There are a few actor blind spots I’ve sought to fill; during the July Five, it was Fred Astaire. With Halloween we’re seeing some hope, Bob Hope that is. This is the first of two Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard horror mysteries I’m watching in my 31 Days of Halloween and if my enjoyment of this is any indication, I can only expect to be pleased with the other one. The Cat and the Canary has been remade and revised several times. Originally a 1927 silent film, this was last remade only nine years earlier as The Cat Creeps. Taking the basic tenets of the old dark house narrative, The Cat and the Canary stuffs it all murder, jewels, and creeps, on top of Bob Hope’s puns and meta discussions about murder mysteries. It’s hard believing 1939 couldn’t already have enough great movies, and this is one.
It’s been ten years since the death of the eccentricly wealthy Cyrus Norman and his estranged relatives are coming to his isolated house on the Louisiana Bayou to read his will. Joyce Norman (Goddard) is declared the Norman heir, but a caveat in the will stipulates that if Joyce goes crazy then an unnamed second heir gets everything. A dead body, a murderer on the loose, and a missing necklace will all cause problems with the family trapped in the house till morning.
The Cat and the Canary is the purest version of the haunted house film you’re liable to get, and by that I mean it blends the frights of the house with an intriguing mystery. Unlike The Uninvited (1944) there’s no fear of supernatural terror as we’re told a great deal of money, and later on a necklace, is at stake. When the will’s caveat is read one of the character’s hones in on the fact it’s an “invitation to murder.” The addition of a murderer on the loose turns it away from an old dark house film into a whodunit, all with wacky hijinks and the continued fear that maybe there is a ghostly reason for that bump in the night.
Director Elliot Nugent and crew strike the right tone from the minute the first person starts sailing down the Louisiana Bayou. (Although it looks more like the Black Lagoon. Where’s the Gillman?) Once the group is ensconced in the house it sets up scenarios not unlike a giant game of Clue, complete with secret passages, eerie things in the basement, etc. Every trope of the haunted house world is here, especially the mysterious housekeeper. Apparently we loved employing members of The Wizard of Oz as sketchy housekeepers.
Margaret Hamilton played a similar character in William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960) and here we’re getting the woman Hamilton replaced, Gale Sondergaard as the mysterious Creole housekeeper Lu. Sondergaard’s beautiful and, much like other Louisiana stereotypes, she’s got friends on the other side. The audience is meant to be immediately distrustful of her because she’s Creole – and there’s allusions she did more than clean house for the deceased Norman. The fact that her character makes out well by the end does a nice job of righting the wrong assumptions.
As if it’s not bad enough getting a group of money-grubbing strangers inside a spooky house, here we have money-grubbing family members. The typical familial issues all crop up, but the script doesn’t give us much context about their various pasts outside of all the men wanting to hump Joyce’s leg. Seriously, nearly all of Fred (John Beale) and Charlie’s (Douglass Montgomery; the guy I called a drip in my Little Women review) dialogue is warning the other to stay away from Joyce, or, conversely, telling Joyce how hot they are for her. Guys, aren’t you all supposed to be related? Or is it that kind of family? In fact, Bob Hope is immediately likable in comparison for not slobbering over the woman. Beale and Montgomery are interchangeable, and I’m not just talking about how similar in look and personality they are. Outside of different hair color, they have little distinction between them to the point I had to remember which was which when the mystery is unraveled.
Speaking of Hope, he’s not as punny as I envisioned him to be. Yes, his Wally wisecracks, a lot, but he doesn’t stop to mug at the camera or have unnecessary close-ups emphasizing how funny he is. He’s got a sly rapport with Goddard where he’s isn’t going above and beyond to get Joyce, but his flirting is evident. He’s a coward, make no mistake. His reaction when he learns he’s standing in the same spot as the vanished lawyer is hilarious. And he doesn’t puff himself up or evoke macho posturing. When he and Joyce go in search of the necklace, Joyce has no hesitations about sticking her hand into the unknown. They’re rather evenly matched with mutual flaws; the others believe Joyce is crazy and Wally defends her; Wally is a coward but Joyce doesn’t make fun of him. And did I mention that, unlike the other two guys, he doesn’t try to pee on her?
And I have to give props to Elizabeth Patterson (Mrs. Trumble!) and Nydia Westman as the aunts Susan and Cecily! These two are your typical flighty, overly emotional aunts with an added dose of humor. Westman, especially, is hilarious in the vein of Billie Burke, complete with high pitched voice. Her line reading of “He’s pretty…does he belong to us” left me smiling.
With the initial setup involving the will, the film could coast on that but instead there’s a missing necklace and a murderer on the loose. Wally’s constant dissection of melodramas and murder mystery provide enough direction for everything, and the confined location keeps things moving smoothly. I was left questioning the introduction of the murderer. The overly ebullient cop tells the group a killer is on the loose, but no one wants to alarm Joyce by telling her. So when Joyce starts freaking out over mysterious goings-ons everyone immediately assumes she’s got a screw loose. Are they not aware of this murderer? Joyce is unaware, so maybe investigate her claim and see if the murderer is the problem?
There’s great fun to be found in The Cat and the Canary. Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard make a great team, and the film takes the haunted house film and keeps things buoyant with humor that never feels forced or contrived swathed in a compelling whodunit.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.