Ghost Stories: THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946)


October has arrived and as usual, TCM has scheduled a nice selection of films this month that will undoubtedly appeal to classic horror film obsessives like yours truly. Among the Hitchcock thrillers, silent scares, mummy movies and horror anthologies airing you’ll be able to tune in every Thursday and catch some spooktacular ghost movies. I love a good ghost story and if you happen to be one of the few who regularly keeps track of my blog posts you know that it’s a film genre I’m particularly fond of so I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight one of my favorite ghostly movies that’s airing this evening; the fun, family friendly and still surprisingly fresh Abbott & Costello horror comedy, THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946).

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES is often referred to as an “Abbott and Costello movie for people who don’t like Abbott and Costello” but as a fan of the comic duo I find that proclamation a bit off base. The film does distinguish itself from the popular formula pictures they made during this period that often contained well-honed routines and the two funny men don’t exchange much direct dialogue but it still contains the same kind of slapstick humor and fast-paced jokes that made them one of the most beloved comedy teams in Hollywood during the 1940s. THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES also benefits from the input of two Bay Area born talents, writer Walter Leon and director Charles Barton. Leon penned the scripts to such memorable horror comedy classics as THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939), THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940) and SCARED STIFF (1953) while Barton was responsible for directing many of the best Abbott and Costello movies including BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME (1947), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), THE NOOSE HANGS HIGH (1948), AFRICA SCREAMS (1949) and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF (1949). Together they were able to craft a thoughtful and laugh-inducing horror farce that makes great use of Abbott and Costello’s playful burlesque-style humor and deft comedic timing.


The spooks in this amusing ghost romp are played by Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds, two would-be American Revolutionary heroes accused of being traitors. They’re doomed to haunt the 166-year-old Danbury estate now owned by Sheldon Gage (John Shelton), who has recently rebuilt the house that once stood there complete with period antiques as well as some modern conveniences, unless they can find a missing letter that proves their loyalty to General George Washington. During one extraordinary weekend, Sheldon invites his psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenway (Bud Abbott), his fiancée, June (Lynn Baggett) and her Aunt Millie (Binnie Barnes) along with a house maid (Gale Sondergaard), to stay with him at his new home but soon afterward they’re awakened by strange noises and odd occurrences that lead them to believe the house is haunted.

The humor in THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES mostly arises from the way the two old ghosts relate to the new world. Lights flicker on and off and radios mysteriously turn on because the ghosts don’t know how modern electricity works. Tables are knocked over, items are broken and books mysteriously fly off shelves because one ghost in particular, the lovable Horatio Prim (Lou Costello), just happens to be extremely clumsy. But alongside the film’s more funny moments, there’s a gentle and melancholy aspect to their antics exemplified by the lovely Marjorie Reynolds who plays the feminine phantom, Melody Allen. Melody can’t resist playing the old harpsichord in the house simply because it’s a sweet reminder of her past and she tries on modern gowns that she borrows from the living female inhabitants in an attempt to feel more human and alive. Reynolds is terrific as Costello’s female companion in the afterlife and the two have genuine chemistry making it easy for us to root for them and wish them success in escaping the curse that’s kept them haunting the Danbury estate for 166 years.




Besides Marjorie Reynolds, the entire female cast of the film is exceptional. Particularly the tall and lanky Binnie Barnes who is terrifically funny as Millie. She and Bud Abbott get to share some of the film’s funniest lines together. And the naturally menacing Gale Sondergaard is also perfect as the paranormal obsessed maid who becomes the target of the film’s best running gag. Sondergaard plays things straight and in turn she manages to generate the most scares just by her mere presence. She also commands the film’s most frightful scene, which takes place during a séance when the house guests attempt to contact the restless spirits.

The film contains some impressive special effects by Jerome Ash who’s probably best remembered for his work on the early FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS serials along with David S. Horsley who assisted on many of the Universal monster movies including THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) and THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940). Working with a limited budget of just a few thousand dollars, they were able to create some genuinely eerie as well as extremely funny visual tricks that are still effective today.

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES is most often compared to the much loved ghost comedy, TOPPER (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Benett, which was followed by a number of popular sequels and a television series. I appreciate TOPPER but I might be one of the few who finds THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES to be a funnier and more memorable movie. Your own mileage will vary of course and it might just depend on how much you appreciate (or don’t appreciate) Abbott and Costello’s comedy but I hope you’ll tune in tonight and give it a look. It’s a great way to kickstart this phantom filled month!

Further reading:
- The Time of Their Lives by Paul Tatara on the TCM website
- Tee Cee Em Tonight: The Time of Their Lives (1946) by Ivan G Shreve Jr.

5 Responses Ghost Stories: THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946)
Posted By Ivan G Shreve Jr : October 2, 2014 6:25 pm

I appreciate TOPPER but I might be one of the few who finds THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES to be a funnier and more memorable movie.

The few, the proud…no question about it: Lives wins hands down any day of the week.

Posted By Sharon G Shearer : October 4, 2014 3:52 am

TCMs lineup of Topper, Lives and Canterbury Ghost on Thursday night was the best of the best of favorite movies and memories, the movies that made me fall in love with movies as a child of television in the 60s. Time of our Lives was by far the favorite — in the 90s A VHS tape was bought to introduce the next generation to Abbot and Costello.

Posted By DBenson : October 4, 2014 7:04 am

Actually, you almost regret that Horatio and Melody aren’t a couple (Melody does sort of come on to him at one point — after 166 years, he must have begun to look good). Instead, after a quietly emotional farewell, she flies off to her presumably reformed true love and he has a closing gag with his.

In my fantasy film vault is a sequel where Horatio and Melody are sent back to earth on seemingly conflicting missions — one of which involves proving Greenway is perfectly sane — and hooking up. It would be next to the remake of “O. Henry’s Full House”, with the weaker stories replaced and with Bud and Lou replacing Fred Allen and Oscar Levant in “Ransom of Red Chief.”

Posted By Susan Doll : October 5, 2014 1:47 am

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES is by far my favorite A&C movie, and I am a bit A&C fan so I have seen most of their movies.

Posted By heidi : October 8, 2014 4:11 pm

I also like The Time of Their Lives better than Topper. I adore Abbott and Costello movies in general, and this one is just so much fun! Topper is good, but for just good clean fun, The Time of Their Lives wins! We watch it whenever it comes on.

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