This is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Movies of 1939 Blogathon.
“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 adapting the play to the screen. Directed by German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni and starring Laura LaPlante the film was a moody, imaginative, expressionistic work. Unlike most filmed plays of the time, Leni made this a visual delight making it one of the most stylistic films of the silent era. 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 claims, and a number of votes on IMDB, to have seen the film. They most likely have it confused with a 1946 film with the same title.
Bob Hope made his film debut in the 1934 short called “Going Spanish” made for the Educational Films Corporation of America. This was followed by a series of other minor shorts for Vitaphone/Warner Pictures (Watch the Birdie, Paree, Paree, Double Exposure, Calling All Tars and Shop Talk) before he signed on with Paramount Pictures where he made his feature film debut in “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” in which he introduced what would turn out to be his future theme song, “Thanks for the Memory.” It would take Hope a few additional films to fully develop his screen persona that would make him one of the top stars of the 1940’s and a major influence on a young boy named Allen Stewart Konigsberg who in the 1960’s would materialize as Woody Allen. The film that would first emerge as the first classic Bob Hope comedy was “The Cat and the Canary.”
In the late 1930’s, Paramount purchased the screen rights for “The Cat and the Canary” from Universal and resurrected the story for Bob Hope turning this classic old dark house thriller into an old dark house thriller with laughs. The film which finally saw the light of day on DVD last year remains one of Hope’s best. The script was rewritten by Paramount writers Lynn Sterling (He Married His Wife, A Night at Earl Carroll’s, Moon Over Miami) and Walter DeLeon (Union Pacific, The Ghost Breakers, Pot o’ Gold)) to closely mirror Hope’s talent yet retain the thrills and chills of the original.
No matter what version you look at, the plot is the same with only minor changes. Remaining 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, once on the island, there is no way off until the next morning for anyone. Also on board as the housekeeper, Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard) who would give even Mrs. Danvers a fright. She warns the guest that someone will die before the night is over. The film retains its fill of secret passageways, sliding panels, lights that mysteriously go on and off, a psycho killer on the loose and plenty of eerie atmosphere both inside and outside the house.
Unlike in most of his films, Hope is a bit more restrained here, not relying purely mugging and fast humorous quips, though there are plenty of good lines. When asked if big empty houses scare him, Hope responds, “Not me, I use to be in Vaudeville.” The film is more plot driven and is filled with many nice touches of spooky thrills. Directed by Elliot Nugent who adeptly combines the fright and laughs.
Paulette Goddard as Joyce Norman is both the fortunate and unfortunate inheritor of the estate. She also has a great pair of lungs on her, capably raising audible levels to new heights. Hope is Wally Campbell, a ham actor and childhood friend of Joyce who helps her solve the strange going ons and saves her life. Horror film favorite, George Zucco plays Crosby, the lawyer who will not make it through the night and Gale Sondergaard is the creepy housekeeper who assists in keeping the atmosphere sinister, also adding some comic fodder to the proceedings. Also on board are Elizabeth Patterson, who years later would become best known to baby boomers and others as Mrs. Trumbull, Little Ricky’s babysitter on “I Love Lucy” and John Beal. Look for character actor Charles Lane in a small role as a reporter. Lane would become a familiar face later on when he appeared in hundreds of TV shows, and films, including “Dennis the Menace,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Bewitched” and “Soap,” generally as a gloomy, bad-tempered, ornery, old skinflint.
Hope and Goddard made two more films together, the equally as funny and spooky 1940 film, “The Ghost Breakers,” and “Nothing But the Truth”, both of which are included in the new box set from Universal. One of the joys of working with the beautiful Paulette Goddard for Bob Hope was the opportunity to meet one of his longtime idols, and Goddard’s then husband, Charlie Chaplin. As a young boy, Hope had once won a Chaplin lookalike contest.