Haunted Spooks (1920)
This horror spoof kicks off my annual “history of horror” for the month of October. It is a very funny – but also deeply problematic – comedy short featuring Harold Lloyd in his now-established “glass” character.
The movie begins with a series of funny intertitles that establish the cast and situation. Mildred Davis plays “The Girl,” who we are told is “Sweet Sixteen and never – – – well, only once or twice.” It is established that she is due to inherit a plantation and its associated fortune from her grandfather, so long as she is married and willing to live on the grounds with her husband for one year. The titles also tell us about Lloyd’s character (“The Boy: He wants to get married – – – Has no other faults,”) although we won’t meet him for a little while yet. Before that, we watch as her uncle (Wallace Howe, who plays “A man of sorts – – we are not saying what sort) reads the will and realizes that if he can drive her out of the house, he and his wife will be sole inheritors of the old Colonel’s property. Then we watch clear parody of one of D.W. Griffith’s classic “bird-smooching heroine” introductions, in which Mildred is simply covered in cute critters, and even feeding a piglet from a milk bottle as well. Now William Gillespie, playing the family lawyer, arrives into her idyll and informs her of her new wealth, discovering to his embarrassment that she isn’t married. He promises to find her a cure for that and dashes off in his car.
We now meet The Boy, a society lad who is busily wooing “The Other Girl” (Maria Mosquini) and fending off a rival. She tells them both to ask her father which she shall marry, and Harold is able to trick the father into thinking the other fellow is insane, causing him to summon all his servants to throw him out. When the father approves Harold’s plea he runs out thrilled – only to find the Other Girl is kissing another boy. A despondent Harold resolves to commit suicide, leading to one of the funniest sequences about that sad topic, in which Harold makes multiple attempts, only to be foiled each time. He leaps off a bridge – into shallow water. He stands in front of a streetcar – right before it diverts to the next track. Another leap off a bridge lands him in a passing rowboat. He tries shooting himself with a pistol – which squirts him with water. Finally, he tries throwing himself in front of a car, which is remarkably deft at avoiding him several times before the lawyer steps out and asks if he wants to marry a sweet young girl.
His fortunes have changed! And soon he is married and the Boy and the Girl are off to take possession of their new home, though with a few comic hijinks along the way. At about time for the expected reel change (ie: halfway through the film), they finally arrive. The uncle has meanwhile gathered all of the African American servants and warned them of the coming night’s activities – it seems that once a year all the ghastly grinning ghosts of the graveyard come out to roam these rooms (or “room these roams,” as the case may be). The ignorant and child-like servants are of course terrified, and most flee although a few, including the butler (Blue Washington) and a small child (Ernest Morrison – about whom more later), remain nervously on the premises. Now the couple arrives and hears much the same story, though sophisticated Lloyd claims he doesn’t believe in ghosts – until he sees one! (Actually Ernest, hiding under a table, causes it to move). The movie is now all about creeping through the dark corridors of the house, scare takes, and running away from the other characters, who have often gotten themselves accidentally wrapped up in sheets or covered in flour so that they look like stereotypical ghosts. Blue and Ernest get into the action just as much as Harold and Mildred, and at times it seems that the scared reactions of the Black actors may be the real point of the movie. Of course, the uncle and his wife are there deliberately dressed up as ghosts, adding to the mayhem, but never quite managing to make them leave (they never seem to be rational enough to think of leaving, just running into the next room is all they can manage). Eventually the butler accidentally removes the sheet from the uncle, figures out what’s been going on, and shows Mildred and Lloyd, who promptly evict the annoying in-laws. Of course, there’s one more scare, when Harold sees Ernest, who has gotten himself into a pair of over-sized pants which appear to be walking around by themselves. The last gag, however, is the newlywed couple shyly realizing that they get to sleep in the same room at the happy ending.
Although I’ve done a reasonably good job of tracking the careers of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the course of writing this blog, I have only reviewed one other Harold Lloyd starring vehicle so far. Partly, that’s just because there’s just one of me, and so much to cover, but it also reflects to some degree the purpose of this project in the first place, which was to introduce myself to movies I didn’t know previously. As it happens, Lloyd is the comedian I knew best when this all started back in 2012. That’s because there had been a series of Harold Lloyd movies at the Film Forum in New York when I lived there in 1999-2000 and my father and I went to almost every single one, including this one. Let’s see what a younger me had to say about this movie:
This short demonstrates all of Harold Lloyd’s irreverence, his charm and his comic ability. Unfortunately, compared to others of his films, it does downplay his physical agility and he never finds the opportunity to climb a skyscraper.
The familiar setup is Harold’s determination to meet the girl of his dreams and get married, coupled with the cliche of the heiress who must live up to the conditions of a will and visit a “haunted” mansion. Count on Lloyd to make the most of every opportunity for a laugh that comes his way.
Having seen this with a modern audience, I know that people today are distressed by the portrayals of African Americans in the film. That’s really too bad, because the little black kid in this film proves himself a comedian easily on a par with Lloyd himself.
Hm. OK, could be worse, I guess, but let’s unpack that last paragraph a little. There’s definitely some uncomfortable racial tropes at work in this film, beginning with the title itself, which is pretty clearly a pun on the word “Spooks.” Washington and Morrison are great, sure, but they are being asked to demean themselves by playing the ignorant, innocent servants on a Southern plantation, and widening their eyes to get laughs at each opportunity. There are intertitles that emphasize their funny dialect. There’s a persistent story which I haven’t ever been able to confirm for certain that Lloyd headed an effort to segregate housing in Hollywood, but whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that he, and his audiences, had no problem with racist humor. I would say today that it might be a good thing if modern audiences are willing to express some distaste for that sort of thing.
But what about that “little Black kid” I noticed twenty years ago? Well, as it happens he went on to have a career in comedy for quite some time, generally under the stage name of “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison. He continued to work for Hal Roach, producer of Lloyd’s comedies, as an early member of the “Our Gang” comedies, now often called “The Little Rascals.” He worked with Abbott and Costello on stage, and later was part of the group of youngsters known as the “East Side Kids,” “Dead End Kids,” or the “Bowery Boys.” He left before they took on that last moniker, saying he “didn’t like the set up,” and I’ve often wondered if it was because they were hoping to use him in an even more obnoxiously racist role than he had played up to that point (or just because the paychecks kept getting smaller).
When we study the past, we have to take the bad with the good, to some extent, and it helps if we can be honest enough to condemn the things we’ve (hopefully) moved past, while enjoying the things that are worthy of our praise. And “Haunted Spooks” is, despite everything I’ve just said, is still one of the funniest – if not actually the funniest – comedies I’ve reviewed since this project started. Rarely do I get a laugh out of “funny intertitles,” but Lloyd’s are usually spot-on, even after all these years. His capacity for balancing a “serious”-looking character/demeanor with the most ridiculous, surreal, just plain silly behaviors and situations leads to a joyful release. We root for him, yet we enjoy each of his failures at least as much as his successes. Whatever one may say about Lloyd as a person, he brought laughter to the world that continues to this day. And that makes “Haunted Spooks” a great start to my annual “history of horror,” even if it wasn’t exactly a horror film.
Director: Hal Roach, Alfred J. Goulding
Camera: Walter Lundin
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Ernest Morrison, Blue Washington, Wallace Howe, William Gillespie, Gaylord Lloyd
Run Time: 25 Min
You can watch it for free: here.