Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hubrisween 2015 :: W is for Whispering Ghosts (1942)

It was a dark and foggy night. And out on Hurricane Point, as a forlorn foghorn eerily drones, Elizabeth Woods (Joyce) and her fiancé, David Courtland (Shelton), arrive and board The Black Joker, a derelict galleon, once owned by Elizabeth’s great uncle, Captain Eli Weatherby, who was murdered ten years ago on the very same ship, axed to death by a killer who is still at large. (A chalk outline on the floor is still present in his cabin.) As Weatherby’s only heir, with the estate finally settled, Elizabeth is about to inherit the Joker and all of its contents, which is completely worthless unless those rumors about a massive diamond stash hidden somewhere onboard prove true. Feeling they’re being watched as they poke around, and they are by a shadowy figure, the uneasy couple decide to withdraw.

Later, alone in her hotel room, the spy once more takes up his clandestine vigil as Elizabeth tunes in to the latest episode of H.H. Van Buren’s The Man Who Lifts the Veil, a weekly radio program where the flamboyant host throws a spotlight on some unsolved murder case, lays out his investigation, the evidence, and then reveals the identity of the murderer. Tonight is the third installment on the Captain Weatherby case, which begins with a brief recap on the victim, a scoundrel of the highest order, who dabbled in everything from privateering, to slave trading, to diamond smuggling. Van Buren is also the one responsible for all those diamond stash rumors, feeling this was the motive for the killing.

Courtland had encouraged Elizabeth not to listen, feeling Van Buren was a fraud, who always points the finger at someone who’s already dead for his featured crimes so they can’t deny it (or sue him). And just as the program reaches the climax, where Van Buren and company reenact the night of the murder, Elizabeth receives a visitor; it’s the squirrelly estate lawyer, who demands an audience over a matter of life and death. But despite the proclaimed dire situation, the lawyer is maddeningly cryptic, commenting on unknown players who are not as dead as one thinks, and his desire to wash his hands of the whole sordid business. Thus and so, the lawyer turns over several documents and a package, vacates the room, but is then attacked and killed by someone waiting for him in the elevator. Back in the room, Elizabeth opens the package. Inside is a note that says, ‘Seek and ye shall find’ and the collar worn by Weatherby’s faithful dog.

Meantime, Van Buren (Berle) wraps up the latest episode on a cliffhanger, promising his audience if they tune in next week, he will finally reveal Captain Weatherby’s killer. Once the On Air sign goes dark, Van Buren is called into his boss’s office, where an Inspector Norris (Hohl) of the New Jersey State Police is waiting for him with a warrant an extradition papers. Seems Norris worked the Weatherby case and demands Van Buren reveal the killer to him right now or he’ll be arrested on obstruction of justice charges and taken into custody where they have more ‘persuasive’ ways to make him talk. After several bluffs fail, the fast talking Van Buren finally gives up the name, Manuel Desita, who was prominently mentioned in the captain’s log book on the day before he was killed. At this Norris scoffs, seems he’d pieced together that this Desita was one of Weatherby’s many aliases. And with that, he takes his warrant and leaves. But Van Buren is still in trouble, he still needs to find out who really killed Weatherby before the next broadcast or it will be a ratings disaster. Thus and so, his boss orders him to return to the scene of the crime and work his magic – if he can get there in one piece, as the same shadowy figure starts stalking him, as well, and takes a shot at Van Buren...

Comedian Milton Berle’s long entertainment career began at the age of five when he won an amateur talent contest, which landed him a job at the America Mutoscope and Biograph Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. One of the first films he ever appeared in was the silent serial, The Perils of Pauline (1914), where he portrayed a little boy who would be thrown from a moving train only to be rescued by Pearl White. In the 1920s, he changed venues and became a top comedian in vaudeville; in the 1930s he cemented his reputation on radio; but before he became Mr. Television in the late 1940s, signing a ludicrous 30 year contract with NBC, Berle once more dabbled in the motion picture business as both a song writer and an actor.

Over his years in showbiz Berle became notoriously famous for three things. One, even though his act was brash and his stage persona a flippant wise ass, he always played clean. Second, was the legendary size of his *ahem* manhood. Rumored to be the biggest Hollywood had to offer, fellow comedian Phil Silvers once quipped after catching a glimpse of it in the bathroom, “You’d better feed that thing or it’s liable to turn on you.” And then the third thing Berle was most notorious for was a well-earned reputation for shamelessly stealing jokes and shtick from his fellow comedians, which rankled a lot of his contemporaries.

And one could definitely consider Whispering Ghosts (1942) as another snatch ‘n’ grab as the plot, setting, and one-liners echo several earlier Bob Hope vehicles, including The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940). (In Uncle Miltie’s defense, Red Skelton kinda did the same thing in The Whistler series.) Here, Berle even stole Hope’s co-star, Willie Best. Now, I know Best has a horrible reputation as a walking, Step ‘n’ Fetchit stereotype but I’ve always found the guy to be genuinely funny. And honestly, he seems to have a slightly better chemistry with Berle as they beat each other over the head with one laser-guided zinger after another. Berle just seemed more willing to share the camera with his co-star.

And as Euclid Brown, Van Buren’s cowardly valet, Best does his best to elevate the more tasteless material as he proves the butt of several gags designed to scare them off the boat. Seems things have changed quite a bit on the Black Joker since their last visit. There’s evidence of a ghostly presence, a fresh blood stain on the floor, and they receive a blunt message via a crow messenger to leave or else. Van Buren and Brown also find the boat occupied by a couple of kooks; Meg (Riano) mistakes Van Buren for Weatherby and claims they’re engaged, and her older brother, Long Jack (Carradine), claims to be Weatherby’s former first mate and now declares himself captain of the ship. 

However, Van Buren soon sniffs out these two are merely actors hired by a rival to sabotage the efforts to save his show. Still, their blundering hampers efforts to sift through the evidence and search the ship for clues.

And this search is about to get even tougher as the boat gets even more crowded with the arrival of Elizabeth, Courtland, Inspector Norris, two stranded travelers looking for refuge until the fog lifts, a Dr. Walter Bascomb (Parsons) and Jonathan Flack (Sutton), a traveling encyclopedia salesman with a photographic memory, and finally, the spy, who is finally identified as Mack Wolf (Biberman), one of Weatherby’s crew that allegedly died two years ago, leaving Van Buren to sort out who is the killer and who are innocent bystanders – or are they all just part of the troupe of saboteurs?

What follows is a fairly intriguing night of terror wrapped in a comedy of errors, false identity and misguided heroics. And once the bodies stop falling, all the red herrings are flayed, the damsel is distressed, and the real killer (or killers?) is revealed and caught, Van Buren and Euclid help Elizabeth decipher several clues left by her uncle, which lead from the dog collar, to a bible verse, to the captain’s logbook, to the giant globe in his quarters, which finally reveals the key to Captain Weatherby’s treasure. But, turns out, the old scoundrel will have the last laugh on everybody. 

Whispering Ghosts was directed by Alfred L. Werker, a well-known “film doctor” who was brought in to finish off productions when the original director quit or got fired. He’s probably best known for directing The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), considered one of the best in the Basil Rathbone series, and the excellent film noir, He Walked by Night (1948). He also had a hand in the under-appreciated thriller, Shock (1946), which helped vault Vincent Price into leading man status.

Here, blessed with a crackling script by Lou Breslow and Philip MacDonald, some spiffy camerawork by Lucien Ballard, and an outstanding set for his cast to wander around and snark and snipe and murder each other (credit to Lewis Creber and Richard Day for the nooks and crannies of The Black Joker), Werker delivers a highly entertaining whodunit. The film also has me anxious to track down more of Milton Berle's early filmography. (Turns out he also throws a better stage punch than Hope.) Again, the wordplay between Berle and Best is amazing, and a special shout-out to Carradine and Riano as the duped thespians. In fact, the nigh inexplicable scene where Carradine mimics a frog is worth giving Whispering Ghosts a spin all on its own. Trust me.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd.

Whispering Ghosts (1942) Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Sol M. Wurtzel / D: Alfred L. Werker / W: Lou Breslow, Philip MacDonald / C: Lucien Ballard / E: Alex Troffey / M: Leigh Harline, Emil Newman / S: Milton Berle, Brenda Joyce, John Shelton, Willie Best, John Carradine, Renie Riano, Abner Biberman

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