A mad inventor escapes from an asylum. The same day, Charley, a nice guy who's out of work, meets a terrific gal who suggests he ask her father for a job. Misunderstandings lead Charley to think the madman is the magnate; he convinces Charley to hire out as a house haunter. A real estate agent needs to scare the owners into leaving a particular house, so he hires Charley. Charley steals into the house that night and starts making scary noises. Turns out it's the house of the gal and her dad. Unbeknownst to Charley, the madman sneaks in to add to the haunting. Soon father, daughter, and Charley are scared witless. Rescue comes from an odd source. Written by
Charley Chase is firmly ensconced in the second rank of American film comedians. He tended to play a fastidious man who gets increasingly exasperated as everything goes wrong. He starred in comedy shorts with plotlines which tended to be wildly implausible without actually becoming impossible. His onscreen character reminds me of several of the characters played by John Cleese ... but Chase lacked Cleese's broad physical talents and wide acting range. When I see a Chase film, I'm usually impressed by his professionalism rather than inspired to laugh at his onscreen antics.
'Public Ghost Number One' is a fairly typical Chase performance, enlivened by a remarkable supporting turn by Edwin Maxwell ... one of the truly great supporting actors who laboured in obscurity during the golden age of Hollywood. Maxwell, like Claude Rains, was a short stocky man with a finely-trained voice, who (also like Rains) might have become a star if he had been a few inches taller. Maxwell tended to play minor authority figures at cross-purposes to the hero of the film: he had a remarkable gift for twisting his mouth into scornful little knots of contempt. Maxwell played supporting roles in a lot of great films (he was one of Groucho Marx's cabinet ministers in 'Duck Soup'), but he was very seldom given an opportunity to show the full range of his talent.
In 'Public Ghost Number One', Chase is hired to haunt a house owned by Clarence Wilson and his attractive daughter. Wilson is another of those great and unjustly-neglected supporting actors. With his short build, beaked nose and his unusually-shaped balding head, Wilson gets laughs on the basis of his physical appearance and his grouchy personality.
Far and away, the best and funniest performance in this film is given by Maxwell. He plays a lunatic who has invented an incredibly complicated device for capturing and torturing flies. The fly-trap doesn't actually kill the fly ... but, after the fly goes through this Rube Goldberg device, it crawls away and dies of embarrassment. Maxwell is great in this film, and I regret that he never got a better role than this one. I'll rate this film 5 points out of 10 on the strength of Maxwell's performance.
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