Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Coming Into Focus: The Nostalgic Charm of HOLD THAT GHOST

Back in March, I posted a list of 25 movies that have helped shape me. In this post, I take a look at the first movie on that list, Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost.

It's no bold claim to say that at least part of a movie's charm is bound up in how you originally saw it. Your age, who you saw it with, the circumstances you saw it under, and whether you saw it on the big screen or a minuscule TV set all shape your experience as much as the movie itself.

So a large part of my fondness for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's 1941 comedy, Hold That Ghost, is inextricably tied to the fact that I saw it over and over again as a child on a poor quality VHS tape. And not even an official VHS. It was a recording my mom had made of a local broadcast, and the first five minutes were missing. For years, I didn't know about Ted Lewis' cringe-inducing (not to mention racist) "Me and My Shadow" song and dance number, or about Abbott and Costello's first scene, where they're caught playing craps in the kitchen of the swanky restaurant they work for. Instead, my introduction to them was through a blizzard of fuzz and static, their iconic figures coming into focus gradually--Abbott the tall, confident straight man, and Costello the tubby, bumbling man-child.

Like almost any comedic duo, Abbott and Costello knew how to use slapstick, but we're not talking about the Three Stooges here. That kind of surreal violence always remained just off to the side, like something you caught with the corner of your eye. Instead, where Abbott and Costello really soared was in their sharp verbal timing and wordplay, and specifically with the way Costello always took Abbott at his most literal instead of seeing the figure of speech right in front of his face, making him "stupid" in a way that slyly hid the wit at the heart of their humor.

Just as hidden to that young boy growing up in the late eighties and early nineties was Hold That Ghost's plot. Like Costello, what I saw was the obvious--the slap across the face, or the tumbling crash headfirst into a piano. But there is a story there, thin as it is. Abbott and Costello--the names of their characters aren't important--have inherited a gangster's fortune. Where the money is, though, no one knows. If it exists at all, it's in the gangster's dilapidated lodge on the outskirts of the city, where the duo travel, accompanied by one of the gangster's "associates" and a group of unwitting strangers. Also looking for the money are disgruntled gang members who want what they deserve, but these are the guys we don't see until the end. They're the ones lurking in the dark, trying to convince Abbott, Costello, and company that the lodge is haunted.

It's a thin plot, honestly, and you don't need to understand it to enjoy Hold That Ghost--I didn't for the first half of my life--but once it comes into focus, as it did in my teens, the story itself becomes interesting and you pick up on subtleties and undertones you didn't catch before. That grumpy old man and the flirtatious blonde from the opening act? She may like calling him daddy, but as the old man so strongly asserts to Costello, "I am not her father!" Say no more, sir, the adults in the crowd read you loud and clear.

And yet there's more to pick up on than just an adult joke or two that made it past the Hollywood censors. Near the end of Hold That Ghost, just before the money is found, Abbott berates Costello for not knowing what a figure of speech is. But of course he does. "It would be like if I said, 'Water under the bridge,'" he says. To which Abbott retorts, "What bridge?" The reversal is subtle, but it's there, and with a simple, throwaway line--"I'm a sucker for arguin' wid dis guy"--Costello defines his own role in the Abbott and Costello universe: he's the sucker doomed to suffer the torments of someone meaner than him, but certainly not smarter.

But of course, Hold That Ghost is the kind of movie that belongs in an unbuttoned collar and comfortable pair of slacks, not the stuffy suit and tie I've tried to dress it in. It's a piece of entertainment--the duo's third movie from 1941 alone--made for mainstream consumption. If the jokes feel less recycled, it's because Abbott and Costello were still relatively new to Hollywood. And if I prefer this movie to another by them, it has less to do with its inherent quality and more to do with the memories it stirs up. Specifically, memories of childhood and the barely perceptible sense I had of a larger world coming into focus, like those two oddballs appearing suddenly out of the fuzz and static.

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