Walter Long was the most memorable of all of Stan and Ollie’s “heavy” antagonists, the ones who will pummel and mutilate our heroes rather than just yell at them. It’s well worth referencing his performances in Pardon Us (1931), Any Old Port (1932), and Going Bye Bye (1934). In this film, Long plays the captain of a ship rumoured to be haunted and therefore unable to secure or retain a crew.
Stan and Ollie are fishing on a wharf before accepting the Captain’s offer to help shanghai crew members from among the patrons of a rough looking dockside pub. Stan plays a trick on sailor after sailor involving eggs, while Ollie blips each enraged sailor on the head as they chase Stan out. These sailors are either very drunk or very stupid (or both) as they are successively dropped unconscious below the deck of the Captain’s ship until Ollie decides that Stan may have started finally to arouse some suspicions – even amid this bunch of innocents. Bungling Stan’s trick, Stan and Ollie both end up blipped on the head atop of the pyramid of prone crew members.
The rest of the crew, waking up out at sea, soon discover who shanghaied them, and determine that they will wreak revenge on Stan and Ollie as soon as they’re onshore an the Captain can’t protect them. Accordingly, Stan and Ollie determine never to take shore leave.
Crucial to what follows is Arthur Housman. Housman only ever played drunks – that’s all he did. He was a professional drunk – notably in Scram (1932), someone who could lurch plausibly. Housman, berthmate with Stan and Ollie, steals off the boat to get a little drink. Stan finds a gun, accidentally shoots it in the direction of the lump Housman has created in his bed, and it’s immediately assumed that Housman is dead – particularly as he’s stone cold. Mae Busch appears all too briefly onshore as Housman’s jilted wife, now being courted by the Captain. Housman falls into whitewash. Everyone now assumes there’s a ghost onboard, particularly the credulous crew who all leap into the briny without a thought of challenging this phenomenon.
Eventually the Captain challenges Stan and Ollie to say what they saw and makes good on a previous threat that anyone who mentions the word “ghost” on his ship is to have his head twisted 180 degrees so that when they’re looking north, they are facing south. Thus Stan and Ollie are left at the end of the movie – making this the second movie which concludes with Walter Long warping their two bodies into an improbable configuration (Going Bye Bye).
The film’s main strengths involve the elegance of the blipping on the head routine in the first half, and the double takes in the second. It’s a blipping and double take movie. Stan takes a hilariously long time to process anything that he’s seen, making his terror all the more funny. Best of all is the scene where Ollie is lecturing what he assumes to be the blanketed form of Stan in the bunk while Stan’s face appears outside in the porthole.
Stan and Ollie are less terrified and foolish than the rest of the crew, it must be said – and merely run rather than plummet. The only people who aren’t afraid of a whitewashed drunk are the Captain and Mae Bush. The Live Ghost is therefore about the ludicrous and ill-directed nature of fear – about laughing at how people can fear whitened drunken Arthur Housman more than Walter Long’s real life monster.
At one point there is even a theological discussion as Stan and Ollie discuss the ultimate fate of their former shipmate. Ollie shakes his head when Stan hopefully suggests that he’s gone to heaven, referencing “the other place”. And when Ollie gets Stan to look for coal to weigh down the bag, Stan asks if you need to bring your own coal with you when you go to the “other place”.
Like all children, Stan is a thoroughgoing materialist, and can only imagine spiritual realms in the most physical and literal of terms. When I was a child, it was of course Long and not Housman I was scared of. I couldn’t help thinking about Stan and Ollie having to live the rest of their lives waking north and facing south and couldn’t help wondering what such a life might consist of. I had yet to fully understand the blessed way in which the universe is rebooted every time with every new Laurel and Hardy film. Well, almost every time.