Two gas station attendants inherit a gangster’s spooky roadhouse.
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When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, I would look forward to Sunday’s, because channel 11 WPIX would show Abbott and Costello movies at 11:30. I loved watching every Abbott and Costello movie. Granted some weren’t as good as others, but they were always fun to watch. Years later when I purchased their movies on DVD, I noticed I hadn’t seen these films at all, because when they were shown on those Sunday mornings at least a half and hour or more was edited out to make room for commercials. What a discovery! In the case of Hold That Ghost (1941), the whole first half-hour was cut out when I viewed it. Now the movie makes more sense, even though it was still funny before.
Lou Costello was born in Paterson, NJ, which he often mentioned in movies and television shows. He was an excellent athlete in his youth and was a stuntman and extra in silent films. In the 30’s Costello worked in burlesque shows as a comic, but didn’t do off-color humor. One night his straight man became ill and the box office cashier took his place. That cashier was Bud Abbott.
Bud Abbott was born in Asbury Park, NJ, to a show business family. His parents worked for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. His mother was a bareback rider and his father booked and promoted the shows. Bud toured burlesque shows and set up acts. He and his wife, a dancer and comedian, began producing shows. Abbott started performing as a straight man and working with veteran comedians.
Abbott and Costello formally teamed up in 1936 and began to perform together in burlesque, vaudeville, and minstrel shows. In 1938 they got national exposure by performing on the Kate Smith Hour radio show. This led to a Broadway musical, The Streets of Paris, and then their first feature together, One Night in the Tropics (1940).
The story of Hold That Ghost (1941) is simple. Chuck Murray (Bud Abbott) and Ferdie Jones (Lou Costello) work at a gas station, but aspire to work at the glitz nightclub called Chez Glamour. Their first night waiting tables is a disaster. The wonderful Mischa Auer is the Head Waiter that Ferdie infuriates. Ferdie’s attempting to take an order from a sugar daddy and his date is hilarious. The Ted Lewis musical number on the other hand is an off the chart politically incorrect spectacle that will make your mouth drop open.
Chuck and Ferdie end up back at the gas station where “Moose” Matson (William Davidson), a known gangster, stops in for gas. Ferdie gets in the car to clean it, finds Moose’s guns and thinks it a toy and shoots out the window. A police car recognizes Moose and he speeds off with Chuck and Ferdie in the car. During the chase, Moose is killed and because of a strange clause in the will, Chuck and Ferdie inherit the gangster’s tavern. The lawyer sets up a car service to take the new owners to the tavern. When they arrive at the car, they meet more passengers using the car service. Camille Brewster (the fantastic Joan Davis) literally runs into Ferdie, Norma Lind (Evelyn Ankers, a Universal picture regular), Dr. Jackson (Richard Carlson) and Charlie Smith (Marc Lawrence) are introduced.
Once they all arrive at the tavern, the driver abandons them there. Charlie Smith, unknown to all, is a gang member of Moose Matson’s. According to Moose, he kept his money in his head. Charlie Smith starts to search the tavern, but disappears. As the night progresses, strange things occur and everyone gets scared out of their wits, to our delight. Camille and Ferdie enact a fabulous dance to the Blue Danube that becomes a battle between the two comedians. If you look sharp, you’ll see the rest of the cast trying not to laugh. Joan Davis and Costello have great chemistry. We get a glimpse of Costello’s past athletic prowess during this scene. He is graceful in his slides and pratfalls. Costello and Davis were wonderful physical performers. I love this scene.
Throughout the night, more gangsters arrive to scare everyone away. Ferdie finds the money and the group confronts the gangsters. Ferdie scares off the gangster by imitating a police siren. The Dr. tells them that the water at the tavern has therapeutic properties and they decide to make the property a health resort/nightclub. They hire Ted Lewis and the Andrew Sisters and Ferdie get to boss around his nemesis from the opening, Mischa Auer’s head waiter. Everybody’s happy by the end.
The production values are great on this Universal Pictures production. Arthur Lubin directed four other Abbott and Costello films and later created the TV show Mr. Ed. Writer Robert Lees wrote six other screenplays for the comedy duo. The plot and performers are economical and funny. The musical numbers I could have lived without, but the Andrew Sister’s last number Aurora isn’t bad. There’s also an appearance by Shemp Howard in the drugstore scene. The film is a mere 85 minutes long. This is one of Abbott and Costello’s best films. They are at their peak and the story complements their strengths as performers. Costello gets to scream, bumble and deliver great dialogue. Abbott gets to do his slow burn look, be blasé and exasperated. Abbott was the perfect straight man for Costello. I love this film and watch it often. You’ll have fun discovering Abbott and Costello as I did when I was a kid waiting for Sunday to arrive to see another Abbott and Costello movie.