"The Cat & the Canary"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)
Bob Hope had said "The Cat & the Canary" (1939) was the movie which made him "box-office", meaning a star. A recognizable name which audiences would seek out.
The film was based on a Broadway play which was adapted to the screen by the legendary German expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni under the same title in 1927. It is my favorite of Leni's films and was on my list of the best films of the 1920s. It is a masterpiece in genre filmmaking. Watching that film however I saw how comedy could have been inserted in it. There were comedic moments in that movie.
When I first saw Leni's adaptation I knew Bob Hope starred in this version. I have long been a fan of the sub-genre of comedy known as comedy-horror. So many of the great comedians of Hope's era attempted the genre. There was Laurel & Hardy in the two-reeler, "The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case" (1930), Harold Lloyd in "Haunted Spooks" (1920) another two-reeler. The comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey in the feature length movie "Mummy's Boys" (1936) all prior to Hope's attempt. But this version of "The Cat & the Canary" surpasses them all. This is a comedy masterpiece.
On the tenth anniversary of his death, the surviving relatives of the Norman estate are gathered together for the reading of his will. Attending the reading are Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard), "Fred Blythe (John Beal), Charles Wilder (Douglass Montgomery), Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson, best known for her role on TV's "I Love Lucy"), Cicily (Nydia Westman), Wally Campbell (Hope) and the housekeeper who has remained all these years, Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard).
Each is convinced the house is haunted and the spirit of the dead man remains in the house. Each family member feels they should inherit the family fortune and when it is reveals there are two secret envelopes, one in case the first benefactor should suddenly die, everyone soon suspects each other of being a future murderer, especially since all of these people will have to spend the night in this house which is on a secluded bayou in Louisiana, since all communication to the outside world is cut off until morning.
Lights start to flicker for no apparent reason, outside noises are heard and a security guard from a near-by sanitarium reveals an inmate has escaped, known as the cat. They are encouraged to lock all doors and windows.
It is not a spoiler to reveal Joyce inherits the house and begins to fear for her life when dead bodies are found around the house. The only person she truly trust is Wally, who isn't much help to her since he is scared half out of his mind too! But has slowly fallen in love with her and she with him. So they stick together and try to solve this mystery.
What makes "The Cat and the Canary" work so well is first of all it is a terrific story which in many ways established the haunted house formula. Dark, mysterious night, secluded island, gathering of suspects, dead spirits, family fortune, so on and so forth. Secondly, "The Cat and the Canary" doesn't sub-side the horror and eerie atmosphere for comedy. Yes, Bob Hope stars in the movie, but they keep the original story in tack. The comedy is an additional icing on the cake but never interferes with the haunted house story. By doing this it creates a near perfect balance of comedy and horror. It is as good, if not better, than "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) which is often thought of as the best example of the comedy-horror genre.
There are moments in this movie which work as pure thriller. An effective musical score and a slow build-up of suspense is created when we see figures lurking in corners and hands appearing in frame.
At this point in time there wasn't really such a thing as a "Bob Hope movie". All of his movies prior to this didn't take advantage of the Hope persona we would later come to know and love. The coward who constantly gets himself into one bad situation after another and who had a natural gift for delivering one-liners and puns, with his breezy attitude and casual voice. Here Hope is part of the ensemble not the focal point. And it works.
The movie was directed by Elliott Nugent, who directed some of Hope's early screen comedies. Some of the choice ones include "Nothing But the Truth" (1941), which would serve as the basis for the Jim Carrey comedy "Liar, Liar" (1997) and "My Favorite Brunette" (1947). He also directed George Burns and Gracie Allen in "Love in Bloom" (1935) and Claudette Colbert in "Three Corned Moon" (1933).
The movie was so successful, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard were teamed up again for another comedy-horror movie, "The Ghost Breakers" (1940, which I have reviewed). That movie also creates a nice balance between comedy and horror but "The Cat & the Canary" does just a tad bit of a better job. In that movie Hope and Goddard are in a haunted house, which she has inherited, on an island. Only this time zombies are involved and the setting is Cuba.
Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be much interest in Bob Hope movies anymore. When I was a kid I would always watch him. I've even reviewed some of his comedies; "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946) and "Louisiana Purchase" (1941) among them. While "The Cat & the Canary" may not instantly come to mind as one of Hope best, mostly because it has been out-of-print for so many years, it is a classic comedy and should not be missed by anyone who appreciates classic Hollywood comedies and especially by someone who considers themselves a fan of Bob Hope.