Monday, August 24, 2015

On the Trail of Lonesome Ghosts [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I've been watching Disney's "Lonesome Ghosts" from 1937 and wondering... where did Dick Friel get the story idea and how much it relates to the ghostbreaker tradition dating back seventy years. Now, if you've lived under a rock and never seen the cartoon I'm talking about, it appeared originally on December 24, 1937. (Like Mr. Dickens, Mr. Disney enjoys a ghost at Christmas.) But most of us saw it later: on Disneyland (1954), with The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Wonderful World of Color (1958), The Mouse Factory (1972), with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1982, or in 1983, 1989, 1997, 1998, and on. Fisher-Price even had a silent, hand-cranked version as a toy. If you were like me, you saw it on The Wonderful World of Disney on the CBC back into the '70s. It doesn't matter. Most people have seen Mickey, Donald and Goofy go into the haunted house and try to deal with its mischievous inhabitants, laughed, and forgotten about it.

This cartoon has been haunting me though. I have to think "Lonesome Ghosts" was probably the very first piece of media to suggest the idea of "ghost busters" to me. I never saw The Ghost Busters with Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch in 1975. By then I had moved onto Kolchak the Nightstalker. (I was twelve after all!) 1975 was a good time to be a horror kid. My parents would never have let me see The Exorcist or anything like that, but television had Dan Curtis and other TV movie producers creating shows like Gargoyles, Moon of the Wolf, and The Night Strangler. And as long as you weren't allergic to Bradford Dillman, you got some kid-sized scares that worked you up to William Friedkin's The Exorcist and Steven Spielberg's Jaws.

But to go back to 1937 and the three intrepid members of the Ajax Ghost Exterminators. I look for clues like our brilliant detectives. The first is the date: 1937. What films or books might have been so popular that Friel would think to do a cartoon from them? The answer was pretty easy to locate. Topper was the box office winner for 1937, coming out on July 16. Based on the 1926 novel by Thorne Smith, the film features two fun-loving ghosts played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. The couple torment conservative banker Cosmo Topper, played by Roland Young (who received an Oscar nomination for the part.) Topper is a Walter Mitty type, regimented by his wife who's played by Billie Burke. The scene that most likely affected Friel was the finale of the film, when the ghosts pull Topper out of a fancy hotel, playing gags on the house detective and bellboy.

So far, so good. But it doesn't explain everything. The Disney story man could have just had Mickey and friends arrive at the old house late one night, a ploy used in some later Sylvester and Porky Pig cartoons at Warner Brothers. But Friel doesn't do this. He specifically makes them ghostbreakers, the three members of the Ajax Ghost Exterminators. Armed with silly tools like a shotgun, a butterfly net, an axe, and a mouse trap, the three characters enter a house worthy of a Weird Tales cover. Now, Friel may have done all this for the joke of comparing vermin exterminators with ghost exterminators, a trope that would last until the 1980s when Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd wrote Ghostbusters, but I wonder if Friel was inspired by something more?

The date 1937 makes this hard. Many of the great ghostbreaker pieces don't exist until after that date. I Love a Mystery, the radio show that would inspire Scooby Doo, was 1939. Ghostbuster films like Bob Hope's The Ghostbreakers (1940, but based on the Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard's 1909 play) and the Bowery Boys' Spook Busters, as well as the Abbott and Costello films are all in the mid-'40s or later. Even Basil Rathbone as Sherlock in The Hound of the Baskervilles came on the verge of the war, in 1939. No actual ghost breaker films appear in and around 1937.

That leaves print stories. Was Dick Friel a horror connoisseur? There is very little information on the man. He worked for the Jefferson Film Corporation in the 1920s, a company that made the Mutt and Jeff cartoons. His only Disney credit is "Lonesome Ghosts." So who knows? The most popular occult detective in 1937 was Jules de Grandin in Weird Tales, but there appears to be no influence on Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. Another was Gees by EC Vivian (under his Jack Mann pseudonym). One of Vivian's influences was the jungle writer Arthur Friel. Friel's stories set in South America - like "The Barragudo" - have a ghostbreaker element. A strange coincidence, but hardly proof of anything. Were Dick and Arthur Friel related? Like ghosts, the threads are tantalizing, but disappear like smoke.

In the end I can't find anything that links the cartoon to a specific horror icon. Mickey and Goofy wear Sherlockian deerstalkers but this was cartoon short-hand for any detective. One of the ghosts is sitting in a chair with a book called Ghost Stories on the floor, but not any particular ghost stories. As with all cartoons at this time, it was about the gags. The short soft shoe routine the ghosts do into a closet reminded me a little of Disney's "The Skeleton Dance" from 1929 (which won Disney an Oscar), but mostly it's pokes in the eye with Goofy getting stuck in a bureau, a scene that may have inspired a similar bit in "Prest-O, Change-O," an early Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1939.

Ultimately, my biggest take away is Goofy's declaring, "I ain't a-scared of no ghosts," which will become Ray Parker Jr's singing "I ain't afraid of no ghosts!" in 1984. In between 1937 and '84 we had Casper the Friendly Ghost in cartoons and comics, who I am sure was inspired in part by "Lonesome Ghosts." The derby-wearing quartet became the Ghostly Trio in time, and Spooky sports some similar head gear. Strangely, the Casper copyright holders tried to sue Columbia for fifty million because of the ghost used in the ghostbusters logo. They lost. Disney never said boo.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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