Movie Times Vault

The Cat And The Canary (1939)


The creepy old house mystery is Halloween-lite; horror for those who really don’t care for horror much…for those who’d like to be in the season's mood but don’t want to be jolted. No one should ever have to feel ashamed of such sensitivity. It’s a strange world where you have to apologize for not liking the sight of blood.

Playing at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto Oct 31 and Nov 1, on a double-bill with Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) is the 72 minute 1939 The Cat and the Canary. It’s one of several versions of a 1920s play that became a kind of classic without ever becoming really good…though it’s been useful for lampooners, as in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, and in James Whale’s The Old Dark House.

The Cat and the Canary was filmed most memorably by Paul Leni in 1927; that silent film is a triumph of atmosphere,  art directed by Charles D. Hall, who did the sets for the original Dracula and Frankenstein. Leni died too young, at age 44, from an abscessed tooth that turned septic. (Leni’s own lost Charlie Chan film, 1927’s The Chinese Parrot, compliments the Stanford’s own choice of double bill.)

The Cat and the Canary is the story of a forlorn mansion. A group of claimants gathering to hear the reading of an eccentric will at midnight: in case of insanity, the heir must relinquish the property. The flickering lights and strange moaning sounds there would seem to be ready to drive any of the guests insane…so would the timely arrival of an escaped masked maniac lurking about: a sharp-nailed, long-toothed killer who thinks of himself as a tiger or something.

The 1939 version transplants the cursed mansion from upstate New York to the Louisiana bayous. It’s being maintained by Miss Lu (the lean and sinister Gale Sondergaard), Frau Bluchering it beautifully as “the old boy’s…housekeeper,” still faithful 10 years since the old man died. The “canary” in the story is the heiress Paulette Goddard, whose fine physique is only temporarily shaded by Edith Head’s tendency to put football pads on all women. In some angles here, Goddard seems one of the most beautiful women of the 1930s screen.

The shadowy Charles B. Lang photography is at best in the fight scene, which tantalizingly obscures the look of the maniac. We don’t really see him, except as a kind of swamp thing with shining eyes. (The poster gives us a better look than the film does.)  Nydia Westman, as a dizzy elder cousin, and George Zucco as the lawyer, bring some flavor to the supporting cast.

But the real innovation here is the presence of Bob Hope as Wally Campbell, a lily-livered radio personality known for rackety dialogue and inferior gagsmanship. He first appears gliding through the swamps in a canoe: “You don’t mind if I ramble on? It takes my mind off the malaria germs.”

The Cat and the Canary transformed Hope from a stage and radio comedian into the major American comedy star of the coming decade. One of the best reappraisals of Hope came from the blogger “Bertold Blecht”

Blecht discusses the innovation of Hope’s persona; how it influenced Woody Allen, for instance, who ransacked Hope wholesale. You can see Allen’s unattributed quote of Hope’s gag “Death is my bread and danger is my butter” in the opening sequence of 1966’s Whats Up Tiger Lily, for instance. As Blecht points out, the way Hope assumed the mantle of a Midwestern breezer took him out of the realm of greasepaint-covered, dialect-humored jokebook comedians of his era. True, the 1920s look persisted in Hope: he was ducky in patent leather hair and double-breasted suits, a hail-fellow joker who might (as in one of the Road movies) launch a spinning bow-tie for a laff.

David Thomson notes in his essay on director Elliot Nugent that Nugent had directed Harold Lloyd’s penultimate film Professor Beware, before going on to five Hope movies. There's a trace to be followed between the comedically cornball side of Lloyd and what became Hope’s own persona. In both, brash overfriendly enthusiasm meets occasionally shaky nerves. It may have been Nugent who guessed that a primarily verbal comedian like Hope could use a little of what Lloyd had.

Eventually Wally mans up—“I’m always nervous before action”. The action comes apace at the end of The Cat and The Canary, with Hope showing all suitable bluster in triumph, acting the role of the smooth detective revealing how the matter was done.

What Hope brings to The Cat and The Canary is more than being comedy relief. We’ve all seen a weak movie subverted by the one funny person in it. Hope does this. But in this point, during that innovative cinematic year of 1939, the director Elliot Nugent* (a friend and collaborator with James Thurber) is wise to the comedy. It’s planning, not accident.

Hope kids the plot, but he also advances it. He oils its rails with dialogue. He takes the function of detective not because of brains or bravery. It's just that, like us, he’d seen the story done a hundred times: “Haven’t you clucks ever heard of secret passages and sliding panels?” Having acted in something called “The Fatal Hour, or She Should Have Known Better,"  he even knows the right moment to lay a kiss on Joyce.

He can goose the plot while still staying in character as an open and proud chicken: at one point holding an empty revolver in pistol-whip position, in case the black cat who startled him tries anything funny. The admission of cowardice is how Hope prevailed (as Blecht notes) as a leading comedian in a cinematic world of strong silent men.

Goddard plays it straight, not seeing this craven as anything but a hero. She’s deaf to his asides, and still dreaming of their romantic days in high school. She reminds him of how he carried her books from school; he leers and says, “What a racket that was!”

Indeed it was to be a terrific racket for Hope. As a beloved comedian, he was to alternate spinelessness, cupidity and lust in films that varied in quality, but never in popularity, for the next 20 years.

*I’d love to have heard Nugent’s thoughts on this film, but really, just try to find a copy of his out of print 1965 autobiography Events Leading Up to the Comedy. Those who have seen the now-elusive book say that most of it deals with Nugent’s career-ending alcoholism. Nevertheless, so much for the idea of everything being available on the Internet.