Director – Robert Stevenson, Screenplay – Don DaGradi & Bill Walsh, Based on the Novel by Ben Stahl, Photography – Edward Colman, Music – Robert F. Brunner, Optical Effects – Eustace Lycett, Mechanical Effects – Robert A. Mattey. Production Company – Disney.
Peter Ustinov (Captain Blackbeard), Dean Jones (Steve Walker), Suzanne Pleshette (Professor JoAnne Baker), Joby Baker (Silky Seymour), Elsa Lanchester (Emily Stowecroft), Richard Deacon (Dean Wheaton), Michael Conrad (Virgil ‘Pinetop’ Purvis)
Steve Walker takes up position as track and field coach at Godolphin College. Both the college and the inn where Steve stays are under threat from mobster Silky Seymour who wants to tear them down to build a casino. Steve manages to accidentally invoke the ghost of the notorious pirate Captain Blackbeard with a spell found in an antique bedwarmer at the inn. Only able to be seen by Steve, the cantankerous Blackbeard causes havoc. Blackbeard’s invisibility also proves the secret to turning Godolphin’s useless track team around and in winning enough money on Seymour’s betting tables to save the college.
Disney’s live-action division reached an inspired comic height in the early 1960s beginning with The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). This success was quickly copied and turned into a limited slapstick formula as in the likes of the Merlin Jones films – The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1963) and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965) – and the Dexter Reilly films – The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972) and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).
By the time of Blackbeard’s Ghost, this formula had become very routine – as in The Absent-Minded Professor, an ailing college is at siege from an unscrupulous villain and the success of the college is dependent on some fantastic aid or invention in the sports arena, while everything comes accompanied by much noisy slapstick chaos. The slapstick scenes at the race track have a silliness that touches some of the highs of the good live-action Disney films but the roulette sequences are unimaginative, while the scenes with the invisible Peter Ustinov knocking out hoods as Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette point their fingers is only silly.
What could have united Blackbeard’s Ghost and made it work would have been a strong central performance but instead Peter Ustinov takes the role to buffoonish heights. Notedly this is the Disney version of a pirate – not a murderer, a thief or a rapist, as was the real Blackbeard, Edward Teach, but a cuddly and roly-poly figure, a curmudgeon who reveals a heart of gold. The most villainous this Blackbeard gets is demonstrating a liking for rum. For a two hundred year old pirate, Blackbeard also demonstrates remarkably little surprise (that is to say none at all) at the modern world.
British director Robert Stevenson made a number of other films for Disney that include Disney include Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), In Search of the Castaways (1962), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1963), Son of Flubber (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), The Gnome-Mobile (1967), The Love Bug (1969), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Herbie Rides Again (1974), The Island at the Top of the World (1974) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976). Before moving to Hollywood, Stevenson also made the Boris Karloff mad scientist film The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) and the sf film Non Stop New York (1937).