So back in the day, the good old days, when I was but a mere nipper, this was one of those movies that would pop up on telly during a lazy Bank Holiday afternoon or maybe over Christmas. It was one of those old flicks that despite loving it, I don't think I ever actually saw it all the way through for quite some time, for various childhood related reasons. It was only when I was a tad older that I actually managed to sit down and watch it from beginning to end and realised I still loved it. The other amazing thing about this movie is how underrated it is, how little is known about it and how completely forgotten it is. You literally never hear anyone mention this movie like...ever! This is also even more surprising considering the cast involved and the fact that Walt Disney legend Robert Stevenson directed this!
So the gist of the movie is thus. New coach Steve Walker (Dean Jones) arrives at the sleepy old coastal town of Godolphin, Maryland, to take charge of the colleges track team (I presume the town is called Godolphin as that's what the college is called). The last coach ran off under odd circumstances so the locals hope the new guy will settle in OK. Walker stays at the local hotel (or inn) called Blackbeard's Inn which just so happens to be made up of old bits of ships that got shipwrecked in the local bay. Not sure how old these ships are meant to be exactly but judging by the exterior visage they appear to be old galleons! One must ask oneself about health and safety if that is the case. Anyway this old Inn is naturally haunted by the ghost of Scrooge...I mean Blackbeard, you know cos the title of the movie.
Walker accidentally summons said ghost after he accidentally discovers an old page of magic spells from within an antique bed warmer (long story cut short). Said bed warmer was the property of Blackbeard's wife (Aldetha) whom he had burnt at the stake for being a witch (twas common practice back then). Thusly his wife had put a curse on old Blackbeard to remain in limbo after death until he perfects a good deed. So Walker finds himself tied at the hip to old Blackbeard because of the curse, this being even more troublesome for Walker as old Blackbeard is a stinky drunk. They must now help each other so they can be rid of each other. This results in Blackbeard turning his attention to Walker's track team and eventually (in a sort of subplot) trying to save the old inn from a slimy, casino owning, two-bit hood and his thugs. Silky wants to tear down the old inn and build a new casino in its place. The inn's elderly owners have a time limit to pay off the remaining mortgage.
Now first off I will mention that this movie is actually based on a novel of the same name by Ben Stahl, never knew that myself. Anyway lets start with a brief look at the cast for this movie. First off we have the Walt Disney stalwart Dean Jones who began his Disney run of fortune in the 1965 picture 'That Darn Cat!'. Jones was apparently so well received in this film that Walt Disney signed him on for a whole string of his movies. The fourth movie in that run was this supernatural kids comedy. Jones plays this kind, gentle but firm track coach who simply won't stand for any nonsense. He's high on morals, firm on principles and a stickler for discipline. Now to be truthful I never actually liked Jones in this movie, not because he's wrong for the part or anything, but because his character is such an arse. This Walker is guy is fine at first but as soon as he unleashed Blackbeard he turns into this grumpy, rude, gruff, almost petulant adult that's virtually impossible to get behind. OK sure he's supposed to be having a rough time and Blackbeard is annoying and drunk for the most part, but surely anyone could see the benefits of having a ghost covering your back. Then there's the fun aspect of being friends with a ghost and the things you could learn, its literally a win win situation.
But no, all Walker can think about are his morals and principles whilst constantly yelling at poor old Blackbeard. There were honestly times when I just wanted to slap Walker across the face and tell him lighten the fuck up, you have a spiritual pirate at your side for Christ's sake! that's awesome! Even when Blackbeard shows how useful he can be Walker still won't have any of it, he still shuns the ghost and refuses to let him help. I mean OK, Blackbeard does get him arrested for drunk driving which nearly costs Walker his job, he steals vital mortgage payment money for the inn to bet on the Godolphin track team, and nearly loses Walker his bird. But each time everything works out alright proving the massive advantage of having Blackbeard around...if admittedly risky at the same time. Thing is it takes almost the entire movie for Walker to get on board with Blackbeard which kinda stifles the fun at some points. In short Walker is a real curmudgeon.
On the flip side old Blackbeard is a wonderful character and that is fantastically portrayed by the epic Peter Ustinov. If there was ever one man who could make you wanna be a pirate and sail the seven seas, be it as a child or as an adult, it was Ustinov as Blackbeard. Yes you can keep your Jack Sparrow's and such, Ustinov's Blackbeard was brilliant and an absolute hoot for all ages. Ustinov plays Blackbeard (presumably going by the book) as a jolly, quite open minded, persistent, opportunistic pirate that likes a good drink...of anything. What I loved about his performance was the way he could change from being quite serious and rugged to chirpy and cheerful in the blink of an eye, whilst all the while being completely agreeable for the kids. Its also a joy to watch all the little quirks and jabs that Ustinov injects into the character. There are moments when he's actually genuinely funny as he mocks Walker or another characters. His physical comedy is spot on which is accentuated by his rather tubby appearance. The way he prances around in his pirate costume is just an amusing sight, his facial expressions, the pitch of his voice, hell even his facial hair is kinda funny to look at. Although upon reflection, old Blackbeard doesn't really come across as amazed by the present day and all its technological wonders. Has he been summoned from the grave previously?
'what manner of craft be this we're cruisin' in?'
Of course I fully understand why the character of Walker is supposed to be the way he is, its so he can work off the character of Blackbeard. They are both essentially incompatible but Blackbeard is Walkers foil. Nevertheless I still find it hard to like Walker because he is so damn moody all the time, add to that the rather annoying portrayal of Walkers love interest played by Suzanne Pleshette. Sure she looks cute but my God her voice! Luckily the bad guys in this quirky little flick are great stuff, top banana. The shady casino owner, perfectly named Silky Seymour (Joby Baker), was so damn slimy, slithery, creepy and sly he made you itch. At the same time his little band of thugs looked like they'd all stepped out of a Chuck Jones directed Bugs Bunny cartoon, or a Dick Tracy comic strip. None of them were particularly funny or anything, they were just perfectly cast from a visual standpoint with Joby Baker sounding shifty to boot.
When it comes to the effects this movie is pretty basic, you're not gonna see anything mind blowing here folks. Obviously much of what you see is on sets, clear as day sets, but they still look atmospheric enough. Some sets such as Seymour's restaurant do look bizarrely fake compared to the others, which is odd it has to be said, its like they ran out of money and room. The track event also looked dubiously like it was shot on an interior set, which it probably was. Costumes and props are all acceptable and again, like the sets, successfully immerse you in the story. Naturally Blackbeard's bedroom and the old inn look the most atmospheric and eerie. As for the actual ghostly effects its pretty much a case of wire work and old fashioned tricks of the trade. Anything floating was done so with wires, backgrounds were expanded with matte paintings, fog machines utilised, acrobatic work from various stuntmen, and some good pretend acting from Jones and Ustinov.
As for action and adventure its a mixed bag really. There isn't any action so to speak but more large scale incidents if you will. There is an amusing little sequence where Blackbeard commandeers Walker's car and they end up getting chased by a cop on a bike. This eventually ends up with a riderless 'ghost bike' (Blackbeard riding it but the cop obviously doesn't see him) chasing the cop. Yet despite all the kooky events the cop still does Walker for drink driving. The main event of the movie is the big track meet where Walker must try and get a result out of the Godolphin team who are made up of a bunch of wimps and losers. This is where we really see Blackbeard come into his own with his supernatural assistance. As a kid I used to love this part in the film and its still engaging no doubt, but boy are those effects looking rusty these days. The sped up footage for certain trick shots look especially dreadful. The final major bit of action would be Walker and Blackbeard going to Silky's place to get back the money Silky refused to pay out on the bet Blackbeard put down on Godolphin to win the track meet...phew! This basically involves a whole load of cartoonish tomfoolery on wires as an invisible pirate beats up the two-bit thugs. Again back in the day I loved it, these days its looking a bit worse for wear.
So does this Disney gem still hold up? Well yes and no. As said whilst many of the effects are still quite cool to see and work well, many do not and look pretty awful. But the whole film does also have that wonderfully bright and vivid look to it down to the good old 60's technicolour system, always pleasant to see. The acting is generally fine all round but clearly the film is kept afloat by Ustinov as Blackbeard, without him this could of been quite drab methinks. The plot chugs along nicely, its fun and engaging but admittedly looking back, there are a lot of childish moments in there that I can't really complain about now because, after all, this is a Disney movie for kids. Unfortunately they do slightly hamper my enjoyment now. The slapstick factor is high, the cornball routine is very evident and the formula wasn't too original for the time (after various other similar projects), but despite all that the movie is still very enjoyable for all the family. I would say if you're a fan of a certain Johnny Depp franchise you might actually get a kick outta this as it could be seen as a slight precursor.
'Money...oh! The odd flimsy I removed from the pocketbook of your book-ish wench'