Revisiting the classic 1939 version of the much-filmed murder-mystery story.
People love to complain about remakes. “Hollywood has run out of ideas!” they cry, as if this is some sort of new phenomenon. Yet remakes have been a mainstay of cinema since its earliest days, often coming just a few years after an earlier version (and without the excuse of having a franchise to reboot). Case in point: this version of The Cat and The Canary, which appeared a mere twelve years after the previous version – not to mention the assorted knock offs and imitations that proliferated from the 1920s through to the 1980s (1930 film The Cat Creeps was an unofficial sound remake of the silent original, but is now a lost film). The ‘old dark house’ mystery has been a cinematic (and theatrical) mainstay for most of the life of cinema, and The Cat and The Canary is the daddy of them all.
There’s a curious pleasure to the ‘old dark house’ film – the majority of them are pretty lightweight stuff but it is this light touch and the familiarity of the narrative that makes them so enjoyable. This kind of film feels very much like comfort food – fluffy mixes of thriller, horror and comedy where it’s fairly easy to guess who the villain is (it’s always the person who seems the least suspicious), allowing the viewer to simply go with the flow. There are all the old dark house clichés, which must have been clichés even at the time – secret panels, hairy arms reaching for the heroine, people who just can’t stay locked in their rooms where they would clearly be safer, red herrings and the opportunity to shout “him! It’s obviously him!” as the cast true to figure out who the Cat actually is. Radley Metzger’s 1977 version of the story turns up with alarming regularity on British TV at the moment but I’ll be damned if I can’t just watch it – or simply dip in and out when I come across it while channel-surfing – because it’s the very essence of reassuringly safe cinema – disposable, certainly, but a great deal of fun.
This 1939 version is probably the best known and almost certainly the best-loved of the assorted versions of the story that are all – more or less – based on the 1922 play by John Willard. It’s also the one that plays the most fast and loose with the source material, shifting the location from the Hudson River to the Louisiana bayous, where millionaire Cyrus Norman built his home, and where, ten years after his death, his family members are gathering for the reading of his will. They are a mixed bunch – there’s Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson), who believes herself to be the rightful heir, and Cicily (Nydia Westman) who is her excitable companion; artist Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard); Charles Wilder (Douglass Montgomery), a lounge lizard who wants to revive a romance with Joyce and his rival, the sullen Fred Blythe (John Beal); and Wally Campbell (Bob Hope), a radio personality and nervous wise-cracker. Also along for the ride are mysterious housekeeper Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard) and lawyer Mr Crosby (George Zucco).
When Joyce turns out to have inherited the fortune – by chance more than choice, as the will specifies that the cash goes to whoever is named ‘Norman’ – at a dramatic midnight reading, and a security guard from a nearby asylum warns that a murderous lunatic known as ‘the Cat’ is on the loose (how he would get to a place that seems to be an isolated island surrounded by alligator-infested swamps is never quite explained), the bodies start to pile up and Wally – by default the only person not under audience suspicion, given that he is Bob Hope and Bob Hope is never, ever going to turn out to be the bad guy in a movie – starts to investigate the on-going mysteries, which also involve a lost diamond necklace.
With Hope in the lead role, it was always going to be as much about laughs as thrills. The actor here does his usual shtick – a character who is full of quips, constantly nervous but ultimately heroic and of course gets the girl, however unlikely this might be (for a while, it looks as though the film might actually pair him with the equally comic and scatty Westman, instead of romantic lead Goddard, and you rather regret that it doesn’t because they would make a much more entertaining couple) and you either like that or you don’t. In either way, the archetypal Hope character makes more sense in films like this and the follow up The Ghost Breakers than it does in some of his other movies, and as far as goofy comedy characters in horror films of the period go, I’ll take him over Lou Costello any day.
because the film is built entirely around Hope, it does mean that the rest of the cast are all playing second fiddle to a large extent. Goddard is very beautiful but has very little to do for much of the film except be frightened or hysterical, which is a pity as the few moments where her character is allowed to show a little gutsy bravery are impressive. She suffers from being a typical chiller movie heroine from a time when such characters were never given very much to do and that feels a real shame because she isn’t even allowed to be particularly funny. However, the supporting players are all entertaining (though Beal’s semi-aggressive moping becomes annoying after a while) – and it’s always good to see horror stalwarts Zucco and Sondergaard in action, the former getting to be relatively normal for once and the latter in fine form balancing the sinister and the kitsch.
Slickly helmed by Elliott Nugent, this film is never less than entertaining, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before – in fact, familiarity in this case perhaps enhances the film as you can just go with the flow and enjoy each moment without having to worry about picking up on clues about who the killer might be (which, of course, are not really there anyway). Good things like this never get old.
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