The Smiling Ghost
the smiling ghost | lewis seiler | kenneth gamet | stuart palmer | ben markson | wayne morris | brenda marshall | alexis smith | comedy | mystery | united states | alan hale | lee patrick | david bruce | helen westley | willie best | charles halton | old dark house
Film: The Smiling Ghost
Director: Lewis Seiler
Writer: Kenneth Gamet, Stuart Palmer and Ben Markson
Starring: Wayne Morris, Brenda Marshall and Alexis Smith
This is a movie that I found thanks to Letterboxd while looking for horror films from 1941. I had to get creative to find a copy of this and saw there it appeared on an archive website. From the title, I had a feeling that it would be part comedy, which it is. Aside from that, I came into this watch blind. The synopsis is an heiress seems to be cursed as each of her intended grooms meets with a horrible end.
Here we start in a law office where Mr. Dinwiddie (George Meader) is working with Grandmother Bentley (Helen Westley). They find an ad in the newspaper for someone is willing to do whatever they can for work.
The movie then shifts over to this guy. His name is Lucky Downing (Wayne Morris) and he’s locked himself away in an office. Coming there is his valet of Clarence (Willie Best) who brings him food. The reason Lucky is locked away is the men waiting for him are debt collectors. He won’t even open the door for Clarence, as he has to pass the food through the window above it. His valet answers the phone in the hallway and calls out to Lucky that it is someone with a job offer. He comes out, letting them know that he will pay them after.
He then goes to meet with Grandmother Bentley along with Mr. Dinwiddie. The job they’re offering is that he marries her granddaughter. They will pay him $1,000 along with all expenses. It sounds easy enough, so he agrees to these terms.
The catch is that her granddaughter is known as ‘kiss-of-death’. She has been engaged 3 times and all three of her suitors are dead or seriously injured. A reporter who is following this story is Lil Barstow (Brenda Marshall). She is called to the only suitor still alive, but in an iron lung. His name is Paul Myron (David Bruce). There is a smiling ghost that is following the granddaughter and Paul confirms it.
Lucky arrives at the train station to meet his future bride. He mistakes another woman and gets punched by her husband. He then realizes it is Elinor Bentley Fairchild (Alexis Smith) who is quite attractive. Together they go to the estate to meet the rest of her family. There is Norton (Alan Hale) who is the butler, Rose (Lee Patrick) who is a cousin and she is married to Hilton Fairchild (Roland Drew). Also, there is Grandmother Bentley, Great Uncle Ames (Charles Halton) and another cousin of Tennant Bentley (Richard Ainley).
Lil and Lucky meet at the train station, as well as at the estate. Rose and Hilton believe that the ghost will strike again. They aren’t upset about it, because if Elinor doesn’t marry, they get more of the inheritance. Grandmother Bentley wants to get to the bottom of this smiling ghost as she doesn’t believe in it. Lucky at first is scared but agrees to help as well. Lil believes that Paul knows more than he is letting on and the face could be one of Elinor’s former fiancés.
That is where I’m going to leave my recap here as that gives you the basic idea of the story. Where I’ll start is that despite not having the most complex story, I liked the idea that we have here. We are taking the murder mystery idea while mixing it with potentially a supernatural twist. Lucky isn’t told of the back-story until he meets Lil. At first, he is against helping and wants to get out of there. Elinor is quite attractive and changes his mind. He gets the best of both worlds by spending time with her and Lil. Going farther in this though, her first fiancé died via drowning, the second was Paul who is in an iron lung due to a car accident and the last was killed by a cobra in his hotel room. What I like here is that the supernatural could be involved, especially with the last one being that this is in a city in the United States.
Delving just a bit more into this, I think that they fleshed out the story well with the red herrings. Rose and Hilton have a motive to want to kill off Elinor’s fiancés. You could also say that Tennant does as well, but he is attacked early in the movie. As the movie goes on, there is a character from Elinor’s past that you think could potentially be involved. What I like is that I was guessing to the end, but looking back, it is a bit obvious who is actually behind all of this.
What didn’t necessarily work for me all of the time was the comedy. I think that Lucky has good joke delivery and gets himself into awkward situation. I even think that Norton does as well. Clarence is probably the funniest character, but also the most problematic. I’m not going to harp too much here, but the character is black as is Best. This movie has some racist jokes built in and used throughout that are an issue. Being that this movie is 80+ years old, I can’t fault it too much. It just doesn’t work for me. I did think that he plays well with Lucky and Ames for sure. I’m glad they casted him and he got the work though, so there is that.
Since I’ve leaned into it already, I’ll go to the acting. Morris plays an interesting character in Lucky. He’s portrayed as somewhat dumb, even though he’s an engineer. Despite him being a good-looking guy, he’s also shy with Elinor. I thought his performance was interesting and worked. Marshall and Smith are good as these two different types of women. Both are attractive and both strong-willed. Hale is good. Patrick, Bruce, Drew and Ainley are all good as characters you can’t trust. I’m a fan of Westley and Best. The latter is good for sure, but I just don’t like the racist take on the character they had him portray. Regardless, I’d say that the acting was good across the board.
Then really the last thing to go into would be the cinematography and the effects. For the former, it is standard for the era. What I did like is that when Lucky gets knocked out, they do this cool effect where Elinor is in focus and then out of focus before fixing itself. This is simulating what Lucky can see. That was a solid effect there. As for the effects, I thought the look of the smiling ghost was good. The more we learn about it, the more it makes sense with why they look like they do.
So then in conclusion here, this movie has some interesting aspects to it. We are getting a bit of a murder mystery here as well as a bit of the old dark house. They decided to add in some comedy which was hit or miss for me. The acting though was solid across the board. The cinematography works with some interesting shots mixed in and the effects that we get worked. I’m not a fan of the racism that is in the movie, but I also understand the era it was made and how it was acceptable. I’m not condoning it though. For me, this is movie is over average. It is lacking elements to go higher, but I did enjoy watching it.
My Rating: 7 out of 10