Ghosts on the Loose: Bela Lugosi Haunts the East Side Kids

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Bela Lugosi is one of my favorite actors. He was, of course, excellent as the legendary vampire in the classic 1931 film Dracula. Unfortunately, after his success as the deadly count, Bela’s film career mostly went nowhere. He was tall and exotically good looking but Hollywood never really seemed to know what to do with him so they just typecast him in horror movie roles or as foreign villains. 1951, Bela co-starred in the British comedy Vampire Over London aka Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. When he was interviewed after his return to the USA, Bela expressed a desire to play more comedy roles and bemoaned his typecasting in horror parts. He complained, “Now I am the boogie man”. Bela attempted to break out of his typecasting by auditioning for a variety of roles but with minimal success. Even when he did get a non-horror role, it was often apparent that he was cast only for his name recognition. Bela Lugosi’s Hollywood problems were only acerbated by the painful injuries he suffered during World War II. He later developed severe chronic sciatica that led to a dependence on pain-killers like morphine and methadone. Hollywood quickly noticed his drug use and as his drug dependency increased his roles in Hollywood films decreased. An example of Bela’s declining Hollywood career can be seen in the two East Side Kid films he did. In his first East Side Kid film, 1941’s Spooks Run Wild, Bela Lugosi has top billing in what was promoted as an “extravaganza” but by Ghosts on the Loose in 1943, Bela has dropped to fourth billing after three of the East Side Kids. His role in Ghosts on the Loose is pretty limited too. Basically he just plots against the East Side Kids and complains that his minions are idiots. I love Bela Lugosi and consider nearly all his performances to be little gems but I really wish Hollywood had not squandered his talents and that he had gotten more brilliantly jeweled roles like Dracula.

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Also co-starring in Ghosts on the Loose is the lovely Ava Gardner and Rick Vallin. While Rick Vallin had a career that was firmly entrenched in B movies, Ava Gardner  was just beginning a meteoric rise to the lofty levels of super stardom. Ghosts on the Loose is her first credited film role and, while she was hired mostly because she had recently married Mickey Rooney, the young star of MGM‘s wholesome family film series, Andy Hardy, Ava’s film career was just waiting to explode. Ava’s role in Ghosts on the Loose is little more than beautiful bride but in three short years, film fans and Hollywood would begin to notice her talent and just ten years after the East Side Kids film she would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (she lost out to Audrey Hepburn).

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Ghosts on the Loose is the 14th film in the East Side Kid series. The series started out gritty and realistic but by this film had mostly evolved into straight comedies. The two best known of the Kids, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, get top billing in Ghosts on the Loose. Huntz plays his usual buffoonish clown character and is a laugh riot as a reluctant best man at his sister’s (Ava Gardner) wedding. Leo lets loose with the malapropisms (these were sadly lacking in Spooks Run Wild). He is a master at smoothly saying the most nonsensical things like in the scene where he is “conducting” the other gang members in a song and reminds them to “remember your crescendos and your de-u-endos” and in the scene where he threatens, “I’m gonna send you to an optimist to have your eyes examined”. Leo and Huntz have chemistry together and by the time of the later Bowery Boys films, all the other gang members have pretty much faded into the furniture while Leo and Huntz shine and the beginnings of that glow are on display in Ghosts on the Loose. Except for a few scenes showcasing Sammy Morrison (in what was actually his last East Side Kids film) the other Kids are pretty much forgettable, one almost never even shows more than the back of his head.

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Ghosts on the Loose was filmed in just six days on a tiny $85,000 budget and the cheapness shows. While the East Side Kids and Bela Lugosi and his minions run all around the supposedly haunted house, Ghosts on the Loose is just not the best of the East Side Kids films. Besides an uninspired story that is too slow to get to the chase scenes, the film also suffers from that nemesis of older films: too many dark scenes where it is hard to see exactly what is going on. On the plus side, audio quality is excellent. And the film is FREE in the Public Domain. Just go to the Internet Archive to watch Ghosts on the Loose online or to download.

Film fans can also enjoy a spookily fun film fest of Bela Lugosi comedy-horror movies all their own. Check out my earlier posts on the Man of a Thousand Horrors, click on the included links for FREE films and have a Chill-arious good time for Halloween:
Spooks Run Wild: Bela Lugosi vs the East Side Kids
An Aging Vampire & a Guy in Drag
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla
The Gorilla: Is It Man or Beast or the Bumbling Ritz Brothers?

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