Monday, July 23, 2007

Haunted Spooks (1920)

“Haunted Spooks” is a two-reeler where Harold Lloyd, dumped by his wealthy girlfriend for another man, marries a complete stranger instead and spends the wedding night in a haunted house. As with most silent comedies, the plot is thin but never-ending, at least until the film runs out.

Harold Lloyd has a remarkable modern quality to him, as noted before (see June 21st and June 27th entries), perhaps it is as much to do with his simple costume of a regular suit and nerdy glasses, and his manner of occasionally looking directly into the camera, as if to gauge our reaction to what he is doing. When Chaplin or Keaton look in the direction of the camera, it is to gaze beyond it, as if it is not there. Lloyd knows we are there every step with him, and he seems to want to know what we think.

The action takes place in the South, as the caption tells us, “Go down the Mississippi River several miles and turn to the right.” The 1920s college boy wit continues with the explanation that “A southern gentleman has died for the first time,” and his heir, The Girl, must live with her husband in the family mansion for a year, or the whole inheritance will fall to The Uncle.

However, The Girl, played by Mildred Davis, is not married. She tells the lawyer, “But I have no husband -- nothing but a Ford and a phonograph.” With such dialogue, we get the feeling the roaring, carefree 1920s has begun with this film.

Her ambitious lawyer tells her he will round up a husband, and finds Lloyd failing at a series of unsuccessful suicide attempts after losing out his best girl to another. He does not look terribly despondent, however, just frustrated that nothing works, not jumping off a bridge into ankle-deep water, nor standing in front of an oncoming trolley which switches tracks right before it hits him, nor throwing himself, backside first, into the oncoming car driven by the lawyer. This is quite a funny sequence with the lawyer’s car moving backward and forward and side to side, desperately trying to miss Lloyd, who perseveres and stubbornly sticks his bum out in front of the bumper wherever he can find it.

Lloyd agrees to marry The Girl in a hasty ceremony, after which a comic automobile ride in the Girl’s previously mentioned Ford out to the mansion gives us a sensation of being in a fast-moving Ford ourselves, as we trail the happy couple behind a road hog.

Meanwhile, at the mansion the Uncle, wanting to plant a trap and warn off the couple so he can inherit the mansion himself, tells tales of ghosts haunting the mansion on this night of nights to the assembled servants. All played by African-American actors and not white actors in blackface as was common before the 1920s, the staff are so upset by the ghost stories that they practically trample the happy couple on arrival in their haste to get away. Remaining is the dignified but anxious butler, who explains to Lloyd about the ghosts and the staff problem, and a young boy, played by Ernest Morrison. Young Morrison appeared in many silent films as a child and is probably the first black child star. Very popular, he worked for Hal Roach, and later appeared as one of the Dead End Kids in his teens.

Here, he is comic relief, when his unfortunate hiding place from the ghosts, a flour bin, covers him all in white powder and makes him appear ghost-like. He spends much of the film freaking out, and unavoidably freaking out others. This is the film of the famous shot of Lloyd with his hair standing on end in fright, as if from static electricity.

The mansion itself is an interesting set, very heavily ornamented, richly furnished, decorated with different wallpapers and wainscoting as to appear quite realistic and not like a slapped-together set.

Eventually the butler discovers the Uncle’s ruse and ghostly tricks, and he muscles him out. The other servants return, and Lloyd and The Girl proceed with their wedding night. As they enter their room, night clothes over their arms, she coyly asks him, “Say, what’s our name?”

Before all this chaos, there had not been time for a proper introduction.

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Anna said...

Arghh, you beat me to it. I was going to review this movie:)

Nice pick though, I really love this one, even though it's got some uncomfortable racial stereotypes in there (but hey, like you said, it used to be even worse with white actors in blackface) Lloyd is my favourite of the silent comedy Big Three for the same reasons you outlined. You really get a sense of time and place with him. He's very of the 20s.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Anna, you go right ahead with your review. I like to read your posts, and film is so subjective, nobody's got the definitive answer to anything.

As for the racial stereotypes, one would have to wait a few more decades not to entirely feel like wincing at the depiction of African-Americans. We could perhaps let Ernest Morrison have the last word on this one. He left acting as an adult, but always looked back on his childhood in the movies with gratitude for giving him the then unusual opportunities for employment, fame, and a degree of wealth as well. I can't walk a mile in the man's shoes, but I can respect his journey.

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