The Bootleg Files: Lucky Ghost

BOOTLEG FILES 737: “Lucky Ghost” (1942 comedy starring Mantan Moreland).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright allows anyone to make dupes of this animated short.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is unlikely anyone will do a 4K restoration of this title, which is a shame.

During the 1940s, most Americans enjoyed Mantan Moreland’s presence in B-level productions from Monogram Pictures where was the comic relief sidekick in a series of light entertainments starring Frankie Darro and he stole the show as the jittery chauffeur in the Charlie Chan mysteries. Outside of Monogram, the other Hollywood studios had relatively little use for Moreland, giving him bit parts (often uncredited) in their A-list and B-grade productions.

Beyond Hollywood, Moreland was treated as a headliner in a series of “race films” that features all-black casts and were released to theaters that catered exclusively to African-American audiences. These films enabled Moreland to shine in front-and-center roles, and while these films were often hobbled by micro-budgets and uneven scripts, Moreland always delivered with fun performances.

Typical of Moreland’s work in the race films is the 1942 “Lucky Ghost.” While the film is far from perfect – it even drew complaints about racial stereotyping back in the day, which will be discussed later – the offers a highly amusing showcase for Moreland’s talents.

“Lucky Ghost” opens with two vagrants, Jefferson and Washington (F.E. Miller and Moreland) who are under a judge’s orders to leave town. Jefferson and Washington engage in an Abbott and Costello-style dialogue regarding their situation as they walk out of a town on an empty dirt road, with Abbott-type Jefferson noting how “the good book said man don’t live with bread alone” and Costelloesque Washington responding that “man don’t live without bread alone either – I’ve been drinking so much water that my stomach thinks I’ve been taking in washing.”

The men sit by a tree while Washington watches his feet pulsate. They talk about a previous ditch-digging job and a potential white-collar job. Washington doesn’t care what occupation he can get. “I just want to find out how food tastes once more,” he laments. The duo attempt to steal chickens from a farm, but the rifle-toting farmer scares them off before they can engage in fowl play. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

As luck would have it, they encounter a luxury car carrying a pair of wealthy men. Washington pulls out a pair of crooked dice and within minutes the rich travelers have lost their clothing and transportation to the vagabonds, who have the car’s chauffeur drive them to the original passengers’ destination. They wind up at a country club run by the shady Dr. Brutus Blake, who offers his patrons casino gambling and a nightclub cabaret. Blake is not pleased with Washington’s amorous interest in the club’s pretty hostess, but there is a great threat that no one realizes is lurking: the ghosts of Blake’s dead relatives have become impatient with how their former residence is being used and they decide to make their unhappiness known.

Yes, “Lucky Ghost” recycles some African-American stereotypes that would raise groans if they were used in Hollywood movies of the era: shiftless behavior, chicken thieving, craps shooting and shrieking fear of ghosts. The Jefferson and Washington characters also fracture the language with grammar that a later generation tried to excuse under the term “ebonics.”

While black audiences did not object to “Lucky Ghost” when it was in release, it raised the ire of white students at the University of Wisconsin. A scheduled showing in April 1943 at the university’s Union Play Circle was cancelled after students who previewed the film demanded its withdrawal for presenting an “erroneous and disparaging picture of Negro life.” The student who led the protest added the film depicted blacks as an “inferior race.” Fast-forward to 1973 and African-American film historian Donald Bogle revisited the race films and dismissed “Lucky Ghost” for having an “eye-rolling coon hero.”

But this criticism is unfair. The behavior by Moreland and Miller in the all-black “Lucky Ghost” would be no different from the anti-social and comically graceless antics that one would expect from any comedy team in Hollywood’s Golden Era if the production was made with an all-white cast. There is no malice in the humor and to read heavy sociological implications in to a one-hour farce is a mistake.

As for Moreland, he is the life of the party – whether getting the best of straight-man Miller, flirting with pretty Florence O’Brien as the club hostess or finding himself gaining Blake’s club through his gambling skills and losing it to the ghostly visitors, he is a force of comic energy. In a more progressive time, he would have been equal to Bob Hope or Danny Kaye as a reigning 1940s movie funnyman.

Directing credit on “Lucky Ghost” is given to William X. Crowley, but that is a pseudonym for William Beaudine, who had been a popular director in the Hollywood studio system before moving to London in the mid-1930s to direct films for Britain’s film industry. When he returned to the U.S., Beaudine was unable to find work in the studio system and had to labor in low-budget independently produced efforts such as “Lucky Ghost.” Rather than call attention to his career setback, he used the Crowley pseudonym. Beaudine would later establish himself at Monogram and directed Moreland in several films there. (As an aside, I would recommend the new book “William Beaudine: An Overview” by James L. Neibaur for a much-needed appreciation on the often-maligned director’s career output.)

“Lucky Ghost,” as with nearly all of the race films, fell into the public domain. Surviving prints are duped copies that range from adequate to dismal, and any proper digital restoration is unlikely as the original materials have been long lost. The film has turned up on a few public domain video labels and on YouTube, and even though the visual quality of these prints are unfortunate, they provide evidence of Mantan Moreland’s comic abilities when he was given the chance to move beyond the sidekick status into the center stage.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to the award-wining podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud.