Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Friendly Ghost (1945)

The Friendly Ghost (Paramount, 1945) 
Dir: Isadore Sparber
TC4P Rating: 5/9

They always tell you not to judge books by covers, but you do it anyway. How ever many times that I swear that I will abide by this rule, I still fall for it over and over again. Spy an appealing cover on something, and you are certainly more apt to pick the thing up than if it hadn't one; if you are not into actually reading a portion of what you purchase before you buy it (one doesn't always have the time), then you are more likely to get sucked in by this method. I personally have been done in a thousand times over by this when collecting comics; nothing is worse than seeing an awesome George Perez cover, getting it home, only to flip the pages to discover an inferior artist’s rough scrawling inside.

The cover trick that always intrigued me as a kid (not really a trick, though, simply an editing choice) was "The Roll Call,” or, The Lineup of Prospective Stars Appearing in This Issue. DC Comics, in the pages of Justice League of America, would have an annual team-up between the JLA and their "Earth-2" counterparts (i.e. DC's 1940s characters), The Justice Society of America, and the covers would often have a strip on the side showing the major players from one team, and a strip on the bottom showing the power hitters for the other. Often, because a third group would get thrown into the mix, such as The Secret Society of Super-Villains or the "Earth-X” (a world populated by DC's purchased Quality Comics heroes like Uncle Sam and the Black Condor; DC had a lot of Earths to explain their continuity, all now cast to the winds) team of heroes called The Freedom Fighters, there would be a third strip on the comic showing members of that third group. I, of course, could never resist this, and even if the story or art inside might be lame (though they usually weren't), I was fascinated by these lineup shots. That comic sold the second I walked in the grocery store.

Many comics have used cover lineups over the years, but hardly any so frequently as did Harvey Comics. Harveys were always the same inside: formulaic, goody-two shoes, kiddie stories (not counting The Sad Sack, though he was still stifled by a bland formula himself). Despite this handicap, I still loved the design of the characters and the world that they haunted. But I was mainly captured by the little TV-boxes on the left hand side of many Harvey covers listing out that issue's occupants, such as in a Casper comic where you would be assured that you would get a little Spooky, Wendy, The Ghostly Trio, Nightmare the Horse, and The Friendliest Ghost You Know: Casper.

That Casper is the shade of a dead child seems to go unnoticed. Even when a character who meets Casper calms down enough to engage him in conversation, they never ask him "So, Casper, just how exactly did you kick the bucket?" In his first animated adventure, The Friendly Ghost, a Paramount Noveltoon from 1945 directed by Isadore Sparber, Casper is a fat slacker ghost (who bears little resemblance, except in behavior, to the ghost who would become world famous in short order), and he is in no way interested in scaring people like the rest of the ghosts in his home. The clock strikes midnight, the ghosts of a haunted mansion wake up and take to the skies in the form of an airplane squadron, dive-bombing the populace of the town below with scares and frights. Instead of joining them in this pursuit, Casper lies about reading a book entitled "How to Win Friends". Ashamed at the display of his ghostly companions, Casper decides to run away, picking up his kit and throwing it over his shoulder, and swearing that he will find a friend somewhere.

As Casper would discover in film after film after film, this friendship thing is not an easy thing. A formula would be repeated in each of these cartoons, where Casper would encounter a variety of animals or people, he would scare the bejeezus out of them, he would eventually cry over his misfortunes, and it would be at that instant that something or someone would befriend him. He would then have to frighten away some threat to his new friend, there would be much glee and kissing and hugging, and the film would end happily on that note. In The Friendly Ghost, Casper first meets and frightens (to no particularly funny effect) a rooster, a mole, a cat and mouse team (it could almost be Paramount's own Herman and Katnip, but not quite), and a gossiping circle of hens. (The gals do drop a henhouse full of eggs on the fat little ghost, but it's not all that humorously done.)

Shockingly (and stupidly, I might add), Casper decides to kill himself. The pathos, like in most Casper films, is ladled on about three times over; once Casper realizes that he can't have a train run over him like a normal person, he continues to lie on the train tracks bawling his eyes out while the score plays behind him sickeningly sweet. A girl and a boy with rhyming names – Bonnie and Johnny – discover Casper, and seemingly having no fear of him, ask him to play. They throw a ball around and jump rope, and then they make the critically idiotic decision to take their new friend home to meet their mother. She is, understandably, frightened of the spectral intruder, dragging her young under the bed while yelling at Casper to leave. But the door is kicked in by an evil landlord (complete with mustache, ‘natch!) who melodramatically announces he is buying the mortgage on the house. Casper pops up, the villain is frightened away, and the mortgage is safe in the hands of the mother. The final shot of the film has the mother kissing first Bonnie, then Johnny, and then Casper (in full schoolboy outfit) as the three kids skip off hand in hand to a school over the hill. (There is no final scene where the school reacts to the spooky albino kid that has joined Bonnie and Johnny's family suddenly overnight.)

You can probably gather that, outside of watching the progressional development of Casper into the comic book character he would eventually become, I find the Casper films, for the most part, unbelievably redundant and boring. There are moments in each film that are well done – the aerial ghost bombing at the beginning of the film is that moment for this one – but overall, the stilted and saccharine injections of pathos and goodness are almost completely unbearable, and somewhat embarrassing to view. I would suppose that if I were six years old in 1945, this would've been the bee's knees (kids, and actually, most adults, thrive on repetition; practically any Saturday morning cartoon show or PBS educational effort will bear this out). I also realize that I am watching it as a middle-aged adult sixty years after the film first played in theatres. Even with my critiques, I still find a certain charm to the proceedings, even if I continue to wonder just exactly how this ghost kid bit the dust.

Apparently you can love your ghost cat only so much,
according to unfaithful Casper...
But the part that I struggle with the most in this picture is a scene early on, just before Casper runs away from the haunted mansion. As he prepares to leave, the Friendly Ghost leans over a nearby chair and kisses a sleeping cat goodbye on the forehead. Why is Casper running away if he has befriended this cat? Every creature that he tries to befriend from that point on is an animal, and Casper would usually end his search as soon as he found at least one friend, so why is this cat not enough? What the hell is wrong with this cat? Well, the answer to that question is simple: the cat is a ghost cat. Ghost cats apparently don't go out at night to scare people; like Casper, it is content to lie about its home, napping contentedly on a chair, with the checkerboard pattern of the chair's seat seen faintly through the cat's spectral form. So even though he shows it certainly more affection than he does his fellow human spirits, why is a ghost cat not enough of a companion for Casper?

Simple: Casper is a self-loathing ghost. The series actually gets it drive not from Casper wishing to have a friend; however much he tries to convince himself and the audience that he does, what he really longs for is to be corporeal. Casper wants to be human again.

Casper, baby... it's not all it's cracked up to be. Once you are human again, the dangers of the world multiply, and you besieged on all side by terrors unimaginable in the ghostly world that you now inhabit.

You could get stuck watching Casper cartoons...



And in case you haven't seen it...

[This post was edited and updated with new photos on 10/4/2016.]

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