One area of film that deserves a lot more coverage than The Old Hollywood Times is able to give it are race films—extremely low-budget films made with all-black casts for black audiences, even sometimes by black filmmakers. We can’t give them the proper coverage for one simple reason: very few of them have been preserved, at all, in any form. Kino Lorber took a big step in 2016 with their essential Pioneers of African American Cinema set, which restored and released a number of these films, from the silent era through the late 1940s. Yet that set was only able to scratch the surface, to wit, none of the films included are from 1942. Luckily, one race film from the year we’re covering does still exist—the playfully absurd Lucky Ghost, which makes the case that race films aren’t solely worth preserving for their historical significance. They can be extremely entertaining in their own right, despite their cheapness.
Comedy duo Mantan Moreland and F.E. Miller play two friends, Washington and Jefferson, who at the start of the film have just been kicked out of town and are in search of a new place to live. With a pair of loaded dice, they swindle two wealthy men out of everything—their clothes, car, and chauffeur. The pair heads to a nearby casino, where owner Mr. Blake (Maceo Bruce Sheffield) tries to con them out of it all—until they all discover the casino is haunted.
It’s less of a plot and more of a series of events, to the point wherein writers Lex Neal and Vernon Smith don’t even have a screenplay credit, just “story by.” The film is mainly a showcase for the pairing of Moreland and Miller, who are a lot of fun together—Moreland’s antics and Miller’s straight-man exasperation contrast perfectly, just as with better known comedy teams like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. But since this is the only one of their films widely accessible today, there is no real chance of them taking on a legacy similar to those other duos.
Lucky Ghost is actually a sequel to one of the lost movies, Mr. Washington Goes to Town (supposedly a riff on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and had a follow-up with Professor Creeps. All these films were directed by William Beaudine (under the name William X. Crowley) and produced by Jed Buell for Buell’s company, Dixie National Pictures. With Dixie, Buell was hoping to make race films that would transcend their genre and be able to play for white audiences as well as black (at the time, there were only about four hundred theaters for black audiences).1 It seems that Buell failed, however; Dixie’s last recorded production, Professor Creeps, came later in February of 1942. At least Moreland and Miller were able to make a few more films together in the late forties at other studios, although those films too seem to be lost. At just over an hour long and not much of a story, it’s barely a movie; nonetheless, Lucky Ghost is still an amusing peek at an entire period of culture that has been practically erased, and at two comedians who probably deserve more of a reputation than that which they have. The upside is that Lucky Ghost is as easily accessible as films can be: you can legally watch it for free, right now, through the links listed below.
Where to Watch
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|1.||^||Wendy L. Marshall, William Beaudine: From Silents to Television (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2005), 206|