny Eggleston, drowned under unexplained circumstances. The second, Paul Myron (David Bruce, of The Mad Ghoul and Jungle Hell), was paralyzed when his car rolled over, and has been confined to an iron lung ever since. The third, Alan Winters, died by snakebite— and since it’s highly unusual for a cobra to find its way onto the eighteenth floor of a Boston office building, it seems more than likely that Winters’s fate, at least, was no accident. Indeed, rumor has it that Eleanor’s suitors have all fallen victim to a “smiling ghost,” who has it in for the girl for some unfathomable reason. Myron has been in touch for some time with a reporter named Lil Barstow (Brenda Marshall), and he wants her to do everything within her power to talk Downing out of the engagement before he falls prey to the ghost, too.
Lil tries to make her move at the train station where Lucky and Clarence are to meet Eleanor for the trip to the Bentley mansion, but Eleanor smashes Lil’s camera and hustles Downing into the limo too fast for the reporter to get a word in edgewise. Thus our hero has little idea what he’s in for when Norton the butler (Alan Hale— the Skipper’s dad) admits him to the house and shows him into the parlor. Downing now meets his prospective in-laws, and what a bunch they are! In addition to Grandma (who pretends not to have met Lucky before, suggesting that Eleanor herself is the only other member of the family who is in on the engagement scam), the Bentley clan consists of three cousins— Rose (Lee Patrick, from 7 Faces of Dr. Lao), Hilton (Roland Drew, of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe), and Tennant (Richard Ainsley, of The Frog)— and old Uncle Aimes (Charles Halton, from Dr. Cyclops). Tennant is a drunk; Hilton’s first words to Downing take the form of a faintly alarming expostulation on the subject of shooting; Rose keeps giving off vague hints of some sort of rivalry with Eleanor; and most distressing of all, Aimes takes Lucky downstairs to show off his collection of shrunken heads, created via a process he learned from a tribe of savages in South America. It gives Downing quite a jolt when Aimes mentions that the only thing missing from his collection is a really good Negroid specimen, and he starts to worry even more when Aimes meets Clarence, and describes him as having one of the most beautiful heads he’s ever seen. This will have very little to do with the main thrust of the story, but Downing’s efforts to protect Clarence from the old man’s headhunting will come to constitute The Smiling Ghost’s most involved running gag. What really matters is that Downing comes away from his introductions with reason to suspect everybody of something. He’ll have more reason still by the end of the night.
Lucky and Clarence are interrupted in their preparations for bedtime when Tennant shambles drunkenly into their room to announce that it is in fact his, and that he refuses to sleep in the third-floor quarters to which he was displaced— something about purple flowers on the wallpaper. Downing agrees to relinquish the room, and this change of arrangements proves extremely advantageous from his perspective. Sometime around midnight, a secret panel slides open in the wall across from what is now Tennant’s bed, and a grinning man (Alberto Morin) with sunken eyes and deathly pallid skin skulks out to attack the sleeper. This, presumably, is that Smiling Ghost, and his behavior, presumably, is motivated by his ongoing vendetta against those who seek to marry Eleanor Bentley. Tennant’s screams wake up everybody, but by the time Norton defeats the lock on the bedroom door, there is no one to be seen within, living, dead, or undead. A search of the house turns up Tennant, badly beaten and only semiconscious, in a trunk in the cellar. Meanwhile, Downing (who is looking for the missing man out in the garden) has a surprise encounter with Lil Barstow, who has been sneaking around looking for a chance to speak to him. Lil explains all about the Smiling Ghost and the “curse” on Eleanor, and Downing figures out with admirable rapidity that Granny Bentley set him up for use as bait in a trap for the so-called ghost. Initially, Lucky means to sneak out of the house with Clarence (who, having found Tennant in that trunk, is none too eager to stick around himself), but he winds up on Eleanor’s balcony on his way down the back of the mansion, and gets sucked into a conversation with his fake betrothed. Their talk puts a different spin on the situation, with both parties eventually deciding that they really do love each other, leading Lucky to proclaim his determination to catch Eleanor’s ghost for her.
Lil Barstow obviously knows more about the case of the Smiling Ghost than anybody, so it is to her that Downing turns for information and assistance. Lil takes him to see Paul Myron, who fills in a few significant details. Paul, it seems, was the first to see the ghost, which appeared to him while he was pinned within the wreck of his car. He recognized the specter’s face, too, even despite its deathly deformities; the reeking, waterlogged corpse that watched with evident satisfaction while he lapsed into unconsciousness was none other than Johnny Eggleston, Eleanor’s previous lover! Myron explains that Eggleston didn’t just drown. He threw himself into that lake deliberately, distraught over having been dumped by Eleanor a few days before. Downing rejects the idea that Eggleston has returned from the grave to make sure his ex dies a spinster, but he is prepared to believe that Johnny faked his death and is now pursuing a program of purely natural revenge. A trip to the Eggleston family mausoleum reveals that Johnny’s coffin is empty— and very nearly results in Lucky going the way of his predecessors when the “ghost” comes out of hiding to chloroform Downing and lock him inside the unoccupied tomb. That brush with death redoubles Lucky’s resolve, and he suggests an immediate and well-publicized midnight wedding to lure Eggleston (if indeed that’s who we’re dealing with) out into the open.
It isn’t much of a movie, honestly, but it is fairly rewarding if your expectations are low enough— watch it after abusing yourself with a few run-of-the-mill 40’s horror comedies, and The Smiling Ghost will come as a welcome respite. Its greatest strengths are some well-written dialogue (I especially liked Tennant’s deadpan pun about “sleeping tight”) and the approaches the film takes toward Lucky Downing and the ghost. Although he looks at first like a lightweight bumbler on the classic 40’s model, Downing actually has a bit of depth to him. He isn’t quite the coward he initially seems to be, and he’s certainly no fool. Instead of goofing his way to a mostly accidental victory like the “heroes” of The Gorilla or You’ll Find Out, Downing reveals the competence and skillful problem-solving of the engineer he’s supposed to be whenever the situation turns serious. The Smiling Ghost himself, meanwhile, is consistently portrayed as a legitimate threat, and not a single one of his scenes is used comedically. We’re supposed to be scared of him, and it isn’t out of the question that early-40’s audiences might actually have been. Given how rare that is in movies of this sort, the effort itself counts for a lot, regardless of its success or lack thereof.