Wednesday, 19 April 2017
GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE (1943)
For their second foray mixing the lightest of criminality with even lighter horror (i.e. non-existent), the East Side Kids toplined Ghosts on the Loose for Monogram in 1943. The young tearaways were now in such demand across town that you needed a flowchart to follow their releases. In this busiest period of the Forties, they worked contracts for Warners, Universal and Monogram (for the latter two simultaneously) and under various gang names including the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys (from 1945). Displaying rough talent on-screen, and even rougher antics off-screen, they were essentially the Sex Pistols of micro-budget horror. As I discussed in the Boys of the City review (13/12/2016) their first boss William Wyler had sold their contract to Universal because he could no longer tolerate wrangling the endless chimps’ tea-party on set that made them so popular on camera. By 1940 Universal had off-loaded them to a buy-out by Monogram and under the new name of the East Side Kids here they made 22 films between 1940 and 1945.
Ghosts on the Loose reunited the Kids with Bela Lugosi, who had previously tangled with them good-naturedly in Spooks Run Wild (see 14/12/2016) for the studio. This was Lugosi’s seventh inning out of his contracted Monogram Nine and is no stretch at all, leaving the bulk of the film to be carried by their mischievous energy. His screen time as head of a Nazi spy ring is so light, he could have telegrammed his performance instead of ‘phoning it in. And as B-movie schlock often does, its title misrepresents the contents, featuring no ghosts whatsoever whilst the only things loose are the wheels on this busted vehicle.
Our old friend William Beaudine directed in a typical Monogram factory schedule of six days from a workmanlike screenplay by Kenneth Higgins which begins with the Kids’ preparations for a family wedding organised by their tousle-haired, bullying leader Muggs (Leo Gorcey). Glimpy (the dimwit co-lead of the gang, Huntz Hall) is Best Man as his sister Betty is getting married. The first unlikely sight of the movie is seeing the boys in the parlour rehearsing the sweet song ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes’ under Muggs’ self-appointed choirmaster sadism. This is surely the only time playwright Ben Jonson will ever be quoted in an East Side Kids movie (the lyrics are from his 1616 poem Song to Celia). Surprisingly, the young punks’ harmonies are not bad, yet still allow Gorcey some choice one-liner insults. “You’re dimming in your dimuendo”, he tells one of them.
The second unexpected vision is to see Ava Gardner making one of her earliest screen appearances here as Betty. As Tom Weaver pointed out, she was on a starter contract at M-G-M of $100 a week and the loan-out to companies like Monogram became a habit of theirs that she resented for many years. “I got sold like a prize hog as often as the studio could manage it”, she railed in her autobiography. She looks lovely but has no more to do than Lugosi, being simply an attractive ornament to distract from the low-frequency crime shenanigans of the ugly mugs on offer.
The Kids use their victimless crime resourcefulness to borrow a decorative wreath for the big day and a tuxedo for Gimpy from the local funeral director. Such is their soft-boiled gangsterism, they even secure a police escort by telling the Chief that festivities will be invaded by mobsters from the Katzman gang. (an in-joke by Gorcey aimed at Monogram’s tightwad producer Sam Katzman).
On the wedding day, Betty’s husband-to-be Jack Gibson (Rick Vallin, a later frequent supporting player to the Bowery Boys) proves to be less canny in his own business dealings. The house he’s bought at a rock-bottom price is rumoured to be haunted, a result of buying it for some reason sight unseen. (Where did he do this? In a bar?) This is where Lugosi enters the frame as the furious Nazi ring-leader Emil who wants both houses so he can use the connecting tunnels between the properties for his activities. He dispatches henchman Tony (Wheeler Oakman) to successfully negotiate with Gibson in a hurry before the ceremony.
The contact address card Tony gives Jack for the Nazis’ house next door then leads to a mix-up whereby the Kids find it and, thinking this is the Gibsons’ new home, decide to give them a wedding present of secretly decorating for them. On finding the newlyweds’ home oddly empty, characteristically the Kids figure they can go next door and simply liberate the on-sale property of its furniture to be reimbursed later. Meanwhile Jack and the police are warned by the original owner about the neighbours’ ongoing suspicious behaviour masked by these supernatural stories. He and Betty hightail it over there, accompanied by the police.
The spy ring then attempts to scare the Kids with a ham-fisted spooky gambit in which Lugosi switches places with a wall portrait to frighten Sammy Morrison’s Scruno whilst he dusts. (It’s worth rewinding this sequence for the moment where Lugosi sneezes as it sounds remarkably like “Ow shit!”) . Muggs and his gang discover a propaganda printing press in the neighbours’ cellar, used by Emil’s gang for churning out ‘What the New Order Means to You’. In their ignorance, the Kids ship the press over to the Gibsons’, thinking it will make a bonus gift. This plays right into the hands of the tiresome teutonics, relieving them of incriminating evidence when the cops arrive.
What follows is a game of pass-the-parcel where the press is shunted back again to the Nazis’ pad, after which Muggs and Gimpy are taken hostage when they stumble upon the interconnecting tunnels bridging the houses. This climax does hold one nice visual joke when the trussed-up Muggs remarks how quiet his friend is all of a sudden; Gimpy takes a free hand from behind his chair and releases his gag to reply “Are you kiddin’?”
Whilst we’re on the subject of propaganda, the fairest thing to say about Higgins’ script is a sprinkling of lame topicality. Whilst it possesses zero frights, it does at least recognise the war effort. When Scroono’s jumpiness is blamed on excessive caffeine intake, Gimpy button-holes him with “Where’d you get it?” a reference to the recent rationing of coffee. Once the spies have been collared by the police, the final gag sees the Kids quarantined, having contracted German Measles in the form of tiny swastikas. Even a daffy sight-gag like this, reminiscent of the Three Stooges, cannot save the shoddiness of Ghosts on the Loose, whose only purpose historically was to speed Bela Lugosi closer to the end of his contractual obligation with Monogram.
The only real suggestion of crime (other than enduring this routine pot-boiler) occurred ten days prior to the start of filming in February 1943, when Sam Katzman’s co-producer Jack Dietz was jailed for seven months for evading $200,000 worth of back taxes. For the untarnished East Side Kids however, the film was simply one more in their long streak of programmers that would incorporate later humour-horror hybrids under their future name of the Bowery Boys.