Monday, October 10, 2011

“I couldn’t have an ordinary ghost on my hands, I got a rummy! A big, ugly, booze-soaked rummy!”

After last week, I’d say we’re done with mummies. OR ARE WE?? This next film carries a lot of nostalgia for me, since it was on a VHS that encompassed most of what I loved as a kid. Disney, ghosts, pirates, the 60’s aesthetic (before I knew how to spell “aesthetic”), and comedy. It’s time for 1968’s Blackbeard’s Ghost.

After an opening title crawl boasting about how badass a villain Blackbeard the pirate was, we head to the coastal town of Godolphin. The new track coach drives into town one night and will be staying at the Blackbeard Inn, a suitably piratey establishment run by a group of kindly old spinsters called the Daughters of the Buccaneers who claim to be the descendants of Blackbeard's crew. A local nightclub owner has bought their mortgage and is trying to run them out so he can build an off-shore casino.

Our hero arrives during a fundraiser, buys an old warming pan to impress a female professor at the college, gets assigned to Blackbeard’s old bedroom and accidentally sits on the warming pan, breaking it. Inside the handle, he finds an old fragment of parchment containing part of the spell book of Aldetha Teach, one of Blackbeard’s wives who was burned at the stake for witchcraft and cursed him to spend eternity in limbo until he displayed a shred of human kindness. Naturally he ends up summoning Blackbeard from said limbo and has a raging alcoholic ghost that only he can see tagging along as he tries to get his track team in shape for the Broxton Relay, steal the football coach’s girlfriend, and find a way to keep the Daughters of the Buccaneers from being kicked out of their home.

Steve Walker: Dean Jones (star of most of the Herbie the Love Bug related projects and other Disney films) is our hero. A straight-laced, teetotaler of a track coach, he’s a decent, charitable fellow but also a fish out of water in Godolphin. He inherits the worst track team in the state (his shot putter, Gudger Larkin, looks like he weighs 90 pounds soaking wet) and only has a few weeks before the big relay. Blackbeard is a huge annoyance for him (and causes people to think he’s gone crazy like the previous track coach) and he tries to get the old salt to do a selfless act.

Edward Teach/Captain Blackbeard: You can tell Peter Ustinov was having an absolute blast as Blackbeard. More of a poltergeist than a regular ghost, since he can affect the mortal world (like stealing bottles of hooch, stealing a motorcycle, stealing fat wads of cash, and steali--, er, punching goons in the face), Blackbeard is gleefully reprobate and tries to teach Steve to loosen up and have some fun. He lies, he cheats, and he has mood swings like a spoiled child, Ustinov’s Blackbeard is a hoot in this and reason enough to watch the film.

Jo Anne Baker: Suzanne Pleshette is a psychology professor at Godolphin College. Steve meets her when he mistakenly thinks she runs the kissing booth at the Buccaneer fundraiser. She’s spunky and dedicated to saving the Blackbeard Inn. After Steve picks up Blackbeard, she kind of volunteers to keep an eye on him and see if he’s really crazy. Initially she’s dating the football coach, Purvis, but he’s a smug jerk with no personality.

Emily Stowecroft: Hey, its Elsa Lanchester! A good few decades removed from Bride of Frankenstein, she plays the leader of the Daughters of the Buccaneers and when Steve meets her, she’s reading fortunes in a tent in full-blown crazy lady mode. She also provides incredibly hammy exposition (which is difficult to do) and is great fun to watch.

Silky Seymour: Joby Baker plays our villain. Black suit, goons, and a pencil-thin moustache, he’s stereotypically evil and plays the part with oily smugness. He encourages gambling but naturally cheats when it goes against him.

Directed by Robert Stevenson (who was behind the camera for numerous Disney pictures, like Mary Poppins), the film’s strengths are set design (for the Blackbeard Inn) and special effects, which are pretty good for 60s live-action. Doesn’t hurt that most of the scenes are set at night to better cover the wires. There’s quite a few fun scenes where Blackbeard takes an active role in the shenanigans, such as stealing a police motorcycle, interfering in the track meet, and being a trump card in the final brawl between Steve and Silky’s goons (there’s even a nice finger-gun shootout).

Based on the book by Ben Stahl. Screenplay by Bill Walsh & Don DaGradi. The screenplay mixes a whole lot of plot elements in but keeps things well connected, but right after the track meet the movie slows down quite a lot before rallying for the ending. The real draw is Blackbeard misbehaving and trying to show a spark of human goodness so he can move on from limbo.

Original music by Disney regular Robert F. Brunner. The score is actually quite good, throwing in a lot of nice piratey touches like concertinas and harpsichords. The few songs in the film (because this is Disney, after all) are also quite catchy.

Pacing issue aside, I’m glad that it wasn’t mere rose-tinted glasses that led to fond memories of Blackbeard’s Ghost. Its actually a very solid family film that is 100% carried by Ustinov’s gleeful scenery chewing. If for no other reason, the movie’s worth watching for that.

Can't find a trailer, but you get the idea.

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