Review of “The Smiling Ghost” (1941)

Another Saturday and another bad/fun movie.

Image from IMDB


Down on his luck and pinned inside his office by process servers, engineer Lucky Downing (Wayne Morris) places an ad in the paper that he’s willing to go anywhere and do anything legal. Most important to one reader, it notes he’s unmarried. Grandma Bentley (Helen Westley) has just the job for him— to become engaged to her granddaughter for one month. The pay is one thousand dollars plus expenses.

Grandma Bentley tells him the name of his soon-to-be affianced: Elinor Bentley Fairchild (Alexis Smith).

He repeats it.

“You’ve heard of her?” she asks.

“No,” Downing replies. “But I’ve heard of a thousand dollars.”

What Grandma isn’t telling him is that Elinor’s fiancés have not fared well. The first one drowned in a boating accident, perhaps by suicide. The second is paralyzed after his car rolled over on him and spends his days in an iron lung. The third died from a cobra bite…on the eighteenth floor of a hotel. The press has dubbed Elinor “The Kiss of Death Girl.” And Lucky is lined up to be fiancé number four.


Primarily, this movie is goofy. Clarence (Willie Best) brings his boss lunch through the transom because he doesn’t dare open the door and let all the process servers in the office.

No surprise for the time, the single black character is a sidekick.

The viewer meets Elinor and her household—beyond Grandma—with a menagerie of eccentric and oddball characters like Great-Uncle Ames Bentley (Charles Halton), who collects shrunken heads. A nosy reporter (Brenda Marshall), who wants to scoop on the latest “Kiss-of-Death Girl” engagement is also about. Before long, she and Elinor are giving each the stink eye.

The reporter takes Downing to visit the only survivor among Elinor’s ex-fiancés, the sad Paul Myron (David Bruce). Confined in his iron lung, Myron tells Downing that while he lay pinned under his car, awaiting help, the ghost of fiancé number one, pale and bloated from drowning, came up to him and… smiled.

Part of what makes this movie work is the Downing character. Innocent and full of boyish charm, he’s funny just to watch. He’s no shrinking violet, though, and eventually sees the light. While hardly perfect—let alone realistic—this is a fun little piece of escapism that assumes all wealthy people live in old houses with secret panels and moving walls. (The only old house I’ve lived in had none of above but had a bomb shelter, in case, you know, the Reds ever decided to do away with upstate New York. Wealth didn’t enter into the equation, however.)

I liked this little pic, warts and all.

BTW: Morris would go on to serve in World War II and earn four Distinguished Flying Crosses and Two Air Medals. The butler, Norton, who likes to wave his gun around—and occasionally fire it—is Alan Hale, the father of a mighty sailing man of the same name who would one day keep the Minnow from being lost.

Title: The Smiling Ghost (1941)
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Writing Credits
Kenneth Gamet …(screenplay) and
Stuart Palmer …(screenplay)
Stuart Palmer …(from an original story by)
Ben Markson …(screenplay construction contributor) (uncredited)
Ralph Spence …(screenplay construction contributor) (uncredited)
Philip Wylie …(story) (uncredited)

Cast (in credits order) verified as complete
Wayne Morris … Lucky Downing
Brenda Marshall … Lil Barstow
Alexis Smith … Elinor Bentley Fairchild
Alan Hale … Norton – the Butler
Lee Patrick … Rose Fairchild
Willie Best … Clarence

Released: September 6, 1941
Length: approx.. 1 hour, 11 minutes.

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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