Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Cat and the Canary (1939): Chills + Laughs = Hit!

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.


  1. I always loved The Cat and the Canary, as well as The Ghost Breakers. They are both two of the funniest films of their era. I also have to say that I think The Cat and the Canary not only established Hope's screen persona, but established him as a star of parodies and spoofs. Both The Cat and the Canary spoofed horror movies, just as the "Road" films would spoof adventures films, The Pale Face would spoof Westerns, and so on.

  2. Interesting blog and nice movie reviews. The cat and the canary it's just funny and a really interesting cinematic piece.

    Cheers from Uruguay

  3. Great review, Rupert! "Ghost Breakers" has always been one of my favorite Hope films, but I've never seen "Cat & the Canary". Obviously, I'm going to have to remedy that.

    Where do you find these movies? Are they in your personal collection? If so, I envy your classics collection.

  4. Nice review, Rupert! I agree that THE CAT AND THE CANARY is very funny...and I think THE GHOST BREAKERS is even better. They'd make a fine double-feature for Halloween.

  5. Thanks all!
    PJ, The movies I review are in my personal collection that I have been very fortunate to gather together through the years through good friends sharing obscure titles they have snagged and ones I was able to snag on a single showing. Many of the more hard to find ones are on VHS from several years back but still in excellent condition and very watchable. Any film that I review on CLASSIC MOVIES DIGEST has been recently viewed specifically for discussion on the blog. So glad you enjoy!

    Rick, I agree whole heartedly about a double feature. Before I received my copy of THE CAT AND THE CANARY, I made THE GHOST BREAKERS part of the annual Halloween tradition.

  6. It's a shame that so many of Hope's early movies aren't as well known as the Road pictures. Hope naysayers -- those folks who only know him from his later career TV specials, for instance -- would have to change their minds if they were able to see Hope in his prime on the screen. There's no mystery why he became such a major movie star. He was amazing!

  7. Hi Rupert, I like your blog very much. It is very interesting and so I have a prize wait for you in my blog, I think that you would have it.
    I hope you receive it, sorry for mi english.
    I wait you in TEMAS QUE IMPORTAN Y MAS:

  8. Hi Rupert, great post on this movie. "The Ghost Breakers" is one of my all time favorites, but I haven't seen this one yet. Can't wait to see it. Thanks.

  9. On the money as usual, Rupert. One of the underrated films of 1939. Hope's quips were such a treat, and regretfully, he & Goddard quit as a team after two films. They worked SO well together!

  10. NO, NO Mickey! They made THREE films together, and the reason I'm so adamant about it is that the one you are leaving out is such a fun and forgotten movie. NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (1941), which is included in the newly released Hope collection. It is a great film and I highly recomment it!



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