Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Live Action Films: Blackbeard's Ghost

For our last review for Pirates' Month, we'll be looking at a very different sort of Disney pirate movie. This one isn't a swashbuckling adventure taking place long ago on the high seas, but instead a wacky comedy set at a college campus in the 1960s.

1968's Blackbeard's Ghost (directed by Robert Stevenson, apparently destined to direct a pirate movie with that name, and written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi from a story by Ben Stahl) was the sort of live action comedy that Disney really specialized in at the time - silly, inoffensive screwball farces full of big secrets and zany antics brought to life through low-tech special effects.

Blackbeard's Ghost tells the story of Steve Walker (Dean Jones), the newly-hired coach of the perennial losers on the Godolphin College track team. Walker settles in to a room in a hotel that was long-ago founded by the notorious pirate Blackbeard (I had never heard he moonlighted as an innkeeper before). A trio of little old ladies, Blackbeard's descendants, now own the inn but will soon be losing it to a bank, who will in turn sell it to shady businessman Silky Seymour (Joby Baker). Walker quickly falls for the charms of Jo Anne Baker (Susanne Pleshette) a local woman trying to help Blackbeard's descendants. Steve finds himself wishing he could find a way to assist Baker, save the inn, and coach his team to a successful season.

Before he can get started on any of that, though, he accidentally activates an old spell originally cast by one of Blackbeard's wives, who was also a witch. The ghost of the old pirate returns, with the catch that Steve is the only person who can see and hear him. The two will be stuck with one another, unless Blackbeard can somehow prove to have any goodness in his soul.

After some nutty misadventures with a traffic cop, Steve convinces Blackbeard that the spell could be broken if the ghost somehow helps the little old ladies save the inn from foreclosure. Blackbeard vows to do so. Conveniently an opportunity arises that will allow him to do this while helping Steve to a victory and Silky get his comeupance: Blackbeard steals the meager funds the old ladies have raised so far and bets them all on the Godolphin track team winning their upcoming match. He's not going to just sit by and hope Steve's coaching does the trick, though, the unseen spirit of Blackbeard will be on hand to make sure things turn out the way he wants - madcap hi-jinks ensue.

Ustinov and Jones are stuck together

Dean Jones had already starred in That Darn Cat and the hilariously-titled Monkeys, Go Home! (I might have to track that one down) for Disney, and would go on to star in The Shaggy D.A. and several of the Herbie the Love Bug movies. He's handsome and charismatic and does a serviceable job here playing a pretty bland leading man.

The movie really belongs to Peter Ustinov as Blackbeard, a much meatier role (the meat in question, by the way, is pure ham). Ustinov is bluster and aggression one moment, mincing or sobbing the next. He's a goofy cartoon character brought to life, but it's a lot of fun to watch his broad frame play out his many bits of physical comedy.

It isn't hard to know what to expect as Blackbeard's Ghost plays out - Blackbeard's invisible assistance during the climactic track meet reminded me a lot of the Flubber-assisted basketball victory in The Absent-Minded Professor - but Stevenson keeps the pace brisk enough to maintain interest, and Ustinov's performance remains delightful.

Blackbeard's ghost cheers on the team.

It's no cinema classic, but it is a decent amount of fun.

I give Blackbeard's Ghost seven out of ten mice:

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