By February 1968, a revolution was beginning to get underway in Hollywood. The highest-grossing films of the year that had just ended were The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Bonnie And Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, and Valley Of The Dolls. Disney’s biggest moneymaker of the year, The Jungle Book, had barely managed to crack the top ten. When the Academy Award nominations were announced on February 19, Disney pictures racked up a grand total of two. That’s not two for an individual film. That’s two for the studio’s entire 1967 lineup: one for “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book and one for The Happiest Millionaire’s costume design. And that’s still two more than they’d received the year before. The times, they were a’changin’ but nobody at Disney seemed to notice or care.
After Walt’s death at the end of 1966, CEO Roy O. Disney (somewhat reluctantly) stepped in to the role of President. But he’d already had his eye on retirement and only planned to stick around until he could get Walt’s final big pet project, Walt Disney World, up and running. In 1968, Roy gave the presidency to Donn Tatum. Tatum joined the studio in 1956 and his Executive Vice President, Card Walker, had been around even longer, first hired as a traffic boy in 1938. These guys had a lot of experience making Disney films and TV shows and not much else. So while it was February 1968 at every other studio in town, in Burbank it was still December 1966. That’s how it would stay for about the next ten years.
Disney’s first release of what we’ll call the “Stay The Course” Years was the sort of gimmick comedy they’d been cranking out like clockwork since The Shaggy Dog back in 1959. Blackbeard’s Ghost was based on a 1965 novel by artist Ben Stahl, a prolific illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post and countless other periodicals and ad agencies. Bill Walsh and Don DeGradi wrote the script with Robert Stevenson directing, reuniting the team from Mary Poppins.
Most of the cast was also very familiar with the Disney process. Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette were reunited for the first time since The Ugly Dachshund. Elsa Lanchester had last been seen in That Darn Cat!, also with Jones. The bad guy, Silky Seymour, was played by Joby Baker from The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin, also with Pleshette. And the supporting cast was filled with such by-now familiar faces as Richard Deacon, Norm Grabowski, Elliott Reid and Kelly Thordsen. To make things even easier, most of them were simply cast in roles that were slight variations on parts they’d played before.
There was, of course, one newcomer to the Disney family in the cast. Peter Ustinov was a true renaissance man. An actor, a writer, a director, Ustinov spoke eight languages (six of them fluently) and dabbled in art and design. By the time Disney hired him to play Captain Blackbeard, he had already won two Oscars (for Spartacus and Topkapi) and was arguably one of the most overqualified actors the studio had employed for some time.
But one of the great things about Peter Ustinov was that while he took his work extremely seriously, he never took himself too seriously. There’s a twinkle in his eye when he seems to be having fun and in Blackbeard’s Ghost, he looks like he’s having a great time. More importantly, Ustinov never condescends to the material. This isn’t Shakespeare or Chekhov and Ustinov doesn’t treat it as such. But as far as he was concerned, something as silly as Blackbeard’s Ghost had just as much value and just as much potential to entertain as any of the classics, provided you show up and do the work.
As usual for a Disney gimmick comedy, the plot is somewhat beside the point. But for the record, Jones stars as Steve Walker, the new track and field coach at Godolphin College on the New England coast. He arrives at Blackbeard’s Inn, a hotel haphazardly constructed out of materials salvaged from shipwrecked pirate ships, in time for an auction held by the Daughters of the Buccaneers led by Emily Stowecroft (Elsa Lanchester), a descendant of the notorious pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. It seems the mortgage is overdue and gangster Silky Seymour is lying in wait to buy the property, tear down the inn and build a casino.
Steve doesn’t care too much about any of that. His focus is solely on Jo Anne Baker (Pleshette), an attractive professor at the college who’s helping out with the auction. Hoping to impress her, Steve bids on an antique bed warmer, drawing the ire of Silky and his criminal associates. Silky strongly encourages Steve to reconsider bidding on any further items. Steve, naturally, doesn’t take kindly to bullies and gets marked as an enemy.
Mrs. Stowecroft shows Steve to his room and fills him in on the history of his new bed warmer. It was owned by Aldetha Teach, Blackbeard’s tenth wife, who had been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. With her dying breath, she cursed Blackbeard to spend eternity in Limbo until he can perform a selfless act, a statistical improbability for a murderous pirate.
Steve believes none of this until he accidentally breaks the bed warmer and discovers Aldetha’s book of spells. As a goof, he recites one of them out loud and ends up summoning Blackbeard’s ghost (Ustinov) from Limbo. Blackbeard immediately heads for the bar, eager to catch up on a lot of lost drinking time. Steve thinks he’s going crazy, which isn’t too surprising considering that Blackbeard explains that the spell has bound the two and nobody else can see or hear him. This is made abundantly clear when Blackbeard grabs the wheel of Steve’s car and takes them on a reckless joyride that lands Steve in jail on drunk driving charges.
Steve is released the next morning due to lack of evidence but he’s on thin ice at work. There’s a big track meet coming up and unless he can whip his team of misfits and losers into shape and come in first, he’s fired. Meanwhile, Steve suggests that Blackbeard could break his curse by donating his treasure to the Daughters of the Buccaneers. The only problem with that is there is no treasure. Blackbeard spent it all while he was alive. But the pirate has his own idea. He steals the money made from the auction out of Jo Anne’s purse and arranges to bet it all on Godolphin to win.
On the day of the track meet, Steve finds out about Blackbeard’s scheme. At first, he wants nothing to do with it and tries to have his team disqualified once they start winning events thanks to Blackbeard’s help. But when he realizes what a loss would mean to the old ladies, he decides to let the pirate cheat their way to victory.
When Steve and Jo Anne go to collect their winnings, Silky Seymour refuses to pay up, cancelling the bet and returning the money. But Steve has fewer compunctions about cheating at Silky’s place and gets Blackbeard to rig the roulette table to win their money back. Silky and his goons try to rough them up but Blackbeard mops the floor with them, allowing Steve and Jo Anne to escape. They make it back to the inn just in the nick of time to pay the mortgage. Before he goes, Steve has everyone recite the spell that will allow them to see Blackbeard and make a proper farewell.
Needless to say, Blackbeard’s Ghost isn’t exactly breaking new ground. We’ve seen variations of the supernatural-being-nobody-else-can-see premise in movies like Darby O’Gill and The Gnome-Mobile. The climactic collegiate sporting event is a familiar trope from The Absent-Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber. But even though the movie is business as usual, it’s extremely well-made business as usual.
The chemistry between Jones and Pleshette is even stronger here than in The Ugly Dachshund. Just as importantly, Jones and Ustinov make for a very engaging comedy team. Ustinov is simply a delight in this movie, guzzling rum and causing havoc. Jones gets a chance to show off his gift for physical comedy in scenes with the invisible ghost. Everyone involved seems to be having a really good time and that spirit of fun is highly contagious.
Blackbeard’s Ghost is also one of Disney’s best-looking comedies. A lot of the studio’s comedies have a flat, TV-ready look that gets the job done and stays out of the way. But Robert Stevenson and longtime Disney cinematographer Edward Colman give Godolphin a moody, foggy feel befitting a New England town haunted by pirate ghosts. The set design by Emile Kuri (an Oscar winner for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) and Hal Gausman is also top-notch, especially Blackbeard’s Inn. The only time we see the entire exterior is as a spectacular matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw but I can’t be the only one who’d love to see it done as a Lego set.
Blackbeard’s Ghost did exactly what Disney needed it to do in 1968. It earned mostly positive reviews and became a good-sized hit at the box office. It wasn’t a blockbuster but it did well enough to justify a few re-releases in the years that followed. But its biggest accomplishment was demonstrating that the studio was still capable of producing its bread-and-butter films without Walt at the helm. It was an inspiring vote of confidence that, at least for now, everything in the Magic Kingdom was going to be OK.
VERDICT: Disney Plus