Four decades before Ghostbusters, Bob Hope and his “boy” (as he’s billed in the film’s trailer) Willie Best were The Ghost Breakers, investigating a haunted house in Cuba in this remake of a lost 1922 Wallace Reid film called The Ghost Breaker. Hope, to his credit, isn’t as demeaning towards Best as this description implies or, frankly, as demeaning as Best is to himself, with his whiny Stepin Fetchit routine. The writers certainly don’t help matters any, giving Best lines like, “Speak up, I can’t hear you in the dark,” and when a suspicious Hope exclaims, “Something smells around here,” he replies, “And it ain’t fried chicken!” (I haven’t seen the original Reid film, but considering it features white actor Walter Hiers playing his manservant in blackface — see below — I imagine it’s at least 10 times more offensive.)
Still, with Hope around, at least Best isn’t the sole comic relief and the butt of all jokes. Typical of the period, all mentions of race are offhand and played for humorous effect, as when the lights go out and Hope says to Best: “You look like a black out in a blackout. If this keeps up, I’ll have to paint you white.” Best, loyal to a fault, is characteristically scared at the thought of investigating “spooks,” but in the end, he actually saves the day, not that he receives so much as a “gracias” for his efforts. Noble Johnson once again plays the strong, silent, heavy (see also The Mummy and King Kong) — this time, as a zombie brute lumbering after the white heroine. His mother in the film is played by a white woman, Virginia Brissac, in blackface. Yes, Virginia, there is a racial representation problem.