When I was a senior in high school, I lobbied for our drama group to put on The Cat and the Canary for our annual production. We did and I was fortunate enough to win the part played by Bob Hope in the 1939 film version. It was alot of fun, though at the time, I'd never had the opportunity to see any of the film versions of this classic mystery. When I did finally see the movie, co-starring Paulette Goddard, it was just as much fun as I remembered my high school hijinks to be.
Released by Paramount in November 1939, The Cat and the Canary is one of the lesser remembered gems from that big movie year that ushered in Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and the like. It brought both its leads, Hope and Goddard, to the forefront of stardom and raked in a pretty nice profit for Paramount. Originally filmed as a silent in 1927, then again with sound as The Cat Creeps in 1930, The Cat and the Canary was based on a stage play by John Willard and was a take on the "old dark house" formula, which threw several people together in a spooky mansion of sorts with no means of escape and creepy shenanigans aplenty (Think And Then There Were None with laughs). The 1939 installment offered a winning combination of murder, mayhem and the madcap comedy of young Bob Hope, who plays Wally Campbell, one of a motley crew gathered at the eerie New Orleans estate of a dead relative for the reading of the old man's will. Paulette Goddard, stunning as usual, stars as Joyce Norman, the lucky stiff (did I say that?) who inherits the old boy's dough. The catch is if she is found to be insane, a second, separately named heir will get the loot. The codicil puts the beautiful heroine in a dangerous predicament.
Bob Hope had already been under contract to Paramount for a couple of years but hadn't found his niche. The studio wanted to take advantage of his huge popularity on radio. With the character of Wally Campbell, the bumbling, charming, comic coward, he hit the jackpot. It would be his signature film persona for the rest of his career, culminating in the "Road" pictures he made with fellow Paramount players, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Gorgeous Paulette Goddard had just finished filming the extremely popular The Women at MGM, after losing the role of Scarlett O'Hara to Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind and was under personal contract to producer David O. Selznick. Embroiled in his Civil War epic, Selznick sold Paulette's contract to Paramount when the studio offered the comely actress a seven year option. The Cat and the Canary was Goddard's first film under her new contract and was the turning point in her career. Paulette was married to comic icon Charlie Chaplin at the time Canary was made. Chaplin had been the childhood idol of her co-star Hope and during the same time the film was being shot, Bob saw Paulette and Chaplin at the Santa Anita racetrack. He went over to speak to Goddard and she introduced the two men. The awestruck Hope told his idol how he had enjoyed Modern Times (Chaplin's last silent film, released a few years prior), as well as working with Paulette. Chaplin in turn complimented the young comedian saying, "I've been watching the rushes of The Cat and the Canary every night. I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I have ever seen." He was right. Hope's gags and one liners set him apart. In a scene between Wally Campbell and Cicily, another potential heir, Cicily asks: "Don't big, empty houses scare you?" to which Hope's Wally answers, "Not me, I used to be in vaudeville."
The film also featured John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Elizabeth Patterson and Gale Sondergaard, who is always a treat. The Cat and the Canary proved so popular with moviegoers that a follow up, The Ghost Breakers was rushed into production by Paramount to re-team Hope and Goddard. It met with equal success.