Sometimes, it’s a lot of fun to sit down and watch a movie for which one knows nothing – I mean absolutely nothing – about.
Such an opportunity afforded itself this weekend when I sat down to watch a VHS tape of “The Ghost Camera” (1933). I didn’t know a thing about it save that it starred Ida Lupino.
I picked up the VHS of “The Ghost Camera” from a local store which is liquidating its entire stock of VHS tapes for $1 each or three for $2. The store also carried tapes from those underground labels that catered to the movie buff with oddball titles the studios themselves would never think of releasing. It came in a generic cardboard box illustrated with old movie posters but no information on the film itself. The only information on the box was a typewritten label on spine, reading “The Ghost Camera” (1933) with Ida Lupino. As the faux advertising in “Robocop” (1987) says, “I’d buy that for a dollar.” And I did.
To my very pleasant surprise, the English-made “The Ghost Camera” turned out to be an engaging 63-minute thriller, with the picture quality being well above average. The film is loaded with inventive camera movements and editing techniques that belie its period. In one of his first screen credits, David Lean is listed as the editor.
The film is an early credit for others too. It was the second film for Ida Lupino and the third for John Mills. Director is Bernard Vorhaus, who also gave us the neat film noir “The Amazing Mr. X” (1948) and the intriguing John Wayne Dust Bowl immigrant drama “Three Faces West” (1940).
Despite its title, “The Ghost Camera” is not a supernatural thriller, though it gives the air of one during the opening credits and scenes showing some ruins in the English countryside. John Gray (Henry Kendall) is driving past the ruins in his open-seated roadster when a camera drops mysteriously in the back seat.
Gray finds the camera in his car and has no idea how it got there. He sees there is film in the camera and when he gets home, develops the pictures to find a clue as to the camera’s owner. The first picture he develops shows a murder being committed at the site of the ruins. He leaves the dark room for an instant and while away, a thief sneaks through the window and grabs the incriminating photo.
When Gray returns to his dark room, he discovers the murder negative is missing. He develops the other pictures, some of which show a nearby address and another showing an attractive blonde waving at the camera.
Said blonde is Mary Elton (Ida Lupino) whose brother Ernest (John Mills) has been reported missing. Gray and Mary join together to track down Ernest and solve the murder.
The film’s low point is Henry Kendall, who I am unfamiliar with save for his starring role in Hitchcock’s “Rich and Strange” (1932). Kendall is an annoyingly irritating twit in the worst English fashion and it’s inconceivable he can find his way out of his own neighborhood, let alone solve a murder and win the affections of Ms. Lupino. It’s akin to making Charles Butterworth the romantic lead in a mystery movie and having him solve the crime and get the girl. Nothing against Charles Butterworth, but you know what I mean.
We often hear about how staid and conventional British movie making was at the time, with the exception of the budding talent of Alfred Hitchcock. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but a lot of film history has been re-written over the years thanks to the emergence of home video, and while there’s likely some truth to that sentiment, I’m sure there are many films, or sequences, which belie that.
In the marvelous David Lean biography by Kevin Brownlow, published by St. Martin’s Press in 1996, director Vorhaus fondly remembered the editorial contributions Lean made to his films.
“In our second film, Ghost Camera, for instance, there was one scene of a trial and reporters rush to the telephone. I wanted some fast cutting – you had a close-up of one journalist saying, ‘M for mother’ then a cut to the next – ‘U for Uncle – and the next – ‘R for Red’ and at the end a close-up of the telephone operators reaction, ‘MURDER!’ What I wanted done was bang, bang, bang and he wasn’t afraid to cut very fast. Usually cutters at that time thought it couldn’t be done. David did it superbly.”
Lean later said he learned a lot editing these potboilers and helped point the way to him becoming a director. “I worked on a lot of bad pictures, and bad pictures are very good for one’s ego, because the worse they are, the more chance you have of making them better. And I started to think, as numerous people who work with me think, that I could do better than they could – and that gave me a real urge to do something in the way of direction.”
He would not take that challenge for another 10 years.
With the exception of Kendall, the rest of the cast is fine. Ida was really attractive in her starlet days, and acts far beyond her age (as does John Mills).
During their hunt for clues at the ruins, it turns late in the day and Mary and Gray check into a local inn for the night. Separate rooms of course, but a loud noise causes Mary to race from her room in silky lingerie into the arms of Gray. While watching this, I was thinking about how cute she was, and boy, she has terrific legs. While researching for this piece, I learned she was only 15 when she made this. 15!!!. John Mills was the same age when he made this. Did they grow them older over there in England? They’re playing young adults in this, and I didn’t doubt it for a minute.
Though Lean was only the editor, “The Ghost Camera” marks the first teaming of John Mills and David Lean. While making this quota quickie, they likely had no idea they would one day form one of the finest, if unheralded, teamings in cinema history.
Ida made a few more British films before leaving for America the next year.
The only other familiar face, and happily looking the appropriate age, is Felix Aylmer, playing the coroner. This was his fourth film.
“The Ghost Camera” is no worldbeater, but it’s pretty good. I thought it was a rare film, but a quick Internet search shows me its available for viewing at the Internet Archive site (www.archive.org). The quality isn’t as good as the VHS tape I have, but I’m still happy I bought it. It was well worth the $1.