THE CAT AND THE CANARY, a popular and skillfully made chiller-comedy from 1939, scored with critics and public that gem-stoked year, the $6,000,000 gross taking 20th place at the box-office. Watching it more than seven decades on, it’s easy to see why it went over, a shivery lark in the vein of the earlier The Old Dark House and the later favorite Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Directed with flair by Elliott Nugent, the spooky angle holds up better than the gags (though no doubt they rib-ticklers at the time); the vehicle served as a career milepost for its two lead players and notched neat roles for two key members of the supporting cast. *
“Don’t you ever stop babbling?”
At a secluded mansion in the misty Louisiana bayous, six survivors of a deceased millionaire are summoned to hear his will. Two are prissy spinsters, two are quarrelsome young blades. Fetching and single, ‘Joyce Norman’ (Paulette Goddard) is courted by the swains, but she’s fond of the third fella, wisecracking stage ham ‘Wally Campbell’ (Bob Hope). After the dour executor reveals the inheritor, the foreboding housekeeper insists not everyone will live through the night. A storm is on, lights flicker, bookcases revolve and a lunatic from the nearby asylum (in the swamp?) is on the loose.
From the start, creepy atmosphere makes this fun, thanks to Charles B. Lang’s fine b&w camerawork, superior art direction from Hans Dreier and Robert Usher and a laudable score from Ernst Toch. Hats off to Edith Head for Goddard’s clingy costumes. The older ladies are done by gals who specialized in biddies of one sort or another: Elizabeth Patterson, who’s amusing, and Nydia Westman, whose ear-piercing shrieks, meant to be funny, quickly become tasking. The bickering guys are played by bland Douglass Montgomery and irksome John Beal. Those four make for limp baggage, but the heavy lifting is carried off with panache by Hope, Goddard and two of the era’s formidable relayers of bad news, suave George Zucco as the executor ‘Crosby’ (no Bing jokes, yet, it’s just coincidental) and Gale Sondergaard, perfect as ‘Lu’, the icy mistress of the mansion, complete with her pet black cat.
CICILY: “It’s awful spooky down here. Do you believe in reincarnation?” WALLY: Huh? CICILY: “You know… that dead people come back?” WALLY: “You mean like the Republicans?”
Debuting in features the year before, at 39, this was the seventh picture Hope had appeared in, but was the first tailored to fit him. Richard Zoglin, his ablest biographer makes the case “he has discovered the character that he would make his own: the brash coward, a nervous Nellie who uses jokes to ward off his fears, a braggart who talks big but melts when face-to-face with danger. But it’s more than just jokes; Hope creates a rich comic character, recognizable and relatable—a coward you can root for.” Unlike many comedians-turned-actor, Hope as personable (for quite a while at least), and audiences could be cajoled into believing he’d get the girl, even someone as hot-sheet hot as Paulette Goddard. Seven months after this came out, Hope & Goddard reteamed to hit paydirt again in Ghost Breakers: their respective stardoms were off to the races.
Hope’s fine, Sondergaard deliciously dark and the settings are swell but the real steal is Goddard, abloom at 29, a sex-charged bundle of glamour, wit and vivacity; her pin-point performance anchors the movie, and she’d go on to prove skillful in comedy (The Women, Ghost Breakers, The Great Dictator), adventure epics (Reap The Wild Wind, Unconquered), war rousers (So Proudly We Hail!) and dramas (Kitty, Anna Lucasta).
74 minutes, with John Wray, William Abbey and Charles Lane.
* Walter DeLeon and Lynn Starling’s screenplay was the third version of John Willard’s 1922 play. A 1927 silent was followed by an early sound version, The Cat Creeps. A British remake crept out to little notice in 1978; it boasts a decent cast.