Just when I was in an Alexis Smith mood anyway, the postman brings a film I've been looking for for some time: The Smiling Ghost, from Warners, 1941.
Two things made it call out to me. One is simply that I'm a sucker for spooky comedy mysteries, not so much a subgenre as one film, which Hollywood made and remade over and over again in the late thirties and early forties. Clearly, audiences at the time never got fed up with seeing it, and I don't either. PRC and Monogram made it a couple of times a year throughout this period, and few were the A-list studios too proud to milk the formula too.
Every detail is in place here, exactly the way you like it; exactly the way you've seen it a hundred times already: the spooky old house, the murder plot disguised as a supernatural manifestation, sliding panels and secret doors, the wisecracking but shabby private detective, his permanently scared but laconic black sidekick, the smartmouthed but tender-hearted female reporter, the cast of eccentric suspects, and the beautiful female at the centre of it all... and it's in that latter capacity that Alexis comes in.
This was my second reason for wanting to see it: Halliwell led me to believe that it was a rare example of an Alexis Smith lead movie. Warners supporting actors, the second lead in their A-Pictures, often got to headline in their B's and it often made for a much more interesting picture - fine as they are in support of the big names, it's always a real treat to see Sydney Greenstreet or Joan Blondell taking centre stage. Halliwell's synopsis is "A girl reporter solves a haunted house mystery", and he lists Alexis first among the players, so naturally I assumed that she was the newshound.
Alas, no: she is, yet again, third-billed, and not behind Bogey and Babs this time. Wayne Morris takes the top slot as the detective (eccentric but cute) and Brenda Marshall gets the reporter's gig (feisty but cute), and comes in second. Alexis is rightly third in the largely thankless role of the haughty heiress whose fiances have a habit of ending up mysteriously murdered, seemingly by the ghost of the first one: he killed himself when she broke off the engagement and now his jealousy of her subsequent amours stretches out from beyond the grave. Marshall gets all the snappy repartee; Lexy's job is primarily to look chic and gorgeous. (This she does with aplomb in a glorious assortment of slinky black dresses and enormous-shouldered nightgowns.)
Her habitual disdain for the material she was handed by Warners is partially disguised by the coldness of her character. A tentative romance is set up between her and Morris, but she only starts playing up to him when he threatens to leave the house (he's been hired to stand-in as her fiance in order to unmask the 'smiling ghost'), and she remains aloof and unendearing from first to last.
Since it was obvious Morris and Marshall were going to end up casting sheep's eyes at each other, there seems no reason why he and Lexy should begin to get it together: it serves only to make her character even less likeable, to the extent that I had some hope that the ending would reveal her as the villainess. This would at least give her the opportunity for some last act fireworks, and the chance to be a B-movie Brigid O'Shaughnessy, but no. (Now I know who should have played Brigid O'Shaughnessy!)
On its own merits, however, the film is a treat, frequently coming close to a real horror movie ambiance; Morris is almost buried alive in a family crypt, there's great clouds of dry ice fog, and the smiling ghost of the title is a genuinely creepy sight, not so far removed from the ghoulish visages of Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, or Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (and certainly nothing at all like the jolly chap in the poster, above).
It's a first-class example of the formula, right up there with Topper Returns and Bob Hope's Cat and the Canary, and probably inspired in particular by the success of The Ghost Breakers (Willie Best is re-recruited in clear imitation of Paramount's film). Best of all is the identity of the murderer: usually the most obvious element of such affairs, this one is a real surprise.
But my search for the perfect Alexis Smith starring vehicle goes on. Any recommendations?