First a lot of criticism has befallen this film, perhaps most is unjustified, one must recall the time and place this movie enters into the cinema, and their films that proceeded it, namely Buck Privates and In the Navy, two war-comedy films, used to recruit and sell war bonds. In addition, the usage of musical numbers such as the Andrew Sisters, which do bookend this movie, but were a part of the previous films for such songs the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy a famous jitterbug track of the time. Hence, the incorporation of song and dance routines mixed with passion of the comedy developed and honed during long distance train travel for vaudeville performances. These aspects I believe overlook, this early film of their careers with funny and not vulgar comedy, a tad ‘blue’ for the time, and likely miss their target today, but those that admire the genre will still enjoy a simpler time of laughter. Although, this movie ranks high in value of gags, the ultimate horror comedy and debatable to some, is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), made seven years later and likely where their pratfalls and wordplay were waning on the crowds. Directed by Arthur Lubin, noted for his version of Phantom of the Opera from 1943 and screenwriters first Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and lastly and most known for his work with Abbott and Costello, John Grant, in fact he worked on thirty of their films. Furthermore, Hold That Ghost isn’t without controversy which will be note, and not overlook because of the sensitive of the matter in regard to today’s society.
The movie actually has no ghosts in it, plays on the Old Dark House concept, and trait used even with today’s comedians, but almost every duo or team at least one visit to spook central. For example, Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers (1940); Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Scared Stiff (1953); Three Stooges starred in several horror shorts. Herein the duo geniuses (praised by Jerry Seinfeld and Joe Dante) have stern no nonsense Bud Abbott and a cowardly loveable Lou Costello working as high-class waiters, Chuck and Ferdi, respectively, but soon enough make a farce out the entire task with both antics and word play before heading back drudges of life as uniformed gas attendants. After a quick transition, our dynamic duo find themselves unwilling part of a police chase, and shootout, only to discover from famous gangster Moose Matson’s (William Davidson) odd last will and testament they inherited his hideout tavern Forrester’s Club, complete their lofty dreams. The film injects many subtle phrases that likely lose meaning on the younger audience, and yet the laughter abounds for the routines work wonderfully well. Soon enough, they arrive at the stereotypical location used in ghost stories of then and today, “a dark and stormy night” and “haunted” along with some other innocent guest and another unsuspecting villain, Charlie Smith (Marc Lawrence). This entire rouse pertains to hidden fortune of Moose, and his gang each out for them, believing the money is at the hideout, or the new owners have it. While the haunted house proves more suggestive it allows the setting for the team to entertainment fascinating ways, means, and methods assisted by Camille (portrayed by the wonderful Joan Davis) especially regarding the slapstick puddle dance routine and later “the moving candle gag” (which later appeared in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). Rounding out the guests of the new inn, Dr. Jackson (Richard Carlson), Norma (Evelyn Ankers), has loving interest with each other, although the doctor tends for a more nerdish deposition. The entire film has a youthful entertainment to movie, and never eases on the laughs, and using elements found the tales of scary places such as secret panels, rooms, and taxidermy galore.
The supporting cast dots an interesting checkerboard of stars, such as cameo of Shemp Howard of the famed Three Stooges gang and noting Carlson’s appearance, as he later in life stars The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). While, Evelyn Ankers, a name well known by both the classic movie monsters fans and historians of Universal Pictures horror days, where she starred in The Wolf Man (1941) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) to name a couple.
This production, had the working title of Oh Charlie, and created after the Buck Privates (1941) had amazing great success earning then $4-million and 2016 dollars equals an estimated $64 million, but the test audiences, wanted the highly popularized The Andrew Sisters as part of the movie. Therefore, they held back the released of Hold That Ghost until reshoots and adding the musical numbers finished, Universal rushed the process to cash-in with the movie In the Navy. This movie continues to generate positive reviews and only a few critics panned not only this film, but hinted that Abbott and Costello, lack any cinema contributions. Some suggest the backlash deals with the sexist positions, along with mistreatment of women needing rescuing, however many view the film from a modern position and ignoring the time and era, the very early 1940s. Nevertheless, most comedy teams incorporated the witty and slapstick shticks from the gusto of women, the critical censoring likely originated in the front offices and censor boards. Also, as contribution to cinema one may summarize that, some of these critics never saw the classic routine “Who’s on First”. Their timing exquisitely controls the tempo of each scene and allowing them ad-lib where and when they saw fit to do so.
As previously, stated The Andrews Sisters appear for a few songs, again not originally design by Universal, but rather demanded by the test audiences, after all at the time they were very popular and later became part the USO created a home away from home for military personnel and shored up moral support. One nightclub production songs, which Ted Lewis and his Orchestra perform is “Me and My Shadow,” therein lies the controversial scene in the movie, as Eddie Chester (a black man) dresses all in black, and mimics Ted’s actions as his personal shadow. Ted one of the first prominent white entertainers to showcase African-American performers. (*1)
The puddle dance sequence, wonderfully choreographed and synch with music, worked hilariously well together, especially with Davis completing pratfalls and Costello plodding into buckets of water, before engaging in water splashing silliness and filled with laughter. Another subtle filming note, for the significant of cinematographers, the hallways, used odd and off kilter camera angles presented in a funhouse experience of cinema delights. As noted earlier, the movie brushes slightly against the ‘blue’ remarks and clever play on words against the judgmental censors. For example, in the opening scene at the nightclub, when Alderman Birch (Thurston Hall) a married man, dining with a young woman (Janet Shaw), who appears very giddy, “Hi, Daddy!” now is he really her father likely no, and hence a sugar Daddy, and clear indication of an affair, but is it, really that, naivety wins. Remember, it is 1941, and married people sleep in separate beds shown many times in the films and movies. The screenplay, like many of the haunted house ones of the time, were simple, laughs, pratfalls, and comical delights without abusive language, but had the suggestive moments. This becomes the main area, where individuals turn against the basics of fun and amusement, with a more modern viewpoint and reject the era of simplicity, overlooking costs; recall House on Haunted Hill (1959) stay all night for $10k, the remake made it $1 million. The same occurs here $3.00 dinner at an exclusive club, with inflation the cost actually $48 per person, these attributes while minor, become understandable as nation teetered on the brink of World War II, just nearing the end of the effects of The Great Depression.
One of the greatest comedic teams of all-time, today the humor often comes from one person, with spotlight focused solely on them, and rarely is context clean of profanity. Their style didn’t rely on crass humor but rather word-play and gags, providing entertainment to everyone. The fun of this film never ages, allowing you to overlook the surroundings and treatments, enjoy a timeless classic, witness the popularity of them, and feel completely safe knowing that no ghosts actually in the movie, except in cartoonish opening credits.
(*1) Reference and quoted the line from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Lewis_(musician)