Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Countdown to Halloween: Seeing Ghosts (1948)

For the month of October, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc is taking part in an annual internet celebration known as the Countdown to Halloween. This is the fourth year that I have participated in this countdown, but the first with my Cel Bloc site. To find out more about the Countdown to Halloween, and to see a list of participating websites and blogs, go to http://countdowntohalloween.blogspot.com/.

Seeing Ghosts (1948)
Dir.: Mannie Davis
TC4P Rating: 5/9

It is very easy for me to want to rate a particular cartoon a little higher than I normally might simply because it has one or two factors that may register with me on a personal level. We all do this to in one way or the other. This person may like romances more than that person, who happens to prefer horror films, while their friend may like adventure films, and so each one is probably going to be a little more attuned to the nuances of the genre they prefer, and get wrapped up in little things that the rest of us probably wouldn't even notice or care about at all. Or not... sometimes blind faith to a particular type or genre means not really having a critical eye in the least, and just automatically loving every single bit of product released in that category. I have known people who have done it both ways.

This can extend to actors – such as thinking all of the films of Johnny Depp or Heath Ledger (merely examples) are just a little better across the board than those of other actors, and so you will probably rate them higher in your book. This can also extend to specific elements, like certain cars or animals or buildings.

We all make allowances in this manner in some way. For me, given that I have a blog devoted to the subject, sharks would be one of those elements that get me wound up even more when they show up somewhere, since I am constantly looking out for shark appearances in all manner of films. Monsters of all types, gorillas, elephants, dinosaurs, old Hollywood cameos, filmmaking, Christmas, baseball... these are trigger categories for me, and I probably have many more, because I am a bit obsessed when it comes to these things. And ranking very high on this list are the trappings of the Halloween holiday season: ghosts, haunted houses, black cats, autumnal weather, witches, jack-o'-lanterns, and of course, monsters, monsters, monsters.

This obsession is why I post throughout October for this Countdown to Halloween, why I collect so much crazy junk, and why I watch monster and horror films year 'round. I am one of those people who quite literally never really stop celebrating Halloween throughout the year, or if you want to look at it from another angle, never really start celebrating it because I act the same way every single day. But I am not someone who is comfortable walking around in Halloween drag constantly. That is too far out of my comfort zone, and there are other people for whom that is either a blessing or a necessity, but it's not me. I'm just a guy with a penchant for monster t-shirts, but no fangs or tattoos or even rudimentary costuming. I don't want to be perceived as creepy or scary, but just as a guy who really loves monster movies.


Truth be told, though, I am not as wrapped up in all elements of the holiday as I used to be. I don't dress up in costume anymore, not since I left Alaska, and it is chiefly because I don't have the annual Halloween party with friends to attend at hand. I have a smattering of friends down here, but nobody with whom I socialize on a regular basis, apart from the wife and her family. We will be attending a Disneyland Halloween Party tonight, but even though a great many people in attendance will be dressing up, I do not plan on doing so, nor have I thought out any form of costume. We discussed costumes briefly, Jen and I, but nothing really took, and then time just really got away from us. So, it will be a Universal Monsters glow-in-the-dark t-shirt and maybe my baby monster beanie (an option) but otherwise, just "Your Friendly Neighborhood Boogieman" as usual.

Now, I said that I watch monster and horror films year 'round, but that does not mean that when the Halloween season approaches, that I don't adjust the level of frequency of these films up slightly. Normally, I do at a very high volume, though due to time constraints with the increased amount of writing I have taken on in recent months, both online and off, it hasn't happened this year (but this is a very, very good thing for me, so don't fret). Naturally, when I get closer to Halloween, and especially on the day off, I am very fond of watching collections of Halloween-oriented cartoons that I have accumulated over the years, or have found online.

As I set up in my initial premise, certain elements can make you wish to rate a film higher than you might normally, and I am prone to doing this at times when it comes to films that feature the elements that I mentioned earlier that are mainstays of a "Halloween" cartoon: ghosts, haunted houses, black cats, autumnal weather, witches, jack-o'-lanterns, and monsters. (Technically, "monsters, monsters, and monsters" is what I said.) One can be easily led by the merest inclusion of any of these elements into thinking a cartoon is probably more worthy than it actually is, though not always. Many times, a good cartoon is simply a good cartoon, and you have to take it as such.

Would that I could say that, ultimately, about Seeing Ghosts. One of those shorts that almost seems better than it actually is, Seeing Ghosts initially fulfills, fairly well, everything that one might want from a Halloween cartoon, mostly in its opening couple of minutes. However, once the film's dull, personality-free main characters are introduced, Seeing Ghosts meanders into dull action and barely conceived "gags" (if such they actually are) that squanders the opportunity built up at the front of the cartoon.

Seeing Ghosts was released in 1949 and was directed by Terrytoons studio regular Mannie Davis. The film is only an example of average output from the company, which is to say, technically competent, but never really attempting to shock anyone by doing anything too original or by breaking new ground.

High on a hill during a windstorm sits a lonely looking house. There is a path that winds up the hill, and at the bottom of the path we see a For Sale sign encircled by leaves tossed up by the winds. A closeup on the sign reveals a black cat cautiously sniffing about on the ground, and it seems he blocking part of the sign. As he passes, his tail moves to reveal two more words underneath For Sale that tell the deeper story of why the house has not sold as of yet: Slightly Haunted. There is a cut to a closer exterior of the house, and we see numerous ghosts flying in and out of the windows underneath the moonlight. The scene cuts again to a view from the rooftops of the moon itself and a bat flies in front of it. He seems to be backlit by the orb, and we can see the skeletal frame of his body as he cheerfully glides in midair briefly.

Inside the house, spooks continue to flit about, sometimes in tandem with the lilting but haunting music. A bunch of ghosts are then seen sliding happily down the bannisters of a long staircase, and then several disembodied pairs of gloves pick up a bunch of instruments and start bashing out a swinging musical number. At a busted up piano in the corner, we see not only gloves, but an entire suit and happy, but no body within it, as it plinks along barrelhouse-style on the keys and then reaches for a draft of beer sitting on top of the piano. Lifting the giant mug, it pours the beer straight into the collar of its shirt. The invisible bass player (also with a floating derby) plunks along, and then numerous pairs of quite visible ghosts are seen dancing together. Other ghosts stand in a line and clap their hands in time with the music as a pair of skeletons dance a shuffle across the floor of the room. A lone ghost motions in pantomime to ask a dressing dummy for a dance, and then picks it up and whirls it into action, spinning it wildly at one point.


Enter our protagonists, a house decorator who at first is reminiscent of Practical Pig from The Three Little Pigs at the rival Disney studio, and his canine pal, a small brown pup who rides shotgun in the pig's red, equipment-laden jalopy. The ghosts all peer out the window as the car makes it way up the driveway, and while they seem shocked at first, their faces turn angry on a second glance, once they realize what is being done. The pig steps out of the vehicle with the dog behind him, and nails a sign reading Sold to the column by the front door. "Sold!" say the ghosts in unison, and then louder and louder, "Sold! Sold! Sold!" They skedaddle as the pig opens a very squeaky door to make his initial entrance into the house.


The pig cups a hand to his mouth and says meekly, "Hello!" and a light echo returns to him. He looks at his dog, and then says louder, "Is anybody there?" and the immediate response from every single unseen ghost in the house is a resoundingly booming, "NOOOO!" The pig jumps in shock, but is not half as shocked as his pooch, who turns into a whirlwind and throws his entire body around his master. They both run out of the house, and the dog loses the pig, who has hidden behind a gravestone in the cemetery adjacent. He peers around the stone and sees his one shadow looming on the wall behind him, and jumps in fear. He crouches down the second time and looks again, and once more jumps when he sees his own shadow. The third time he picks up a rock and turns to face whatever it is, but is scared again when the shadow is also holding up something.

Just as he is about to look a fourth time, his dog walks up, and he realizes that the shadows were just him all along. Together, they start to stride out of the cemetery, but the dog's tail wags and tickles the pig's rear end, causing the swine to jump in fear yet again. He takes a full-armed swipe at his pet to warn him against doing such things. Re-entering the house, the door slams shut hard behind the house decorator, but even though he is scared at first, the ghostly figure of a beautiful blonde woman appears before him and walks across the room. He starts to follow her, holding his arms in front of himself in the manner that she is, but she turns around suddenly, causing him to turn too. Now following the pig, she turns yet again and walks straight through a nearby door. The pig looks through the keyhole, but a ghost pops up behind him and kicks him in the butt, sending the pig crashing through the wood of the door.

Picking himself up slowly from the floor, the pig notices a ghost in an old-timey swimsuit swimming through the air above him. The ghost turns and says, "The water's fine, isn't it?" and then swims away. Behind him, another invisible figure pops up wearing a smoking jacket, gloves, top hat, and slippers. He holds a cigarette holder in his teeth, which you can also see fully as he speaks. "Are you the house decorator?" the figure asks of the pig, who nods in the affirmative. The ghost tells him to shake, offering its hand out to the pig, who can only reply, because it is so very, very true, "I-I-I am sh-shaking, m-mister!" As they shake hands, the ghost disappears, and the pig is left holding an empty glove in his hand. He throws it to the ground, but then the glove stands up on the tips of its fingers and walks away.

The glove walks up the pig's paint bucket and dives into it. The pig runs up and grabs the paintbrush. He swishes it about trying to find the glove, but all that happens is that two big green ghosts fly out of the bucket laughing wildly at him. He picks up the bucket and walks to his ladder, and then goes up the first few rungs. Strangely, the bottom part of the ladder seems to close up behind him as he climbs. The ladder shoots up and he ends very high in the room. He starts to paint the dirty green walls a golden color, but as the paint washes down, a window – or at least a certain portion of a window – appears magically before his eyes. He is shocked, but even more shocked when he paints more with the gold color and the rest of the window appears. While looking through the window makes it look like it is a blue sky day (even while it is nighttime), a ghost opens the window and it looks as if he is peering through a golden window (its an odd effect). The ghost says, "Hello!" and then slams the window shut. The window totally disappears leaving only the gold-painted wall, and the pig leaps into the air and falls all the way the floor, smashing hard into it.

Another ghost strides into the room and right past the pig, almost in a mocking and daring fashion. The decorator picks up a board and goes to strike the ghost with it, but naturally, his swing goes right through the apparition. He is about to try again, but the spook turns and grabs the board and snaps it into two over its knee. The dog walks up behind the pig again and once more scares him. The pig tells the canine to go away, and then peers into the next room. But the dog sees something coming and runs away, leaving the pig's back turned as a skeleton walks up and pokes him on the shoulder. "Go away," says the pig, but the skeleton pokes again. The pig reaches back and feels something strange, and pulls his hand forward to reveal that he is hold a shinbone with a foot attached to it.

He turns around, sees the skeleton, and wastes no time in speeding away! He runs so fast that as he passes the dog, his pet is pulled in his wake and they head all the way up the stairs. The pig locks himself in a trunk in the attic and the dog sits on top of it, but a ghost appears over the trunk and the poor pooch finds that he is trapped inside the somewhat elastic spook as if he were in a plastic bag. With a mighty leap, he frees himself of the trap, and it is just enough to force the ghost into the trunk. There is a rumble inside it, and the pig finds he must make his escape as well. Speeding back down the stairs, the pair crash from step to step, making enough noise to make a group of skeletons sleeping underneath each one to pop and say sharply in unison, "QUIET!"

The pig and dog hid their heads under a couch in the living room, but another ghost lights the fuse on a large stick of dynamite and places it behind them. The decorator turns to see the dynamite and runs, but the dog thinks it is a game and grabs the TNT and chases after the pig. The dog tries to give the pig the stick of dynamite, and the pig panics and throws it away, not thinking that, of course, the dog will think they are playing fetch and will bring it back again. Once he throws it, the pig whips through the door and holds the door shut, but the dog leaps out a window and presents him with the TNT. This time, he opens the door to the house, throws the stick inside, and then slams the door shut. The dog actually follows him down the hill, where they both hide to await the explosion. The house goes up in a huge blast and is blown to splinters. Then the pig sees what is coming out of the blast: all of the ghosts come floating down from the sky, suspended by spectral parachutes. Their chutes disappearing as they alight on the ground, the spooks start giving chase once more to the pig and the dog, and the film comes to a close.

Not a very satisfying resolution to a not altogether enjoyable cartoon, but I don't think the pig and dog team ever really fit in very well to the scenario anyway. For a house decorator, except for the painting sequence, he doesn't really try to do all that much in the way of his job. The dog's inclusion in the antics almost seems like an afterthought. The pup never really gets a solo moment with the ghosts apart from the "plastic bag" moment, and it almost feels like he was added just so they had a reason to do the fetch gag with the dynamite.

But Seeing Ghosts does have that marvelous beginning. The first couple of minutes have ample Halloween atmosphere, and the bit with the For Sale sign and the black cat is a nice intro leading to the ghosts. You could argue that the ghost and skeleton gags during the dance sequence themselves have been done equally well and even far better in many cartoons, but since when was watching ghosts enjoy themselves at a swingin' party a crime?

That is exactly the hitch with a film like Seeing Ghosts. I find it extremely disappointing by the end of the cartoon, especially since two-thirds of the running time is spent with a couple of quite forgettable characters. And yet, I cannot dismiss it outright, because the ghost sequences and especially that opening are rendered well enough with spooky flair and fun that the film must be included in any annual Halloween collection just so one can take in the atmosphere.

As I said, we all make allowances in some way. It all depends on what you like...

RTJ


*****

And in case you haven't seen it:


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