Classic Movies

Guilty Pleasures: Ghost Chasers (1951)


It has been a while since we’ve taken a stroll down through the Bowery and availed ourselves of some confectionary treats at Louie’s Sweet Shop—I believe the last Bowery Boys movie that I wrote up here at TDOY was Crazy Over Horses (1951), which I did for My Love of Old Hollywood’s Horseathon back in May of 2012.  The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ has a pair of the Boys’ vehicles scheduled this evening as part of their “Ghost Stories” spotlight on Thursday nights in October—beginning with Ghost Chasers (1951) at 2:15am EDT.

In Ghost Chasers, our favorite aging juvenile delinquents are mixed up in the hobby of spiritualism.  It’s Whitey (William “Billy” Benedict) who’s obsessed with mediums that are not rare, and he’s operating séances in the back storeroom of the sweet shop owned by Louie Dumbrowski (Bernard Gorcey).  Louie’s on vacation, you see—otherwise there would be heck to pay—but he returns in time to be scared out of his wits by a skeletal creature that’s actually Butch (Buddy Gorman) in disguise.  A forgiving man, Louie chalks up this tomfoolery to the follies of youth…while banishing Whitey and his spiritualism “equipment” from the sweet shop.

In Ghost Chasers (1951), Sach (Huntz Hall), Whitey (Billy Benedict), and Chuck (David Gorcey) are startled by a spook…that’s really Butch (Buddy Gorman) in disguise.

Later that evening, Whitey and Sach (Huntz Hall) attend an exclusive séance presided over by Margo the Medium (Lela Bliss), who claims she can contact the spirit of deceased magician Leonardi.  The astonished audience watch in rapt attention as Leonardi appears to have returned from the grave…but he hauls ass and elbows back to the Great Beyond when a reporter tries to take a picture of the proceedings.  During the séance, the movie audience is introduced to a 300-year-old ghost named Edgar Alden Franklin Smith, who addresses the camera and tells us that Margo and assistant Dr. Basil Granville (Philip Van Zandt) are practicing quackery of the highest order.  “If a spirit really returns from above,” explains Edgar, “he comes for a good purpose—not in answer to such witchcraft.  We have too much to do in the other world.”

The reason for Edgar’s return to his former mortal coil is that he’s on assignment to expose Margo and Granville’s fakery…and he hits upon the idea of soliciting help from Slip (Leo Gorcey) and his mob.  It won’t be an easy task: the only one who can see the ghostly Edgar is Sach, who is hardly the first person one thinks of getting a passing grade on a sanity test.  (When Sach first introduces the invisible Edgar to his pals, Slip remarks: “I knew it would come to this someday.”  “Chief—you gotta stop beltin’ this guy on the head,” adds Whitey.)  Despite perils like being locked in a room filling up with water and being hypmotized by a mesmerist (Marshall Bradford), the Bowery Boys eventually make sure that the dishonest seers are brought to justice and everything comes out in the wash.

In a movie about fake ghosts, character great Lloyd Corrigan plays a real spirit who can only be seen by Huntz Hall.

Okay…I’m not going to lie to you.  Blithe Spirit it ain’t.  I’ve stated previously here at TDOY that the Bowery Boys films are a guilty pleasure of mine; I watched them religiously as an adolescent when the movies got a strenuous workout on Chicago’s WGN and like most couch potatoes from my generation, the antics of Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall are a nostalgic pleasure.  Ghost Chasers is one of my favorites in the Bowery Boys franchise; it’s one of those movies where Gorcey and Hall aren’t entirely the whole show—their fellow gang members Benedict, Gorman and Leo’s brother David often receded into the background just to remind you that Leo had a gang.  But everyone gets a little bit of business to do in Chasers; Chuck (David) is even pressed upon to impersonate Louie’s departed Uncle Jake when the young scalawags are trying to con Louie out of needed funds to investigate the fake medium racket.

Not that there’s any doubt as to who the star comedians are.  In the opening scenes, Slip is giving Louie’s waitress Cynthia (Jan Kayne) “electrocution” lessons—the idea of Gorcey, a.k.a. King Malaprop I, teaching anyone proper English (“You are speakin’ with your larnyx and not your diagram!”) is riotously funny to me.  When Louie faints after being frightened by Butch’s skeleton get-up, Butch explains to Slip that the gang was “just trying a little experiment in spiritualism.”  “For a minute I thought you maybe paid him the money we owed him,” observes Slip.

Leo Gorcey and Jan Kayne

A subplot in Chasers involves a neighborhood woman (Argentina Brunetti) who’s about to be taken in by a phony mystic (Belle Mitchell)…but Slip gets the idea to raise the money the woman needs for a séance by having Whitey do his crystal ball thing and contact one of Louie’s relatives…

SLIP: Sach…for once you’re right…I am stupid!
SACH: S’matter…you sick or somethin’?
SLIP: I never felt better in my life—but I’m real stupid as far as this spiritualistic stuff goes…
WHITEY: You mean…you are now a believer?
SLIP: That’s precisely correct…I, Slip Mahoney, have seen the light!  (Looking at Butch and Chuck) We’ve all seen the light…
SACH: Then you don’t think Whitey’s peculiar?
SLIP: That’s beside the point…

One of the assets in Ghost Chasers is the presence of character veteran Lloyd Corrigan, who has one of his best film roles as the otherworldly Edgar.  Corrigan, who in addition to his thespic turns also wrote screenplays (he co-penned Raymond Griffith’s comedy classic Hands Up!) and directed (Murder on a Honeymoon), could work wonders with the barest minimum of a film role; he was in quite a few of the Boston Blackie movies I’ve been reviewing over at Radio Spirits, and when he left the franchise after Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945) his presence was solely missed.

Wait…what routine is this again?

Robert Coogan’s presence as Jack Eagan, a private eye friend of the gang, reminds viewers of the gap left behind by former member Gabriel Dell, who had departed the franchise two pictures earlier in Blues Busters (1950—Gabe was tired of playing third wheel to Leo and Huntz).  Robert, the brother of silent movie kid legend Jackie, was appearing in Monogram’s Joe Palooka movie series as Humphrey Pennyworth and so it only made sense to use someone already on the payroll for the role of Eagan in Chasers.  I think Coogan’s Eagan is a character they could have left on the cutting room floor (he’s really only there because the joke is he takes credit for rounding up the medium gang at film’s end); he’s not particularly funny and his imitative Jackie Gleason mannerisms get wearisome after a while.

But Chasers benefits from strong supporting efforts including Bliss and Three Stooges nemesis Von Zandt; you might also recognize the woman that Sach approaches at Margo’s séance for a date (and is a bit disappointed when she turns around) as character veteran Maudie Prickett of Hazel and Mayberry R.F.D. fame.  The special effects in the movie are nothing too special but they get the job done, and the direction is courtesy of the no-nonsense William “One-Shot” Beaudine.  It zips along in little more than an hour, and if you like your comedies irresistibly goofy I think you will take to it without hesitation.

Simon says…freeze!

Following Chasers is another Bowery Boys vehicle in Spook Busters (1946)—which has more than a few fans but I’m not quite as fond of this as I am Chasers (Busters does have a few TDOY favorites on hand: Douglass Dumbrille, Charles Middleton, Richard Alexander, etc.).  (Leonard Maltin once speculated as to whether the stars of Ghostbusters saw Spook Busters as kids.)  Spook Busters airs at 3:30am EDT, and then afterward old-time radio fans might get a kick out of Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944; 4:45am)—the final entry in RKO’s brief film series based on the popular radio sitcom.  (I’ll be negotiating with the folks at Radio Spirits on reviewing this one, so keep an eye out for it on that blog.)

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