Monday, November 2, 2009

Ghost Images: Ten Classic Movies of the Supernatural

With Halloween last week and the Day of the Dead this week, movie blogs have been buzzing with posts on films about the occult. The IMDb Hit List recently featured a post about the top ten ghost movies. While the selections were thoughtfully chosen, the emphasis was on movies of the last thirty years or so, and none of the pictures on it were the kind of classic films that most appeal to me. So in this post I'd like to offer ten ghost movies from 1937-1962 that I think would appeal to lovers of classic film like me—admittedly not all of them masterpieces, but still entertaining and in some cases unusual examples of the genre from that era. One film that normally would be on the list is Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963), but I'm forgoing that one because I've already written an entire post on it. So here they are, in chronological order:

• Topper (1937). Ordinarily you expect a ghost story, or a movie about ghosts, to be scary. But Topper is a rarity—a comedy about ghosts, one of three I'm including in this post. The fast-living, hard-drinking socialite couple George and Marion Kerby (a rather manic Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) are killed in a car crash returning home from a night club. Fortunately, their car, a custom-built fin-tailed 1936 Buick, survives the crash intact and is bought by a staid banker, Cosmo Topper (Roland Young). But along with the car come the Kerbys as ghosts, and under their influence he defies his repressive wife (Billie Burke) and breaks out of his conservative shell. Of course, only Topper can see and hear the Kerbys, and this leads to many humorous complications and misunderstandings. The movie was produced by Hal Roach, who was responsible for the early Harold Lloyd shorts, the Our Gang comedies, and many of the Laurel and Hardy movies, so it's no surprise that Topper is full of hyperkinetic physical comedy. The director, Norman Z. McLeod was no stranger to broad comedy either, directing movies with the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Danny Kaye, and Bob Hope. Topper was followed by two sequels (without Grant, who in the meantime had gone on to greater things). One of them, Topper Returns (1941), is a fun comic ghost story/mystery without the Kerbys that stars the always delightful Joan Blondell as a ghost who enlists Topper to help her solve her own murder.

• Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). After saxophone-playing prizefighter Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) crashes his airplane, an overzealous heavenly messenger (Edward Everett Horton) snatches his soul to Heaven, not realizing Pendleton was supposed to have survived the crash. When Joe's manager (James Gleason) has his body cremated, the heavenly Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) is forced to rehouse Joe temporarily in a recently deceased body until he can sort out the situation. The body is that of a crooked millionaire investment banker named Farnsworth, who has just been murdered by his scheming wife and her lover. The movie is not only a seriocomic ghost story, but has elements of both the body-switch movie (we see Robert Montgomery but everyone else sees the real Farnsworth) and the Capra social conscience movie as Joe tries to rectify Farnsworth's financial swindles, especially to one of his victims, Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), with whom he has fallen in love. The movie is full of clever and imaginative twists, unexpectedly comic in its approach to death and reincarnation, and thoroughly entertaining. Montgomery gives one of his best performances as an honest working-class man trying uncomfortably, and with often humorous results, to impersonate an upper-class crook, and character stalwarts Rains, Horton, and Gleason form a dream supporting cast.

• The Curse of the Cat People (1944). This was one of three movies Robert Wise directed for famed producer Val Lewton. (Actually, he replaced Gunther von Fritsch and the two get co-directing credit for this film.) The movie carries over the three main characters from the first horror film Lewton produced for RKO, The Cat People (1942), but otherwise has little connection to its predecessor. In this film, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) has married his colleague Alice (Jane Randolph) after the death of his first wife Irena (Simone Simon), the strange young woman who believed herself the victim of an ancient curse in The Cat People. The couple now have a troubled young daughter, and the ghost of Irena (pictured above) appears to her. This ghost, though, is no menace, but rather a protector and guide to the unhappy girl, a sort of spectral equivalent of the imaginary friend. The movie is not frightening, but instead dreamy—closer to a supernatural fantasy than a classic ghost story—and quite unlike the other Lewton thrillers or the typical movie about the supernatural.

• The Uninvited (1944). A wonderfully atmospheric ghost movie that deserves to be better known. A brother and sister from London, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey), visiting the south coast of England, discover a picturesque unoccupied seaside house called Windward House and determine to live there. The owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), at first refuses to sell the house but eventually relents after warning them of the house's evil reputation and the reports of strange occurrences there. It turns out that his daughter died in a fall from the cliff outside the house, which in part explains his overprotective attitude toward his granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell)—who has charmed the Fitzgerald's, particularly Roderick—and the fact that he refuses to let her visit them at Windward House. The new owners soon begin to experience events that convince them that an evil presence does indeed haunt the house and that it is not only connected to the ethereal Stella but poses a real threat to her. The movie includes ghostly apparitions, an exorcism of the house, and a very memorable séance (pictured above), walking a fine line between explicit and suggested ghostly manifestations. It also features the beautiful Victor Young melody "Stella by Starlight."

• Blithe Spirit (1945). The third comic ghost story on my list is based on a play by Noel Coward, a perennial favorite of amateur theater groups. Writer Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison), a skeptic about the occult in search of material for a new book, invites the local medium, Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, above), to conduct a séance at his home. The séance has unfortunate consequences when Madame Arcati accidentally summons up the headstrong ghost of Charles's first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond, in appropriately weird green make-up and shroud-like gown). Complications ensue in the form of conflict with his second wife (Constance Cummings) and Madame Arcati's ineffectual but hilarious attempts to rid the Condomines of Elvira's ghostly presence and the supernatural ménage à trois it has created. The plot—especially its resolution—is reminiscent of Topper, but with director David Lean at the helm, the humor is drier and more subtle, emphasizing verbal wit over physical shenanigans. The acting is more subtle too, but Rutherford goes all out in her characterization of the wacky medium and easily manages to steal the movie in the process, in a comic performance that is a genuine classic.

• The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). One of the most romantic of all ghost movies, this is the story of a love affair between a living woman and a ghost. The young widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney, at her loveliest) and her daughter leave London to live in a small house called Gull Cottage on the English coast. The superstitious locals believe the house to be haunted by its former inhabitant, a sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison again), who is thought to have committed suicide there. On her very first night at Gull Cottage, Lucy finds the tale of haunting to be true when the irascible Capt. Gregg appears to her. The two soon make a truce, though, and over the years develop a close friendship. When Lucy finds her income gone, the captain even devises a clever scheme that permits Lucy to remain the tenant of Gull Cottage and stay close to him. The movie is quite poignant in its depiction of the decades-long devotion of Lucy and the captain to each other. A very touching tale directed with uncharacteristic tenderness by the usually acerbic Joseph L. Maknkiewicz.

• Portrait of Jennie (1948). On a snowy winter day in New York City, artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) meets a teenaged girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones) in Central Park and strikes up a friendship. But Jennie disappears from the park suddenly before he can find out more about her. Eben keeps returning to the park hoping to meet her again but is unsuccessful. A few weeks later he runs into her again, and she seems a few years older. Time and again this pattern is repeated: Jennie disappears suddenly, only to reappear later, each time a bit older. Eben, who is having a hard time finding inspiration and establishing himself as an artist, soon begins a portrait of her, working on it intermittently when he can get her to sit for him. As he investigates Jennie's past, the mystery surrounding her deepens as he is told things that don't seem possible. Jennifer Jones is quite good as the beautiful, gentle Jenny who becomes Eben's ghostly muse, and the cast is rounded out by veteran character actors Ethel Barrymore, Cecil Kellaway, and Lillian Gish. Debussy's "Clair de Lune" is used most effectively as a recurring musical theme to suggest Jennie's otherworldly nature. In a way the movie is a bit silly and at times a trifle overly earnest in its treatment of its slight story. But Luis Buñuel named it one of the ten best movies of all time in a Sight and Sound survey, so there must be something to it, mustn't there?

• Scrooge (1951). Hands down the best version ever of Dickens's A Christmas Carol and one of the very best adaptations of a work by Dickens ever filmed for the big screen. Is there anyone unfamiliar with this irresistible tale of greed and redemption, with its trio of Christmas ghosts who show Ebenezer Scrooge the error of his ways just in time? The production design, the cast (including in a small role a young Patrick MacNee, John Steed of TV's The Avengers), the photography, the direction—everything about the movie is first-rate. But as good as those things are, it is Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge who dominates the picture. This was the role of a lifetime, and even if he had never made another movie, this performance would have secured his place in cinema history.

• The Innocents (1961). In Victorian England Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is hired by their uncle as governess to his two young wards, Miles and Flora, who live at a remote country estate. She soon begins to suspect that something is not right in the house when she keeps seeing two strangers furtively prowling the grounds. The housekeeper says her description of them sounds like the children's former governess and her lover, the estate manager, both now dead, and hints at some unspeakable scandal they were involved in. Miss Giddens, convinced that the two have somehow corrupted the children and have returned from the dead with evil designs on them, gradually becomes obsessed with protecting the children from the ghosts and with finding out exactly what hold the ghosts have over them. The Innocents is based on the short novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and reproduces both the ambiguity of the book about the existence of the ghosts and the book's suggestions that there is something implicitly sexual in Miss Giddens's preoccupation with the "corruption" of the children by the ghosts. Are the ghosts figments of her imagination, or are they real? Are the children really in danger, or is her concern for their safety and purity an idée fixe born of repressed sexual hysteria? Is Miss Giddens the children's protector, or is she a delusional neurotic projecting her own phobias about sex onto the children? The movie provides no answers, giving us evidence that could support either view. But it does provide atmosphere galore, and the governess's belief in the evil hanging over the children, whether real or imaginary, is genuinely unsettling. Of all the movies covered in this post, The Innocents, brilliantly directed by Jack Clayton and photographed by Freddie Francis, is the most successful as a work of cinema art, and it contains what in my view is the great Deborah Kerr's finest performance.

• Carnival of Souls (1962). A car with three young women in it plunges off a bridge and into a turbid river. As rescuers search for the submerged car and pull it from the river, the lone survivor, a young woman named Mary Henry (Candace Hilligloss), staggers from the river dazed and covered in mud. Trying to put the trauma of the crash behind her, Mary moves to another state and gets a job as a church organist. But strange things keep happening to her. The most unnerving of these are recurrent encounters with a ghoulish-looking stranger and Mary's fascination with a derelict carnival pavilion on the edge of a remote lake, to which she inexplicably feels drawn. The movie climaxes in a late-night danse macabre at the pavilion, in which bizarre-looking couples who could have come from a zombie movie directed by Fellini move stiffly around the dance floor and Mary herself dances with the ghoul. Shot in two weeks by a crew of five, the movie was filmed in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for release to drive-in theaters. The director was Herk Harvey, a Kansas-based filmmaker who directed over 400 short educational and industrial films with titles like Your Junior High Days and Why Study Industrial Arts? but no other feature films. The movie's twist ending will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the Twilight Zone episode with Inger Stevens about the mysterious hitchhiker, but it still packs a satisfying punch. Carnival of Souls is a bona fide proto-indie/cult/sleeper film that despite its budgetary limitations is in its way as chilling a ghost tale as any movie on this list.


Rupert said...

As always, you have chosen an interesting, and in this case timely, topic to focus on. There are excellent examples of spooky cinema here, some of which are very close to my cinematic heart, and which I have featured on my blog. Some I have yet to see but after this read am a bit closer to viewing. Great post.

VP81955 said...

"Toper" has some superlative special effects by Roy Seawright, who worked for Roach for many years. His handiwork is also evident in "Topper Takes A Trip," which like the original is baned on Thorne Smith's novel. ("Topper Returns" is an original story.) In "Trip," Constance Bennett reprises her role as Marion Kerby (spelled with an "e," not an "i"), and she makes a wonderfully sexy ghost, charmingly interacting with Roland Young's Topper..

To see more of Seawright's magic, visit

R. D. Finch said...

VP, thanks for alerting me about the spelling of Kerby. I wrote the names from memory and used the more conventional spelling without checking it. These little details can be so treacherous. I've gone back and corrected the error.


Anonymous said...

Another great posting, RD, once again showing your wonderful knowledge of cinema. I agree the special effects in Topper are amazing - also good to see Scrooge getting some recognition as a ghost film. As Rupert said, I've also still to see some of these, but am now more keen to do so. Judy

John said...

First, let me say a great idea and the films are well chosen. “The Uninvited” is one of my favorites along with “The Innocents” and “The Haunting” which you previously wrote about. “The Curse of the Cat People” is also superb. The others are all good and I agree with you on the 1951 “Scrooge” being the best version of “A Christmas Carol.” I have not seen “Blithe Spirits” nor “Portrait of Jennie” but they both sound intriguing. Another personal favorite is a Bob Hope film called “The Ghost Breakers.” It is one of Hope’s best. The film is atmospheric and spooky as well as funny plus he has a lovely Paulette Goddard by his side.

hal0000 said...

I gotta say, The Curse of the Cat People has one of the most incongruent titles, ever. I prefer Cat People, but I can't really compare the two. They have the same actors but that's about it. One is a Cronenberg-ian tale of transmogrification and visceral, internal fears and the other is a poignant study of childhood loneliness and imagination (for me, not really horror).

I've seen about 1/2 of the Val Lewton produced horror films and I've been so impressed. Their titles and posters suggest cheesy, campy, dated curiosities, but they're all (so far) grounded in reality and more concerned with serious, existential dilemmas than scaring the audience (which they also do very well). If anything, the more widely beloved Universal monsters (Frankenstein) are more dated, whereas Val Lewton's work inflicts such a strong level of angst in this viewer.

Not really a horror fan, though. I prefer the Val Lewton films because they're really closer to Bergman's work than to jump-out-and-say-boo thrillers. My favorites so far are:

Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and Isle of the Dead. In addition to scaring me the old fashioned way, they ask serious questions about existence, and all the while, remain relatively grounded to reality (helped, of course, by shoestring budgets).

R. D. Finch said...

Hal, I've recently watched or rewatched all of the Lewton-produced horror movies, and they are an impressive body of work. It helped that he had an impressive roster of (mostly) young directors, but there is a consistency of quality and strength of tone that he must surely be responsible for. The low budgets allowed him to pursue his interest in atmosphere over special effects and melodramatics. My favorites are "The Cat People"(which I saw on TV as a child years before I saw any of the others) and "I Walked with a Zombie," followed by "The Body Snatcher" and "Bedlam," followed by "Curse," "The Seventh Victim," and "Isle." For me the weakest, despite some good moments, are "The Leopard Man" and "The Ghost Ship." If you haven't seen the TCM special with Martin Scorsese, it's a great tribute. The abysmal 1982 remake of "The Cat People" shows how perceptive Lewton's "less is more" approach was.

Sam Juliano said...

I just saw the newest incarnation of Dickens's classic Christmas ghost story with Jim Carry, but there is no danger of the Alistair Sim version falling from the perch, that much I can assure you. I applaud the selections here of THE PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (which I had the fortune of watching at the Loews Jersey City movie palace months back after numerous DVD viewings) and of BLITHE SPIRIT, which few people who even consider since it blends genres (beautifully I must add) I love all the Lewton talk here, and like Hal and R.D. am a lifelong fan of his catalogue. Yes, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE does belong here for sure, but all the selections are inspired.

Perhaps in a lighter vein, we might consider Abbot and Costello's THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, or perhaps a minor British classic, THE GHOST GOES WEST, or even the contemporary GHOST with Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg. The Japanese KWAIDAN and Mizoguchi's UGETSU might be under consideration, or the British omnibus DEAD OF NIGHT.

The modern-day equivalent of your MR. JORDAN choice might be considered: HEAVEN CAN WAIT with Warren Beatty.

Another masterful and engaging post.

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, some good suggestions. (I have yet to see "The Ghost Goes West," although I'm a big fan of Rene Clair and Robert Donat.) I actually did consider including the two Japanese films you mention and "Dead of Night" but eliminated them to keep it at ten because they are only in part ghost movies, but the parts/segments of them that are ghost stories are without question unforgettable and easily rank with the greatest of the genre. Speaking of Abbott and Costello, one of my guilty pleasures is "Hold That Ghost," which I've seen several times, even though the ghost in it turns out to be a tease. I haven't yet seen "The Ghost Breakers" with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard either but have heard it's quite funny.

Quirky Character said...

in ghost and mrs muir the captain's name is gregg.

R. D. Finch said...

Quirky, thanks. I've corrected the error in the text.