Directed by William Castle
Starring: Sid Caesar, Vera Miles, Cass Daley, John McGiver, Jill Townsend
Featuring: John Astin, Mary Wickes, Jesse White, Jay C. Flippen
* Published specifically for The CMBA Fall Blogathon: Laughter is the Best Medicine hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association. *
There is a modern proverb that suggests “the best things in life are free”. This idea seems to ring all the truer when something good comes unexpected. You can be wrapped up in your own problems and all of a sudden be reminded of simpler, more pleasant things. It could come in the form of a smile, a nice comment, a gift, or a funny joke, amongst other things. How many times has a good spell of hearty laughter changed your outlook on life?
I discovered The Spirit is Willing quite unexpectedly this past summer and its dark humour just happened to be exactly what I needed! When the CMBA decided to hold this event, I did not hesitate a moment in choosing this film as my entry. Although it is dated and this type of comedy is not for everyone, I hope that you will give it a chance in the name of good, old-fashioned fun.
The story starts in the summer of 1898 along the coast of New England, likely Massachusetts. Captain Ebenezer Twitchell has managed to save his ship’s precious cargo after his crew declared mutiny but is now without a steed… and is penniless. The owner of the cargo happens to be extremely rich and to help Ebenezer, offers him the hand of his spinster daughter, Felicity (Cass Daley). If the Captain agrees to marry her, he will inherit their family fortune including an 1880-built Victorian style house. What is the catch? Well, Felicity is already of a certain age and so unattractive that she is described by one of the other characters as a “real dog”. Nevertheless, money speaks volumes; at least enough for a quickie wedding to take place.
It does not take long for things to go sour. In fact, it all goes downhill on the Twitchell’s honeymoon night. Just as Ebenezer is hesitantly heading towards Felicity’s room, he locks eyes with his new wife’s young and beautiful yet oversexed housemaid, Jenny Pruitt (Jill Townsend). That is enough for Ebenezer to start an affair with Jenny, before he has even had a chance to consummate his marriage. Before long, they are discovered by an enraged Felicity who decides to murder them in cold blood with a meat cleaver. Not having completely finished off Ebenezer, he emerges and kills Felicity with a knife before dying. The very unlikely trio now become spirits who haunt the house, continuing their bickering and Looney Tunes-style fighting.
Fast-forward to 1967 and enter the Powell family. They have rented the Twitchell house for the summer solely because the rent was so cheap. Father Ben (Sid Caesar) is an overworked magazine editor and mother Kate (Vera Miles) is a housewife. Together they are parents to nearly 16-year-old Steve who is in the pangs of puberty. There is also Kate’s rich uncle George (John McGiver) who is in the area trying out his new yacht. It is Steve who first encounters the ghosts after he unknowingly moves his things into Jenny’s old bedroom. The spirits end up breaking a number of objects with Steve getting blamed for any and all destruction. Ben and Kate not only do not trust their son, they also think the idea of a haunting is ludicrous.
As a matter of fact, the owners of the Twitchell house have shared nothing about its past or current paranormal activity. Some of the locals know about the goings-on, like Priscilla Weems & her librarian sister, Carol (both played by Jill Townsend), and Gloria Tritt (Mary Wickes) who worked there as a housekeeper. Priscilla holds séances in the graveyard to summon the spirits of Ebenezer, Felicity and Jenny, but even her communication with them does nothing to calm their chaotic presences. It also does little to convince unbelievers like Steve’s parents. With Priscilla’s help, Steve devises a plan that will hopefully appease the restless spirits, particularly that of Felicity, and let everyone enjoy the rest of their vacation.
The mid-1960’s was a period of rebellion for the motion picture industry, as enforcing the Hays Code slowly went out of fashion and more taboo subjects were being featured on the big screen. Breaking outdated social norms meant suggesting, for example, that couples (married or not) could be intimate and could share a large bed instead of two single ones. It was also about using language more freely and more directly. These newfound freedoms were not just restricted to younger generations, either. Older members of society could break out of their shells just the same although due to their habits and education, it was certainly not as common. All of these provocations are on full display in The Spirit is Willing, a quirky and fun-loving film that is also chock full of black comedy and sexual innuendo. Combining these elements together may seem a bit out-there but it is exactly what makes this offbeat picture such a treat.
Steve has loving, modern-enough parents despite nothing ever seeming to be good enough for this moody teenager. He feels constantly misunderstood and believes that they have no confidence in him. Ben and Kate try their best to give their son a decent upbringing despite having certain financial constraints. They find that he is unappreciative of their efforts and still wet behind the ears to head out into the world on his own. Essentially, the Powells are dealing with the ordinary, boring problems in life that come with having adolescent children all the while aging past their own primes. If you do not believe me, take a look at some of their exchanges:
Ben: “Almost 16 years old and all he can do is grunt.”
Steve: “It’s a free country. Don’t I have the right to be miserable?”
Ben: “No, not yet. I’m still paying the bills.”
Steve: “I didn’t ask to be born.”
Ben: “Well, you’ve asked for everything else!”
Kate: “He hates us.”
Ben: “He’s a teenager. They hate everything.”
As a parent myself as well as at a certain age in life, I absolutely get from where Ben and Kate are coming. As a matter of fact, I spent the first 15 minutes of this film laughing out loud at Sid Caesar’s brilliant one-liners because they were exactly how I felt about my own teenagers. (Youth…. some things really do not change all that much over time!)
All joking aside, Steve is an overall good kid with a lot of potential. One very positive thing that I can say about him is that he is not your stereotypical hormone-fuelled, sex on the brain kind of guy. That is not to say that he does not notice the ladies. He and Priscilla are on a friends-only basis and seem to have no romantic attraction to one another. However, his luck changes on the night of his 16th birthday, or so he thinks.
It is bizarrely implied that Steve has his first sexual experience with Jenny the ghost, who he believes to be Priscilla in disguise. Not only that, Jenny moves on to another man right after she has finished with Steve. Being defunct has not stopped her one bit! How is one supposed to feel about making it for the first time with an apparition? Hmm. On the flip side, there is Felicity who is labelled by Steve as a “frustrated virgin ghost”. Talk about a kooky sexual revolution!
Undoubtedly one of the best aspects of the film is getting to enjoy grand character actor John McGiver. He had a vast array of experience in all genres of film but had a certain charming knack for comedy. McGiver’s Uncle George is the founder of E-Z Flush, a company specialising in the fabrication of toilet bowls. At times a messy affair, the toilets have made him a millionaire many times over, giving him so much money that he does not know what to do with it. He is quite aware of his financial position and how greed can persuade family members to act oddly around him. Uncle George and Ben have never gotten along and while the origin of their animosity is unknown, it is not related to his wealth. I think that Uncle George says it best:
“That’s what I like about you, Ben. You can’t stand me, I can’t stand you, and it’s all right out in the open.”
Unbeknownst to him, Uncle George becomes an object of affection. Felicity falls in love with him and takes it upon herself to claim him as her own. And how exactly will she go about it? Well, first she tries to drown him by sinking two of his yachts and even his rescue boat. Another time she tries to hang him. Finally, she pushes him off a cliff. Now that’s true love!
Rounding out the cast is the beautiful and talented Vera Miles who had genuinely perfect chemistry with Sid Caesar. She appeared in many a western and drama under the direction of classic cinema’s greatest filmmakers with her most identifiable role being Lila Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Lila had the distinction of being the person who finds Mother Bates’ dried-up corpse in the fruit cellar of the Bates house. Vera made cinematic history in those scenes. I do not think it is a coincidence that Kate Powell makes her way down to the basement of the Twitchell house in a similar fashion as Lila did. Even Vera’s scream is the same! It was an excellent in-joke, I must say! Interestingly enough, Lila ends up in the fruit cellar again in Psycho II.
As for Sid Caesar, he was superb in his role as Ben. The Spirit is Willing cements his legacy in the industry. Please do not consider that I am being overly generous in my evaluation. I just happen to value performances and people much more than box office numbers and loss/profit. He gave this film his all and it shows. For those interested, here is a behind-the-scenes look at the film on the night that it premiered.
Remember… Everyone in this film is imaginary. Only the ghosts are real. 🙂