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zz44d| The Cat and the Canary
Director: Elliott Nugent
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon, Lynn Starling, John Willard
Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr.
Cast: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard
Genre: Comedy

Running Time: 75
Aspect Ratio:  1.37:1 (NTSC Flat Full Frame)
Sound: Dolby 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English
Features: Box set
Studio:  Paramount Pictures DVD Region:  1
DVD Release:  Jun 2010 Discs:  1 (DVD) []
Reviews:  Down in the dark, mysterious swamps of the Louisiana bayous, a moldering, crumbling mansion sits, waiting for its new owner to be named. Its previous owner, millionaire Cyrus Norman, has been dead for ten years, but the house has been looked after by his shadowy Creole housekeeper/mistress (?) Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard). Now, a decade later as prescribed in his last wishes, his remaining relatives have gathered at the mansion to hear the reading of the will by his attorney, Mr. Crosby (George Zucco). Distant cousins "Aunt" Susan Tilbury (Elizabeth Patterson), Cicily (Nydia Westman), Fred Blythe (John Beal), Charlie Wilder (Douglass Montgomery) arrive before art illustrator Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard) and hambone radio actor Wally Campbell (Bob Hope). Tensions are high among the squabbling relatives, but the real anxiety kicks in once everyone learns the contents of Cyrus's last will and testament: Joyce is to receive the mansion and all monies...but someone else named in a second, sealed document will inherit everything should Joyce either become insane or...die within the next thirty days. And that second sealed envelope has been tampered with. Soon, people are bumping into each other in darkened hallways and swampy grounds, wondering who might be ready to kill, before the night's terror is ratcheted-up with the arrival of "The Cat," an escaped mental patient and homicidal murderer who tears his victims to shreds.


Probably the best known of the five film adaptations of John Willard's 1922 play (although with the advent of DVD, the celebrated 1927 silent adaptation by director Paul Leni is receiving its renewed due for its seminal influence on Universal's horror genre), 1939's The Cat and the Canary still manages to scare up some laughs and thrills, even though its format and techniques have been subsequently copied to death in innumerable horror and suspense outings. A "scare comedy" perfectly suited to Bob Hope's evolving 'fraidy-cat persona (he isn't an out-right chicken here, but he certainly isn't a brave, crusading hero, either), The Cat and the Canary shows Hope, still early in his movie career, taking a big leap in on-screen confidence over his performance in the previous Thanks for the Memory, exuding a sureness of approach that indicates he's finally finding his métier in films. Introduced to the audience apart from the other performers (in his canoe ride to the creepy mansion), Hope starts wisecracking immediately, with director Elliott Nugent giving him a funny sight gag (an alligator catches his thrown cigar) that immediately places The Cat and the Canary firmly on the side of comedy first, and horror second. Once inside with the rest of the suspicious characters, Hope need only throw out a joke a minute ("Don't big, empty houses scare you?" "Not me--I used to be in vaudeville."), react with fear to loud noises, and woo the gorgeous Goddard, to effortlessly stay the center of attention here. Paulette "The Body" Goddard, fresh off the disappointment of her career when she narrowly lost out on the Scarlett O'Hara role in Gone With the Wind, is a fairly plucky heroine for this type of horror film, staying good-natured and spunky whenever Hope's around (keep an eye on her when Hope's clowning; she's always laughing right along with the viewer), and delivering believable fright when menaced by "The Cat." This was the first of three films the attractive, sexy Goddard made with Hope (all three are featured in this collection), and she's a good romantic foil for the jittery Hope, with that underlying hardness of hers a fun contrast to the marshmallowy Bob.

As for The Cat and the Canary's horror credentials, it's almost impossible for an adult who has seen his or her fair share of horror films, from any decade, to be taken aback by anything in this thriller--not so much because the chills are tame but rather because they've been Xeroxed so many times by hundreds of other films: the creeping hand coming out of the paneled wall; the menacing shadows on the floor; the creaking doors and sighing winds through the crumbling shutters. However, nostalgia does have its pleasures, too. As I often do with films like The Cat and the Canary, I try and grab a few of my younger kids to watch along, to see if these older efforts still work with kids who, conventional wisdom suggests with their more violent TV, movies and video games, shouldn't be scared at the basic horror chills here, either. Wrong. During the final sequence of The Cat and the Canary where "The Cat" tries to kill Goddard, my two youngest were hunched down behind a pillow, hiding their eyes at every loud noise. With remarkably evocative cinematography by Charles B. Lang, and equally impressive art direction by Hans Dreir and Robert Usher, The Cat and the Canary's bayou mansion (supposedly the inspiration for Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction) is a palpably spooky apparition, while the final sequence of "The Cat" attempting to kill his prey is genuinely scary under Lang's chiaroscuro lighting and director Nugent's violent staging. Spooking a couple of semi-jaded kids in 2010, while delivering seemingly still-topical jokes from the vaults ("Do you believe in reincarnation? Dead people coming back to life?" "You mean like Republicans?"), would seem high praise, indeed, for a 71-year-old film.

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