Release Date(s)1939 (September 15, 2020)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
The “old dark house” thriller, in one form or another, has been a staple of movies for decades. Memorable films with that setting include The Uninvited, House on Haunted Hill, Poltergeist, and The Shining. The Cat and the Canary, another such film, is a remake of a 1927 silent film based on a 1922 play, with its location changed to an old dark house deep in the Louisiana bayou.
Mr. Crosby (George Zucco), attorney to the late millionaire Cyrus Norman, has summoned Mr. Norman’s potential heirs to assemble at his remote mansion at midnight exactly ten years after his death, in accordance with the instructions in his will. The various heirs arrive by boat and are admitted into the house by the deceased’s housekeeper, the dour Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard). Among them are radio personality and former vaudevillian Wally Campbell (Bob Hope) and young, attractive Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard). Because the local boat operators refuse to make the return trip through the bayou after dark, the guests are forced to spend the night.
At midnight, they assemble and Mr. Crosby reads the will aloud. Joyce is named as heir to the entire estate, but a clause stipulates that an alternate heir will inherit if she is proven to be mentally ill within 30 days of the reading of the will. The identity of the second heir is withheld and known only by Crosby.
It’s discovered that an escaped homicidal mental patient is on the loose in the area. He’s described as having sharp teeth, claw-like hands, and a tendency to creep around on all fours like a cat. As in an Agatha Christie mystery, a murder is committed and suspicion falls on many, with the added complications of that maniac and a valuable diamond and emerald necklace which might have been the motive.
The film leans mostly on the mystery element, with Bob Hope’s one-liners and quips relieving tension as the suspense escalates. Director Elliott Nugent, working with a large cast, keeps the pace brisk, and builds to an exciting climax and revelation of the killer. Dialogue is often witty as assorted guests express their unease at remaining in a house where a murder has occurred.
Bob Hope’s Wally takes on the role of protecting Joyce when he rightfully notes, after hearing the terms of the will, that everyone will try to drive poor Joyce crazy. He’s right, of course, as a number of attempts are made to do just that. Hope depends upon his acting chops as his Wally regards the danger as serious, but it’s impossible for him not to toss out a pithy quip every now and then. When asked if big, empty houses scare him, he replies, “Not me, I used to be in vaudeville.”
The Cat and the Canary has considerable atmosphere, excellent screen chemistry between Hope and Goddard, and a fast pace. The film was so successful that it prompted Paramount to dust off another old property and make The Ghost Breakers the following year, also starring Hope and Goddard. The film doesn’t have the sophistication of The Thin Man, the wry humor of The Trouble with Harry, or the slapstick of The Pink Panther, but it is a well-written and entertaining comedy-mystery that has aged well.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray of The Cat and the Canary from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The picture is free of scratches, dirt specks, emulsion clouding, jump cuts and other annoying distractions. The bayou and its lush vegetation and exterior of an old Southern mansion set the mood for sinister happenings to follow. In deep shadow, we see by moonlight the various potential heirs arrive in small boats, the only way to reach the house. A process screen behind the boats shows us the shoreline with thick vegetation simulating movement. Flickering lights in the house suggest a supernatural presence, and a chase through hidden passageways and a tunnel leading from the house to a shack is both creepy and suspenseful. Though most of the action is confined to the old house, director Elliott Nugent moves the cast around to different rooms to keep things visually interesting. Paulette Goddard’s Edith Head-designed dresses are modest, suggesting her “average gal” status. In a sequence in which she’s stalked by the killer, she wears a flowing white nightgown and the light is diffused through dust particles, giving an otherworldly look to the scene. Human eyes observe Joyce from a painting, a clawed hand reaches out from behind Joyce’s bed, a body disappears, and a cat prowls about.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional subtitles in English SDH are included. Dialogue throughout is distinct. Bob Hope’s delivery is especially clear, even though his one-liners are delivered quickly. The film has a lot of exposition but it’s distributed nicely among several characters. Mr. Crosby establishes the reason for the midnight meeting and provides details of the will and Cyrus Norman’s unusual stipulations. Paulette Goddard has a few chances to exercise her lungs as Joyce and proves to be quite a scream queen. Mysterious bells provide an ominous prediction. Miss Lu grimly presages doom, her face a ghastly mask. Hope’s patter consists of one-liners, quips, and wisecracks. When Wally is asked if he’s scared, he replies, “I always joke when I’m scared. I kind of kid myself into being brave.” When Miss Lu proclaims that there are spirits all around him, Wally responds, “Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice? I need it badly.”
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Author and film historian Lee Gambin notes that this screen version of The Cat and the Canary is the third. The first was a 1927 silent film of the same name, directed by Paul Leni, which introduced a spate of scare comedies that became fashionable during the period. Thus, a hybrid genre was born to film by way of the theater. The second version was The Cat Creeps (1930), now considered a lost film. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein became the “pinnacle of the scare comedy genre.” The opening of The Cat and the Canary captures the realm of a Southern Gothic film. Other films set in Louisiana include The Mummy’s Curse and The Alligator People, both starring Lon Chaney, Jr. The American setting is a notable change from the European locations of earlier Universal horror movies. The contemporary American South is the setting of such films as The Night of the Hunter, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the rural hillbilly horror movies of the 70s, and Deliverance. Scene stealer Gale Sondergaard is a link to the creepy otherworldliness of the film. Sondergaard won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Anthony Adverse and was originally cast as a glamorous Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz until the concept was changed to an ugly witch and the role recast. Sondergaard brings a sense of morbid dread. Bob Hope’s jittery performance style is perfect for a scare comedy. This was the first time a film allowed Hope to be spontaneous in his wisecracking. Though Joyce enters the film fresh-faced and happy, a black cloud hangs over her head and Wally is like a ray of light. The chemistry between Hope and Goddard “makes for a mesmerizing watch.” Director Elliott Nugent succeeds in opening up the story even though it is set mostly in the house. The final chase is shot in a style reminiscent of German expressionism, with dank, creepy locations, rich atmosphere, and artistic use of light.
Theatrical Trailers – Six trailers featuring Bob Hope are included: The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers, Road to Singapore, Road to Zanzibar, Road to Morocco, and Road to Utopia.
– Dennis Seuling