Haunted House Re-Do: The Ghost Breakers (1940), Scared Stiff (1953) and more!
There’s something exhilarating about haunted houses. I’m not talking about the type that thrill-seeking teens spend their parents’ hard-earned cash on every October or even the creepy, old historic homes that could tell a few ghostly tales. Spooky turns into fun when a haunted house is at the center of a classic comedy.
A raven-haired beauty with shining eyes throws open a window in the middle of an intense thunderstorm, as the wind gusts at her face, the lightning crackles across the sky. She smiles excitedly at us exclaiming, “exciting, isn’t it?” In an instant, beautiful Paulette Goddard has me hooked. From the beginning of George Marshall’s The Ghost Breakers (1940), I immediately connected to Goddard’s Mary Carter as a street-smart woman with a fearless sense of adventure.
Mary is destined for more adventure than she could have ever dared to dream – in Cuba, where her recently inherited family manor awaits her. As she prepares to ship out, even before she leaves her hotel, drama follows close behind her, along with obstacles and eerie warnings. Down the hall from her room, a man has been killed. Bob Hope as “Larry” aka Laurence Lawrence steps into a mistaken identity as the shooter and finds himself fleeing the police dragnet, even though he is innocent of the crime. It is fated on this stormy night that Mary and Larry will not only cross paths, but they will become intimately intertwined in a spine-tingling adventure that reveals Mary’s family secrets from beyond the grave. All along the way, we are treated with quick, witty quips from Bob Hope and his sidekick, Willie Best as Alex. The duo serve perfectly as comic tonic to balance out any frightening moments that race the heart and frazzle the nerves.
While this film is often cited as the original blueprint for a haunted house theme for classic horror comedies, it is not the first, nor the last, version. Based on the 1909 play “The Ghost Breaker” by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, it was first adapted into film in 1914. This silent film by Paramount, under the Famous Players-Lasky banner, was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar C. Apfel, and starred H.B. Warner and Rita Stanwood.
Again, produced by Famous Players-Lasky and distributed via Paramount, the film was remade in 1922. Another silent film version, this one was directed by Alfred E. Green and starred Wallace Reid and Lila Lee. It is now considered a lost film.
The third swing at bat in 1940 had the most staying power, as a talkie with Hope, Goddard and Best. In addition to the rapid wit, the haunted manor offers every opportunity for what a haunted house should bring – a spooky atmosphere, zombies, ghosts, secret escape doors, coffins, a creepy dungeon, and more. Even hidden treasure! There’s a solid cast:
- Bob Hope as Larry Lawrence
- Paulette Goddard as Mary Carter
- Richard Carlson as Geoff Montgomery
- Paul Lukas as Parada
- Willie Best as Alex
- Pedro De Cordoba as Havez
- Virginia Brissac as Mother Zombie
- Noble Johnson as The Zombie
- Anthony Quinn as Ramon Mederos / Francisco Mederos
- Tom Dugan as Raspy Kelly
- Paul Fix as Frenchy Duval
- Lloyd Corrigan as Martin
Uncredited (in order of appearance)
- Jack Norton as Drunk
- Emmett Vogan as Announcer
- Robert Elliott as Lieutenant Murray
- James Flavin as Hotel porter
- Max Wagner as Ship porter
- Paul Newlan as Beggar
- Blanca Vischer as Dolores from Cuba
- Douglas Kennedy as Intern
- Robert Ryan as Intern
This popular ghost tale was broadcast on radio twice – each time with Bob Hope reprising his lead role – in 1949 and 1951. Hollywood is notorious for remakes. Just when you’d think the story had reached its limit on remakes, it was made yet again in 1953.
With the popularity of the comedy teaming of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the 1950s, the two made a cameo appearance in Hope and Crosby’s road vehicle, Road to Bali (1952). Martin and Lewis were approached to star in an updated Ghost Breaker. Initial concerns were obvious – why remake a film that’s been done countless times, especially when the last film was done so perfectly by Bob Hope? Ultimately, they agreed to do it – with a favor in return – of a cameo by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Another reason Martin and Lewis agreed to star in the remake was due to George Marshall. Since he successfully directed the 1940 film, their confidence was bolstered when they learned he would be directing the 1953 version, Scared Stiff . Filling the romantic lead of Bob Hope, Dean Martin fit nicely as “Larry.” Replacing the physical comedy antics of Willie Best, Jerry Lewis provided plenty of cowardly slapstick for “Alex.” In place of Paulette Goddard, equally beautiful and talented Lizabeth Scott stepped into the “Mary Carter” role for the 1953 film.
Another key difference that Scared Still (1953) provides is the signature musical numbers. Based on the format that launched their film careers, Martin and Lewis include a nightclub number with Dino delivering a crooning tune with a hilarious interruption from Lewis worked into the musical number.
In comparison of both the 1940 and 1953 films, they each deliver the same frightful yet funny escape. To the modern lens, you must be prepared for some racially insensitive dialogue in the 1940 script, as was more openly common in that timeline. It is also typical to expect a Willie Best role to reinforce many racist stereotypes of the overly frightened and jittery African American male coward. The unique difference I see with Best’s role in The Ghost Breakers, from his other roles is that, instead of a servant or subservient portrayal, Best is nearly treated like an equal partner to Hope. It may not appear that way to a modern audience, but the fact that Lewis slid right into the same role also reinforces this.
While The Ghost Breakers and Scared Stiff, and its other versions, are considered by many to be classics of the haunted house theme of the silver screen, they were hardly the first nor the last to take on this trope of horror. The concept of being entertained by haunted houses and ghost stories has been an appeal from very early in film history.
Some examples include:
–“The Haunted House” (1908) is a silent short film, directed by Segundo de Chomón, with charming use of special effects like stop-motion.(https://youtu.be/Zo2EKNRIQlE )
–“The Haunted House” (1921), is a two-reel silent comedy starring the brilliant Buster Keaton, who also co-wrote and directed (https://youtu.be/PfBz2rhIR4g )
-James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” (1932) is a spooky Pre-Code starring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton. (https://youtu.be/QON5i4GQ7ho )
-Hal Roach’s “Haunted Spooks” (1920) is a silent comedy short starring Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis. ( https://youtu.be/D-CXQspZtMs )
-Yet another Hal Roach production is “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case,” a Pre-Code comedy directed by James Parrot and starring Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who spend the night in a spooky old house.
Horror films began in the silent era, before the genre was officially defined, and grew increasingly in popularity into the talkies to modern-day. From the creepy and atmospheric to the silly and slapstick, haunted houses remain frequently center stage.
– Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing as her day gig, Kellee Pratt teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and more). She’s worked for Turner Classic Movies as a Social Producer and TCM Ambassador (2019). An unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayhawk66 or her own blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com).