You Gotta Have Hope…

….Bob Hope that is in this double feature review of two of his best. 

These two films, relatively early in Bob Hope’s film career and made only a year apart are similar in storyline yet show a growth in Hope’s screen persona that would cement his career for the next forty or so years.

The story of “The Cat and the Canary” has a long history dating back to a 1922 play written by John Willard. In 1927 Universal made a silent version. As directed by German Expressionist Paul Leni and starring Laura LaPlante the film is a moody, expressionistic work. Unlike most filmed plays of the time, Leni made this a visual delight. In 1930, Universal made an early sound version retitling it “The Cat Creeps.” Unfortunately, this film which predates Universal’s classic horrors is presumed lost with only clips remaining (despite someone’s claim, and a number of votes on IMDB to have seen the film. They may have it confused with a 1946 film with the same title.)

In 1939, Paramount purchased the rights from Universal and resurrected the story again for Bob Hope turning it into an old dark house thriller with laughs. This film which is finally seeing the light of day on DVD is one of Hope’s best. The script was rewritten tailored to Hope’s talent adding his now well known style for wise cracks yet retains the original thrills of the original.

No matter what version you look at, the plot is the same with only minor changes. Family members and friends are summoned to an old dark house in the Louisiana Bayou, owned by the deceased Cyrus Norman for the reading of his will (specified to be read at midnight ten years after his death). Of course, there is no way off the island until the next morning. Also on board is a housekeeper (Gale Sondergaard) who would give Mrs. Danvers a fright along with secret passageways, hidden treasures, greedy relatives’ lights that mysteriously go on and off, a killer on the loose and plenty of eerie atmospheres. The Louisiana Bayou setting also adds to the sinister surroundings.

Paulette Goddard as Joyce Norman is both the fortunate and unfortunate inheritor of the estate. Hope is Wally Campbell, a ham actor and childhood friend of Joyce who helps her solve the strange goings on and saves her life. George Zucco plays Crosby the lawyer who does not make it through the night and Gale Sondergaard is the creepy housekeeper that assist in keeping the atmosphere sinister and also adding some comic fodder to the proceedings.  John Beal, Elizabeth Patterson and Douglass Montgomery fill out a fine cast.

Hope’s screen persona is just beginning to be evolve, his wicked wise cracking style was developed here for use in this film (“don’t empty houses scare you” he’s asked. “Not me, I worked in Vaudeville!”). Still, he is a bit more laid back and while cowardly it is not as prevalent at it would become later on just one year later in the first Hope/Crosby Road film and the second Hope/Goddard pairing in “The Ghost Breakers.”

If anything this second 1940 feature is spookier and funnier than the first pairing of Hope and Goddard. Again it is Goddard who inherits a spooky mansion, this time on a small bleak island just off the Cuban coast. Hope plays Lawrence L. Lawrence (the middle initial stands for Lawrence. As he says “My parents had no imagination.”). This time he is a radio broadcaster who mistakenly believes he shot and killed a close associate of a local gangster. This gives Larry purpose to stow away on the same ship Ms. Goddard’s character is leaving on. Goddard is warned that her life may be in danger if she continues on to the “haunted house.”

As in “The Cat and the Canary”, the film is filled with hands that reach out from behind secret panels, trap doors, sinister individuals, ghosts and a murder. The film provides a nice mixture of “old house” style horror, mystery and comedy, Hope style.

Black actor Willie Best is Hope’s servant and side kick and unfortunately, like in many films from this period the racial stereotyping is embarrassing and politically incorrect, however this takes nothing ways from Willie’s performance. John Beal, Elizabeth Patterson and Douglass Montgomery fill out a fine cast.

One other reason that these two films work so well is the distinctively eerie camerawork by Charles Lang whose excellent cinematography graced both of these films. Lang’s long career included such great movies as “The Big Heat, “The Uninvited’, “Ace in the Hole” and “Wait Until Dark” among many others.

After working with Goddard for the first time, Hope got to meet his idol, and Goddard’s husband, Charlie Chaplin. During the filming of “The Cat and the Canary”, Chaplin would watch the rushes every night and said to Hope one day that “you are one of the best timers I’ve ever seen.” Hope was obviously enthralled.

Together these two films make a great double feature. Hope was just entering the best period of film career which by the 1960’s would sadly deteriorate to films that were just plain embarrassing. If you are familiar with Bob Hope only from such late career horrors like “I’ll Take Sweden” or “Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number” give his forties and fifties filmography a try. You will see a comic actor at the top of his game and understand why Woody Allen considers him such an influence. The Woody Allen character is cowardly and a womanizer, at least in his own mind, traits he borrowed straight from Hope. You see this especially in his early films like “Bananas”, “Sleeper” and even in “Annie Hall.”

The Cat and the Canary ***1/2

The Ghost Breakers ****

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5 comments on “You Gotta Have Hope…

  1. John, I haven’t seen Hope’s version of Cat and the Canary, but I have seen Ghost Breakers, and ever since I did I’ve felt that Willie Best got a bum rap. I’m not going to say his was a progressive role, but he figures out Hope’s innocence early in the picture and over the rest of it is no more cowardly than Hope himself, for whom cowardice was part of the gimmick. At the climax, Best is there alongside Hope fighting the guy in the armor. But if memory serves, Breakers was the film that got a WOR anchor in trouble years ago because she was complaining about Best’s performance when the camera came on prematurely for a news break. Best could do some godawful work in stereotype mode (he’s really bad in Harold Lloyd’s Feet First, as I recall), but Ghost Breakers may actually be one of his best performances — no pun intended, of course.

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    • John Greco says:

      Samuel,

      Yeah, Willie Best was a victim of the times and it is too bad, he was a talented guy and as you mention no more a coward than Hope’s character in THE GHOST BREAKER. Another talented black actor was Mantan Moreland who I recently saw in the Charlie Chan film “Dark Alibi.” I read in Dave Kehr’s review where he said something like “if there was any juctice in the world, Moreland would have had Bob Hope’s career.”

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  2. Sam Juliano says:

    I might reverse the ratings here John, with THE CAT AND THE CANARY rating the slight edge. But as a longtime fan of THE OLD DARK HOUSE and this basic premise I may be bias. But these two do represent the best films of Bob Hope’s Hollywood career, and as you note there are some stellar craftsmaen at work here, including crack cameraman Charles Lang. I have seen the expressionistic 1927 Leni film -and own the DVD – and in its day it was extremely successful both artistically and commercially. Yeah, Hope was less interested in quality cinema in the later years, but his success as a comedian had moved then to another level. It’s great to focus on these semi-obscure gems from the early period.

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    • John Greco says:

      Hey Sam,

      I actually wrestled with the ratings on these two films, flip flopping a bit. Either way they are two of Hope’s best for sure. I have seen THE OLD DARK HORSE and the silent version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY and like you enjoy that sub-genre of horror. I also saw some years ago the Radley Metzger version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY, certainly the lesser of the three versions. Thanks again sir!!!

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  3. […] Greco considers two of Bob Hope’s very best films in a marvelous multi-faceted presentation: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/you-gotta-have-hope/, while at his second blog, Watching Shadows on the Wall, the lead post considers ‘Cat […]

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