(director: David Butler; screenwriters: story by David Butler & James V. Kern/James V. Kern/Andrew Bennison/Monte Brice; cinematographer: Frank Redman; editor: Irene Morra; music: Jimmy McHugh; cast: Kay Kyser (Himself), Peter Lorre (Prof. Fenninger), Boris Karloff (Judge Mainwaring), Bela Lugosi (Prince Saliano), Dennis O’Keefe (Chuck Deems), Helen Parrish (Janis Bellacrest), M.A. Bogue (Ish Kabibble), Alma Kruger (Margo Bellacrest), Harry Babbitt (Himself), Sully Mason (Himself), Ginny Simms; Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: R.T.M. Scott; RKO Radio Pictures; 1940)

“Too much Kay Kyser ruins this haunted house comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Too much Kay Kyser ruins this haunted house comedy; his band plays at least five grueling numbers one has to endure and he’s obnoxious in every scene as the lead character. There’s also too few laughs and too little screen time from the trio of Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (the only time they appeared together on film); this missed opportunity to have these eccentric horror film luminaries shine is surprising but must be attributed to the lame script by James V. Kern, Andrew Bennison, and Monte Brice. Also, David Butler’s direction is uninspired. The only thing ‘you’ll find out’ about this film is that it’s too predictable, not even as good as a similar themed B-film by Abbott and Costello, and overlong.

Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge orchestra (popular bandleader on a radio show) are hired to entertain at the 21st birthday party of Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish), a pretty young heiress who is engaged to the dashing young business manager of Kyser’s band Chuck Deems (Dennis O’Keefe). Janis returns from three years at a Boston finishing school to her home at the creepy Bellacrest mansion run by her daffy Aunt Margo Bellacrest (Alma Kruger), and is nervous because in the last few weeks three attempts were made on her life. Margo naively believes in the supernatural and in the obvious phony medium Prince Saliano (Bela Lugosi) she hired to be her swami in communicating with the dead (mainly her deceased brother Elmer, the father of Janis). Elmer was skinned alive by the natives in Africa while on a collecting expedition, but the family lawyer Judge Mainwaring (Boris Karloff) somehow survived the attacked and now lives at the mansion with Margo. After the band arrives and some guests, a lightning strike causes the bridge to break so no one can leave that night until the bridge is repaired. Also arriving is Professor Fenninger (Peter Lorre), a scientist called on by Janis to prove that Saliano is a fraud. What she doesn’t know is that he’s not the real professor and is in cahoots with the judge and swami to rip off Margo’s fortune. What the trio fear is that as soon as Janis turns 21 she inherits her father’s fortune and the mansion, and they know she’ll give them the boot. It’s up to Kyser and the band to save the damsel-in-distress.

There’s not much comedy or mystery to the whodunit tale, but a lot of bad acting and music. It comes with the expected seance sequence and a house filled with many secret passages, chambers and gadgets. Ish Kabibble (M.A. Bogue), playing one of Kyser’s band members, is actually funnier than the miscast bandleader. Though the dog Prince is more fun than either of these two, and even the dog wasn’t that hot.