It’s all too easy to dismiss Invisible Ghost as just another Bela Lugosi poverty row movie. It has a low budget, inaccurate title and seemingly nothing else to make it stand out above its fellow bargain bin fare. Notice my use of the word “seemingly.” That’s due to the presence of Evans the butler. Despite being an African American character in an old horror movie, he never engages in the cowardly “comic relief” antics associated with such characters in horror movies of the time. I cannot be the only viewer who was pleasantly surprised to see Evans react in a realistic manner whenever he discovers a dead body. Another interesting aspect of this character is how he has some level of authority over the other servants, who are all white. Such a dignified portrayal was practically unheard of for an African American screen characters in the 1940’s and I was inspired to learn more about the film’s background in order to see how it came about. I started by looking into the background of the actor who portrayed Evans, Clarence Muse.
Originally a lawyer, Muse tried his hand at singing after realizing the lack of demand for black attorneys. This decision took him from Maryland to Florida, where he sang in a hotel quartet. He went to New York to perform in vaudeville and honed his singing and acting skills with the Lincoln Theater Group. He went on to become a founding member of the legendary Lafayette Players and one of his early performances involved him playing the title roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Quickly becoming known for his talents, he received an offer from Hollywood in 1928. Although he initially tried to turn it down by purposefully requesting a (quote) “ridiculous price,” he was soon surprised by his demand being met. This led to his becoming the first African American actor to star in a film. The movie, Hearts in Dixie, was quickly followed with numerous other roles (with his only horror movies being White Zombie, Invisible Ghost and The Soul of a Monster) leading all the way up to his death in 1979. But he did more than act, as he directed stage plays, founded his own acing troupe, was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, wrote the screenplay for Way Down South with Langston Hughes and composed numerous songs. His song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” was so good that the stage play it was written for changed its name to share the title!
Many of Muse’s early roles are described as being an “Uncle Tom” character and unfavorable comparisons to Stephen Fetchit due to said roles requiring him to play servants and the like. He argued such roles were the only ones available for African Americans and how one has to get into the system in order to make any improvements. He discussed his views in a pamphlet called The Dilemma of the Negro Actor and was well known for reworking his roles to be less stereotypical and once he became the highest paid black actor in Hollywood, his ability to do so grew. He used his earnings to improve things off screen as well, such as his news making donation in support of an anti-lynching bill. It is worth noting, however, that Muse became much more vocal about the need for improvements in Hollywood after his attempts to rework Song of the South were rejected.
Given what we know about Muse, it would be all too easy to credit him for the depiction of Evans in Invisble Ghost. But some of the credit for that might belong to the film’s scriptwriters, Helen and Al Martin. If the Internet Movie Database is to be believed, the “Helen Martin” in question is none other than the actress known for her roles on Good Times and What’s Happening!! (among many other films and television series). Sadly there is no outside confirmation for this claim. If there was, you had better believe this article would have started with information about her career first. As for Al Martin, there are only a few scraps of information about him online. He got his start writing intertitles for silent films and worked his way into screenwriting. He wrote the scripts for numerous films, including The Mad Doctor of Market Street and co-wrote Invasion of the Saucer Men. His location of birth and the location of Ms. Martin’s birth are different, which seemingly rules out their being brother and sister. Other than that, the trail is cold. Any further help would be greatly appreciated.
But even if she isn’t the actress and even if she had nothing to do with the portrayal of Clarence Muse’s character, this Helen Martin still made Invisible Ghost have a very important place in the history of women in horror. Not only is sadly all too rare for a woman to write a horror film, but she was also credited ahead of Al in the film’s opening! This is huge given how this movie was made in the early 1940’s. Thankfully Monogram Pictures was one of the lower tier film companies, whose low budgets and increased need to make a profit resulted in their doing things the majors would balk at. While this did produce some pretty bizarre movies, it also yielded a comparatively more diverse environment both on and off screen.