Old Mother Riley’s Ghosts (1941)

It's Pam again. As you might know if you read MMT frequently, I just finished reviewing Vampire Over London, a 1952 movie that stars Bela Lugosi and Arthur Lucan. Arthur Lucan portrayed a character called Old Mother Riley, an elderly Irishwoman, something that made up almost his entire career on stage and screen. I wouldn't call Vampire Over London a good movie, as you'll know if you read the review, but it did make me curious. Arthur Lucan was old and nearly at the end of his career (as was Bela Lugosi, for that matter), which could have affected his performance. This was his last Old Mother Riley movie, but he started making the movies in 1936, for a total of 17. Were earlier Old Mother Riley movies as ridiculous as this one? How could an actor have a successful career if he acted in nothing but terrible movies? Or did English movie audiences from 1936 to 1952 have some kind of morbid fondness for really bad movies?

Yes, and continuing into the 1970s.

Until a few years ago, I might have wondered in vain. Vampire Over London probably wouldn't have been too hard to find, since it starred Bela Lugosi, who still has enough fans to keep his movies available. However, as far as I know, Arthur Lucan doesn't have any sort of fan base in the United States, so I doubt any of his movies were available here. In fact, I'd never heard of him or Old Mother Riley until I came across Vampire Over London. But fortunately for us fans of obscure bad movies, today there are many sites on the Internet where people post movies whose copyright has expired, and one of these movies happens to be Old Mother Riley's Ghosts, made in 1941. I decided to watch it and see what Old Mother Riley was doing in 1941. Besides, MMT still needs a review for a movie beginning with "O." And Kelby likes Mrs. Riley's looks. (Note to Nate: Better check and see exactly what he's been drinking, this is looking bad.)

Those Brits love their old ladies.

This movie begins with conflicts between two sets of parent and child. The first set is obviously wealthy: John Cartwright is standing in a lavishly furnished drawing room, telling his father that he isn't going to join the family business, he's going out on his own to make his own living. As he should, since he looks too old to be depending on his father. (A quick look at IMDb shows that the actor was 43 at the time.) The second parent-child conflict is in a less-elevated segment of society and concerns a less-important subject. This would be Old Mother Riley and her daughter Kitty, arguing over whether the portrait of Mrs. Riley's late husband should stay up or be taken off the wall where it's currently hanging. Although it's a caricature of a stereotypical Irishman, something that must have given the English audiences a good chuckle, it doesn't look that bad to me. However, Kitty threatens to move out if it isn't taken down. By the way, Kitty is played by Kitty McShane, Arthur Lucan's real-life wife. She was part of his Old Mother Riley stage act and was in most of the Old Mother Riley movies. They separated shortly before Vampire Over London was made, which is probably why she wasn't in it. Kitty McShane is quite pretty, and surprisingly youthful-looking in most scenes considering that she was about 44 when she made this movie. However, she doesn't get any close-ups, and in a few shots where they got careless about lighting and camera angles, you can see that she probably looked pretty close to her age in real life.

Perhaps the distance is helpful.

The argument rages until plaster starts falling from the ceiling, at which point Mrs. Riley and Kitty call a truce. It seems that in this movie, Mrs. Riley cleans offices for a living, and since the argument has made her late, she hurries off to work. As she heads out the door, we learn that something sinister is afoot at Mr. Cartwright's company, an engineering firm of some sort. It seems the company is paying Mr. Mason, a short rabbity sort of man, to perform experiments that are expected to lead to the development of a new fuel (for what isn't stated, probably cars). However, a Mr. Warrender, who seems to be an employee of the Cartwright company, wants Mr. Mason to inform Mr. Cartwright that his experiments have been unsuccessful. Mr. Warrender will continue to supply funding on the sly, telling Mr. Mason that his work is of such importance to the whole world that one lone company shouldn't be the only one to benefit. Obviously he's planning to keep the discovery, and the profit, all for himself. I don't see how Mr. Warrender can possibly come up with the kind of money you'd need for a project like that, but clearly Mr. Mason is the typical B-movie scientist who does research in his basement and is such a genius that a few thousand dollars -- that is, pounds -- will be ample for his research. Mr. Mason may be a genius in the chemical field, but other than that he seems a little dim, because he falls for this.

Old Rich White Guys.

Mr. Cartwright and the other members of the Board of Directors have just joined Mr. Mason and Mr. Warrender, when who should pop in...yes! It's Mrs. Riley herself! This is where she works, imagine the odds! There's an extended comic sequence where she determinedly tries to clean the room despite Mr. Cartwright's efforts to stop her. I'll spare you this, it's about what you'd see in a Three Stooges movie. Finally she's kicked out of the conference room and fired, but after the literal dust has settled, Mr. Cartwright happens to mention that he knows other inventors who are also working to find a new fuel. It seems that Kitty also works for the company in some capacity that requires her to serve tea, and we see a 1941 version of workplace harassment when Mr. Warrender tells Kitty that he'll try to get her mother's job back if she'll have dinner with him that night. Instead of reporting him to HR, which probably wouldn't have paid any attention in 1941 anyway, Kitty agrees.

Not the kind of table dancing I prefer.

Mrs. Riley is enjoying her new free time by feeding pigeons in the park, and who should sit down on the park bench beside her but John Cartwright, who doesn't seem to be enjoying his new free time much. Mrs. Riley gives him a sandwich, and he confides in her that he walked out of his father's house without any money, which doesn't speak well for his business sense and ability to take care of himself, especially since, as I mentioned before, he's not exactly a kid. Mrs. Riley says she's got a spare bed which he's welcome to if he can't find anything better by nightfall, which I have to say is kind of her but perhaps not the wisest thing to do. I mean, he's well-dressed but a total stranger, after all.

Surely a Nazi spy!

When Mrs. Riley gets home, Kitty is ironing a dress, getting ready to go out, and a grubby-looking man is sitting next to her, demanding his tea. Mrs. Riley calls him "Jim," but there's no clue as to what his relationship to her is. Unfortunately it develops that Mrs. Riley is as deluded about her own attractions in this movie as she was in Vampire Over London, because she gets all fluttery and excited when she tells Jim to clean up, she's got a gentleman caller coming. Jim doesn't seem jealous, which probably means he isn't her boyfriend or husband.

Jim dresses up nice for a bum.

Mrs. Riley, John, and Jim are enjoying a frugal meal chez Riley (John has an egg, Mrs. Riley and Jim have the water the egg was boiled in, which was probably an oblique reference to food shortages during the war), while Mr. Warrender and Kitty are sitting in a fancy restaurant. Mr. Warrender does have ulterior motives, but they're concerned with getting information, not with Kitty's body. He promises to get her mother's job back if Kitty will snoop around and tell him what she finds out. Kitty doesn't seem to be a fool, and she asks what Mr. Cartwright has to say about the information-gathering. She doesn't like the answer and refuses to do Mr. Warrender's dirty work. All this, and the jerk hasn't even bought her dinner!

Hey, film's Director, move that lamp.

Back at the Rileys', there are also hard feelings. Jim is dismayed to hear that John doesn't have a job and Mrs. Riley just lost hers, because he figures he's the one who's going to have to support the household. (Is Jim maybe a relative of Mrs. Riley? I can't think of any other reason he'd be expected to support her.) He's even less pleased when Mother Riley tells him that she's putting John up in his room. Harmony is restored when Jim hauls out a model of a reciprocating engine and explains that he's trying to convert it to run on a new type of fuel. John is very much interested, and they sit down to discuss the project. Imagine the odds again. Was everybody in London in 1941 trying to develop a new type of fuel? Unfortunately Jim's new good mood is going to be disturbed shortly. The next day, Mr. Warrender goes to Mr. Cartwright and tells him that he thinks Kitty is snooping around where she shouldn't be, causing some sort of trouble. He doesn't say exactly what he thinks she's doing, but there seemed to be a jump in the film, so some frames might be missing. Anyway, Mr. Cartwright decides it's best to simply fire her without even bothering to find out her side of the story. Does this company have labor-management issues? If not, it probably will soon.

Hope Kitty got a nice severance package.

So Kitty is duly fired, and she comes home to find that Jim, who it turns out is renting a room from Mrs. Riley, has also been fired. The mood in the Riley house is naturally quite gloomy, but the mood at the Cartwright house isn't that great either, since they haven't heard anything from John (not clear if more time has passed than was shown in the movie, because according to what we've seen, he's only been gone about a day and a half). The Rileys decide that the best way out of their predicament is for John to perfect his invention, so they can sell it. Jim the lodger has some money saved to help pay expenses, and Kitty thinks she knows somebody who will give some money, too. Her choice shows that she may be a poor judge of character. She goes to Mr. Warrender and tries to talk him into investing, although it's possible she doesn't know he's the one who made up a lie to get her fired. No, she doesn't appear to be blackmailing him or appealing to his sense of pity, she really seems to think he'll give her some money for her project. Not surprisingly he refuses, but then I can't really blame him, since she refuses to tell any details about this wonderful new invention he'll be investing in.

Maybe they should digitize that blueprint.

However, the Riley women, Jim, and John are undaunted and are sitting around the kitchen table tinkering with Jim's model engine, when in walks a tall, skinny, elderly man. He bears with him unexpected but welcome news. It seems that the late Mr. Riley came from a family that was well-connected, and Mrs. Riley has inherited a house in Scotland. If you're objecting that this is completely irrelevant to the plot up to now, it's not -- this will give Jim and John space enough to set up a good-sized workshop so they can perfect their invention. So they set off, their possessions packed into a horse-drawn cart driven by Mrs. Riley, and a hand cart pulled by Jim. No moving vans for our intrepid band. Fashionistas will be pleased to hear that all are properly hatted (bare heads outdoors were still taboo for adults in 1941). It looks as though they don't really need a new kind of fuel, because they seem to be able to walk with astonishing speed. At least it appears as though they made it on foot and by slow horse from London to Scotland in the course of a day. I assume a little poetic license was used here. Anyway, they pull up to an impressive castle complete with moat and drawbridge, hardly the humble cottage you'd expect a relative of Mrs. Riley's to own, given the extremely modest circumstances she's lived in up to now. Was Mr. Riley disowned when he married beneath him?

Jethro, git in the truck!

They're greeted by an elderly man who seems to be on the gloomy side. As he shows them to their bedrooms, he drops ominous hints of bloody happenings and mysterious disappearances in the castle. Does he perhaps suffer from clinical depression? No, it turns out that it's something more sinister. We learn that in addition to Mrs. Riley and her dependents, the castle is also inhabited by Mr. Warrender and his henchmen, of which the gloomy Scotsman is one. It seems that Mr. Warrender has come up with a baroque plan of providing Riley and Co. the castle to give them space to perfect their new fuel, then doing away with them once they have it so he can get it for himself. Although in view of the fact that this was 1941 and the war had led to a serious shortage of gasoline in England, so I'm sure a new type of fuel would be enormously profitable, it seems to me that any plan so complicated is likely to end in disaster. And how is it Mr. Warrender can spend so much time away from his job without being missed, happens to have a castle at his disposal, can afford to pay all his helpers, and for that matter get enough gas to transport himself between London and Scotland? Besides, as is usual in B-movies, all experimentation on the fuel is being carried out on a tabletop, so how much space do our heroes need? Surely Mr. Warrender isn't planning to manufacture the fuel in the castle?

Groggy Scottish dude stereotype.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. As you'll no doubt recall, when the Rileys and their friends got to the castle, they still hadn't come up with a new fuel. Luckily for them, they've got Mrs. Riley. Jim and John have been experimenting unsuccessfully with various chemicals and are about to give up in despair, when Mrs. Riley, in the best tradition of B-movie scientists, throws a random chemical into the mix, which turns out to be exactly what it needs. The fuel powers Jim's small engine, which leads to rejoicing among the Riley crew -- and among the Warrender crew, who are making plans to get the formula away from the Rileys and dispose of them.

Who needs college?

The method they use is as unnecessarily complicated as the scheme they used to get the Rileys to the castle in the first place. Since the castle is far from any neighbors, is very large, is empty of anyone except the Rileys and Warrender's people, and as we'll shortly see has many hidden passages, my plan would be to sneak up on John, hit him over the head, steal the formula for the fuel plus the bench-scale model of the engine, kill off the rest of the Rileys as quickly as possible, and high-tail it out of there. Of course, I'd be doing this because I was stealing a valuable discovery, not writing a comedy. If I were writing a comedy, I might in fact do it this way: Have the elderly caretaker rig up a movie projector and a phonograph to make Mrs. Riley think she's seeing ghosts, thus sending her into a panic. Wait for Jim to sit down on what looks like a throne (!) and lean back, thus causing the throne to tip back and deposit him inside a secret chamber. (The king, lord, or whoever actually owns the castle must have quite a sense of humor.) Lock Kitty and Mrs. Riley into a room, enter the room through a secret passage, and grab Kitty and take her away when Mr. Riley's back is turned. And instead of just killing John and stealing the information they need, force Mrs. Riley to write a note to John, then make one of the bad guys (with a "humorous" stutter) dress up as Mrs. Riley, meet John outside the castle, steal the papers he's carrying, and march him at gunpoint to the dungeon (!) where Kitty and Jim are already imprisoned. And I should be a screenwriter, because this is exactly what the writers had the characters do.

Our cast aligns left.

Well, the bad guys have the formula, John, Kitty, and Jim are tied up in the dungeon, and Mrs. Riley is still locked in the room with one of Mr. Warrender's goons standing guard outside. Mr. Warrender himself is off to London with the papers. It looks bad for our heroes, but as we saw in Vampire Over London, Mrs. Riley's not the sort of heroine that sits around looking pathetic and waiting for somebody to save her. She comes up with a plan of escape that's not too bad, although it probably wouldn't actually work anyplace outside the movies. It seems she was given red ink to write the note to John with, so she yells to the guard that she'll kill herself if he doesn't let her out. When he just sneers, she makes choking and gurgling sounds to simulate death, then tips over the bottle of ink so it runs out under the door. The guard comes in to investigate and bends over her prone body, whereupon she kicks him down, knocks him out, and escapes. And for good measure, she also knocks out the caretaker as she looks for her captive friends.

Bad guys always wear black hats.

She finds her friends in the dungeon, and she wastes some time but injects a little more lame humor by dithering around until she can fish a knife out of Jim's pocket and cut their ropes. This gives John and Kitty a few moments to exchange sweet nothings and make it clear that they're serious about each other. This came out of nowhere, but since a romantic ending was pretty much required for this kind of movie, I guess I can't be too hard on it. If you were wondering if Mrs. Riley and Kitty are going to get into a shrieking clawing catfight over John, the answer's no. The subplot of Mrs. Riley's interest in John was dropped as soon as he moved into the Riley home, possibly because the moviemakers were as squicked out at the idea as I was. So the good guys are free now and, after Mrs. Riley knocks out the rest of the bad guys (with no help from John or Jim, the cads!), set off hotfoot for London, although we don't get to see if they take their faithful horse cart or use something a little faster.

Um, no, stop looking at her that way.

Mrs. Riley bursts in on a board meeting at the Cartwright company just as Mr. Mason is telling Mr. Cartwright that he wants to end his connection with the project since his experiments haven't worked out. Her big reveal at first appears to be spoiled when she snatches up the documents that were stolen from John and unrolls them to show...the portrait of the late Mr. Riley! But it turns out that the bad guys stole the wrong papers (I'm not sure how the switch was made, and no way am I going back to check, so you'll just have to take my word for it), and Mrs. Riley calls in Kitty, who has the real papers. Then Kitty calls in the inventor, who of course is John. Mr. Cartwright is so pleased that he not only has a formula for a new fuel that will make him a fortune, but he also has a son who's shown himself to be a true Cartwright, that he doesn't flinch when John tells him that he and Kitty are getting married. We don't see what happens to Mr. Warrender and his accomplices, but presumably they received appropriate punishment. And so everybody lived happily ever after.

Really happy.

Okay, I have to say it, this wasn't as bad a movie as Vampire Over London. Mrs. Riley takes a few pratfalls, and there's one over-the-top scene where the horse ends up in bed with her (don't ask!), but there's very little of the sort of Keystone Kops silliness that made Vampire Over London so excruciating. I wouldn't call it a good movie, though, although the Mother Riley movies appear to have been well-liked in their time and place. Believe it or not, according to IMDb, Arthur Lucan was among the top ten most popular film stars in 1942. I assume this means the most popular film stars in England. It reminds me a little of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies, and I can see how you could get hooked on Mother Riley, just the way some people get hooked on a particular kind of junk food. (My current guilty favorite is Panda Express. Don't judge.) It's not great, but it can be satisfying in a homey, comforting sort of way when you're in the right mood. It appears that unlike the Kettle movies, there was no running cast of characters, except for Mrs. Riley and Kitty, and no continuity between movies, so at least it wouldn't have been the same slightly rewritten plot over and over. If you want to explore the Old Mother Riley series further, several of the movies have been posted on Youtube, including this one.

Mother Riley, you be fine.

Kelby, there was one cat in this movie. He walked across the room when Mrs. Riley was running around looking for her friends, and to be honest, I'm not sure if he was intended to be there or if he just happened to be on the set and strayed into view of the camera. In your opinion, did this make it a better movie than Vampire Over London? And what about Mrs. Riley's looks? Was she even more of a babe in 1941 than she was in 1952, or did she improve with age?

The End.

Follow-up by MMT's intern Kelby: I saw the cat, I sniffed the cat, I'd rather not talk about the cat. Was Mother Riley more "attractive" here than she was in the 1950s, in an inner-species lovin' sort of way? Let's just say that I'm glad this was back in the era of grainy poor quality film stock and not ultra high def Blueray, because she's better looking when blurry (or when I'm drunk, which is right now).

Written in August 2013 by Pam Burda and edited by Kelby the drunken intern.

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