william steig drawing

May 12, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Race in Film: Hold That Ghost

This clip is from Abbott and Costello’s 1941 film Hold That Ghost directed by Arthur Lubin, who also directed several other of the duo’s films including Buck Privates and In the Navy (also excellent). In the movie Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play waiters Chuck and Ferdie respectively at the Chez Glamour nightclub. Due to a series of circumstance they become the beneficiaries of a gangster’s will and inherit a haunted house.

For those of you unfamiliar with this brilliant duo, Abbott and Costello were a comedy team in the tradition of Laurel & Hardy, or Martin & Lewis. Budd Abbott was the straight man who frequently took advantage of of the baby faced Lou Costello, the idiot with the funny lines. I realize that the pair could not have worked without Abbot’s set up, but Costello is really the main attraction. When I watch these these films today I am constantly surprised and impressed by the skill with which he uses his body. I’m not simply referring to the big fall gags he does (banging into doors, sliding across the floor in a puddle of water etc), but smaller details, specifically the way he splays his stubby fingers when gesticulating and the manner in which he pouts his lips. They combine to really emphasize the boyish ineptitude of his characters.

The Abbott & Costello films are special to me as I instantly associate them with my father, my sister, and my living room floor. My dad introduced us to these videos when I was 8 or 9. This was around the time of my parents’ divorce. I remember this because the house had a different feeling to it. My sister and I would do our homework on the living room floor while a movie played and my father worked at the kitchen table. As you will eventually find out, a great deal of my movie knowledge comes from time spent on this living room floor.
But back to Abbot & Costello.
Father dear would come home from work around 6 with a new Abbott & Costello VHS. This was the very first one we saw. Though the film is important to me for introducing us to their brilliance, it was something else that super glued its spot in my memory: The “Me and My Shadow” soft shoe number performed by singer and bandleader Ted Lewis. Lewis had been performing the song since the 20’s and it is now the routine he’s remembered by. In the number Lewis appears on stage shadowed by a black performer, in this case Eddie Chester, who imitates Lewis’ pantomiming. When I first watched it I was struck by how clever the idea was. Pure genius. I remember singing the number’s praises to my (black) dad. If you’re going to personify a shadow in your musical number, who else would you use but a very small dark skinned black man? Unfortunately, that humor comes from an ugly place. The routine is unfortunately heavy with racist implications, among them, the invisibility of black men and women, the lack of power, and the subservient status to whites. And honey, that is just the tip of the giant, enormous, iceberg. We can also examine the idea of the shadow itself in philosophy and mythology and how it relates to the black American narrative. Let’s begin with a few simple definitions:

• noun 1 a dark area or shape produced by an object coming between light rays and a surface. 2 partial or complete darkness. 3 a position of relative inferiority or obscurity. 4 sadness or gloom. 5 the slightest trace: without a shadow of a doubt. 6 a weak or inferior remnant or version: a shadow of her former self. 7 an inseparable attendant or companion

1. A system of white oppression did its best to block the light and prevent the flourishing of black life.

2. Darkness can be understood as ignorance or an unenlightened state. The limited mental capability and inherent incivility of blacks.

3. Blacks were not part of white America’s consciousness

4. Pretty obvious

5. The invisibility of blacks to whites, but the condition of black America following years of violent and systemic racism

6. The inferiority of blacks to whites, and the dehumanizing effects of racism.

7. Servitude

Lewis’ routine becomes even more interesting when we apply Jung’s theory of the shadow/trickster:

He is obviously a “psychologem,” an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity. In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level. In many cultures his figure seems like an old river bed in which the water still flows. One can see this best of all from the fact that the trickster motif does not crop up only in its mythical form but appears just as naively and authentically in the unsuspecting modern man – whenever, in fact, he feels himself at the mercy of annoying “accidents” which thwart his will and his actions with apparently malicious intent. He then speaks of “hoodoos” and “jinxes” or of the “mischievousness of the object.” Here the trickster is represented by by counter-tendencies in the unconscious, and in certain cases by a sort of second personality, of a puerile and inferior character, not unlike the personalities who announce themselves at spiritualistic seances and cause all those ineffably childish phenomena so typical to poltergeists. I have, I think, found a suitable designation for this character-component when I called it the ‘shadow.’ On the civilized level, it is regarded as a personal “gaffe,” “slip,” “faux pas,” etc., which are then chalked up as defects of the conscious personality.

He is a forerunner of the saviour, and, like him, God, man and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness. On the other hand, he is in many respects stupider than the animals, and gets into one ridiculous scrape after another. Although he is not really evil, he does the most atrocious things from sheer unconsciousness and unrelatedness. The trickster is a primitive “cosmic” being of ‘divine animal’ nature, on the one hand superior to man, and on the other inferior to him because of his unreason and unconsciousness. He is no match for the animals either, because of his extraordinary clumsiness and lack of instinct. These defects are the marks of his ‘human’ nature, which is not so well adapted to the environment as the animal’s ,but, instead, has prospects of a much higher development of consciousness based on a considerable eagerness to learn, as is duly emphasized in myth.

As Radin points out, the civilizing process begins within the framework of the trickster cycle itself, and this is a clear indication that the original state has been overcome. At any rate the marks of deepest unconsciousness fall away from him; instead of acting in a brutal, savage, stupid, and senseless fashion, the trickster’s behaviour towards the end of the cycle becomes quite useful and sensible. The devaluation of his earlier unconsciousness is apparent even in the myth and one wonders what has happened to his evil qualities. The naive reader may imagine that when the dark aspects disappear they are no longer there in reality. But that is not the case at all, as experience shows. What actually happens is that the conscious mind is then able to free itself from the fascination of evil and is no longer obliged to live it compulsively. The darkness and the evil have not gone up in smoke, they have merely withdrawn into the unconscious owing to loss of energy, where they remain unconscious so long as all is well with the conscious. But if the conscious should find itself in a critical doubtful situation, then it soon becomes apparent that the shadow has not dissolved into nothing but is only waiting for a favourable opportunity to reappear as a projection upon one’s neighbour. If this trick is successful, there is immediately created between them that world of primordial darkness where everything that is characteristic of the trickster can happen – even on the highest plane of civilization. The best example of these “monkey tricks,” as popular speech aptly and truthfully sums up this state of affairs in which everything goes wrong and nothing intelligent happens except by mistake at the last moment, are naturally to be found in politics.

The trickster is a collective shadow figure, a summation of all the inferior traits of character in individuals. And since the individual shadow is never absent as a component of personality, the collective figure can construct itself out of it continually. Not always, of course, as a mythological figure, but, in consequence of the increasing repression and neglect of the original mythologems, as a corresponding projection on other social groups and nations.

All this combines to inject the routine with an emotional intensity that those of us with even a basic understanding of the history of blacks in the U.S. can identify. Did this other meaning go unnoticed by Lewis’ white audiences and Lewis himself, or, was the symbolism understood on some level and found to be not only inoffensive but an accurate inference? I’m not sure which explanation is more troubling.

Race in Film is Mirror’s first special series. Read about it here and stay tuned for more!

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  1. I grew up on Abbot and Costello flicks, as it was regular local TV programming on Saturdays in New York. Never thought I would live to see an article about them using terms like “psychogolem” and breaking down the racial connotations of “shadow.”

    And I’m black.

    Quite a brilliant blog you have here. I am so happy my friend directed me to it.

    • Kartina Richardson

      Thanks boone! I never thought I would live to use a term like “psychogolem”. Even in quotation. You sir are a lucky man. You have the honor of being my first comment. Congratulations.

  2. First Negro to walk the surface of Mirror. MLK, Obama, Boone.

  3. I’m embarrassed that I actually laughed long and hard at this silly duo when I was a boy. Comedic talent not withstanding the racial undercurrent seems to have been all part of a very purposeful attempt to portray blacks as “less than” in old Hollywood movies. I have, of course, become very aware of the subliminal techniques employed in early cinema and my dismay and embarrassment extends all the way to wishing I hadn’t cheered so hard for the segregated Cavalry when they ambushed and killed the Native Americans. Thanks to reasonable intelligence, maturity and great reviewers like yourself my 81 year old movie loving brain is able to see through the “bamboozle,” finally!

  4. I agree with most every point in this article, and like most everyone, I also agree that Hold That Ghost is good entertainment, despite the implied racism.
    When I first saw the ‘shadow scene,’ I found it disturbing. But, admittedly a fan of Abbot and Costello, I just put it in the context of a horror-comedy. Of course “Ted and his shadow” is both funny and creepy, that is the premise of the film. Also, I cannot help wondering if sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a shadow is just a shadow. So, over-all I take the shadow to be a bit of surrealism that fits in with the film as a whole.
    Alas, some racist under-tone (in one song and one joke) is undeniable, and I would be more comfortable with it if some of Abbot and Costello’s films had some genuinely sympathetic AND non-stereotype African American characters, but I can think of none. (sign me ‘mixed feelings’)

  5. I think that the number itself (society conditions completely aside), just the performance, is not a negative thing. Looking at it through the eyes of someone in today’s world, I think it is just a clever feature of the performance. Just because race plays the dominant part of the shadow in the performance doesn’t make it a negative thing. Racism has no place in any society, but just because something is race-related doesn’t make it something that is negative. I say it is just a clever use of race in the performance and nothing else. JUST looking at this performance I mean. I am not commenting on the world behind it.



  1. […] If you have ever turned on a television, the role of the black sidekick will be a familiar one. The sidekick is a very useful tool. It cleverly takes advantage of our unconscious racism. Preying on the quietly powerful idea of blacks as secondary human beings, blacks in the shadows of white consciousness. […]

  2. […] Black Sidekicks Jump to Comments This is from two hilarious posts by Kartina Richardson from Loop21.com.  Richardson was inspired after watching the show Huge in which main star Nikki Blonsky  (of Hairspray) befriends a black female sidekick at fat camp.  I agree with Richardson that a black sidekick is one of the oldest tricks in the book (now who did Shirley Temple befriend again?).  Here’s her summary on the tenets of black sidekicking: If you have ever turned on a television, the role of the black sidekick will be a familiar one. The sidekick is a very useful tool. It cleverly takes advantage of our unconscious racism. Preying on the quietly powerful idea of blacks as secondary human beings, blacks in the shadows of white consciousness. […]

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