Haunted Spooks (1920) A Silent Film Review

After losing another of the only girls he ever loved, Harold Lloyd decides to end it all. That doesn’t work out so well but another proposition turns up. Mildred Davis is a young lady who needs a husband in order to qualify for her inheritance, an old southern mansion. The problem is that the mansion has some other residents of a… ghostly persuasion.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Call the exterminator!

Haunted Spooks is a bit of a special one for me. It was the first Harold Lloyd movie I ever saw and the movie that really made me appreciate how much clever title cards can contribute to a silent film. It is also historically significant as Lloyd lost part of his hand (and nearly his life!) while this film was in production.

No, not this gag!
No, not this gag!

In case you’ve never heard of it, here is the recap: The famous accident occurred during a publicity shoot for Lloyd’s comedy brand. He was lighting his cigarette on the burning fuse of what he thought was a prop bomb when the thing went off. Fortunately, he had lowered the bomb from his face just before the explosion but his right hand was mangled. He lost his thumb and forefinger and had to wear a prosthetic for the remainder of his life.

Of course, if Lloyd was one thing he was determined and he went back to finish Haunted Spooks as soon as he had recovered sufficiently to work. So, is this short worth seeing for its own merit or is it a historical curio? Let’s find out!

The Girl. Awww!
The Girl. Awww!

Mildred Davis is The Girl. She is set to inherit a large southern estate but the will stipulates that she be married and live in the manor house with her husband. Her lawyer sets out to find a suitable groom. Meanwhile, her crooked uncle (Wallace Howe) is scheming to scare her away from the place so that he can inherit.

Harold Lloyd is The Boy. He has once again been thwarted in love and he means to leave the cruel world behind. However, all his suicide attempts fail miserably. He sees a speeding car and throws himself in front of it, hoping to be run over. Wouldn’t you know it? The car contains Mildred’s lawyer. Since Harold is young, healthy and clearly single, the lawyer puts the snatch on him.

Marry a total stranger? Well, is he/she cute?
Marry a total stranger? Well, is he/she cute?

The concept of marrying a random person is not sitting well with Mildred but all her doubts vanish when she sees Harold. (The two later married in real life.) Soon, they are off to Mildred’s estate.

Meanwhile, the uncle has a plan. He will make Mildred and Harold believe that the house is haunted and frighten them out. And then the estate will be his. His! Mwahahaha!

Not scared. Nope, not one bit. Not scared at all.
Not scared. Nope, not one bit. Not scared at all.

Will our young pair see through the ruse? You’ll just have to watch Haunted Spooks to find out.

As I stated before, the title cards (courtesy of the very clever H.M. “Beanie” Walker) are really what put this film over. Allow me to share some of them:

 

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I tend to prefer Harold Lloyd’s shorts to his features and this remains one of my favorites. The highlight of the comedy, at least in my opinion is the extended sequence during which Lloyd tries to do himself in by various means. Suicide joke have to be handled just so in order to work but Lloyd nails it.

For one thing, the movie makes it very clear that Lloyd’s character is being a drama queen. For another, every single attempt is thwarted by poor planning on his part. He neglects to check the lake’s depth before he tries to drown himself, he attempts to shoot himself with a pistol that turns out to be a toy water gun, he picks the wrong streetcar track to stand on…

Goodbye, cruel world!
Goodbye, cruel world!

The movie does make use of racial stereotypes (the title itself is a racial pun). Blue Washington plays the manor house butler who is deceived into believing that ghosts lurk the halls and who speaks in unfortunate dialect title cards. Oh dear. However, it is the butler who saves the day by overhearing the uncle confess his scheme. Hurray! Little Ernest Morrison (future Little Rascal, I will probably be covering him in more detail in a later review) plays one of the children of the house. Is he not the cutest kid ever?

Squeeee!
Squeeee!

Rounding out the supporting cast is the adorable Mildred Davis. Her sweetness is a nice counterpoint to Lloyd’s sometimes-rowdy go-getter and their obvious chemistry really helps things along.

Haunted Spooks represents pretty much everything I like about the gentler Hal Roach comedy brand. While the raucous Mack Sennett shorts have an appeal of their own, Roach’s comedies tended to take things a little slower and rely on an amiable zaniness. Less slapstick and more hi-jinks. Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and Our Gang all embraced this form of humor.

A gentler form of humor… Hey, guys! A gentler form of humor…
A gentler form of humor… Hey, guys! A gentler form of humor…

This short is a great deal of fun and it showcases both Harold Lloyd and the Hal Roach brand extremely well. The first half is much stronger than the second but the short works as a whole. While some of the racial humor has not aged well, most of the film is a delightful romp that pokes affectionate fun at the haunted house genre. I highly recommend it.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½

Where can I see it?

Haunted Spooks is very easy to find. It has been included in Slapstick Encyclopedia but I like the version that comes in volume 3 of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, which features a score by Robert Israel. The three-part box set is out of print but still available used at a good price. It is a fantastic way to instantly build up your silent comedy collection.

6 Replies to “Haunted Spooks (1920) A Silent Film Review”

  1. I’d liked this short, apart from the racial caricatures, too. And Walker’s title cards are a big part of it; they’ve got such character. It’s a pity that sort of narrative voice is something that movies just don’t have anymore; even when a movie has a narrator it’s commonly one of the characters doing the narrating, so it hasn’t got that independent voice.

    1. Yes, there is something very appealing about those cheeky title cards. I think the latest movie to have them (that I recall anyway) was Arsenic and Old Lace, and those were just at the very beginning.

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