THE CAT AND THE CANARY
The 1939 version is regarded by many as the classic version of the play, although one argues that the 1927 version is infinitely superior from a directorial standpoint. The novelty that this version introduced was the casting of Bob Hope who was at the very beginning of his career. At this point, Hope had only appeared in Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938) the year before but had already been wheeled out in three other comedies in the interim. Bob Hopes presence served to give The Cat and the Canary a comedy focus that was never there in the original stage play or the other film versions. The Cat and the Canary 1939 was a success and led to other comedians of the era appearing in similar Old Dark House comedies the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys made several of these, The Ritz Brothers appeared in a remake of The Gorilla (1939), big band leader Kay Kyser turned up in Youll Find Out (1940), Abbott and Costello in Hold That Ghost (1941), Laurel and Hardy in A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in Scared Stiff (1953), while Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard also played essentially the same role in the copycat The Ghost Breakers (1940) the following year.
For a classic film, The Cat and the Canary 1939 has long existed more in reputation than it has ever been seen. For many years, it was not widely available on video and only made a belated appearance on dvd in 2010. This has perhaps served to amplify its merits as a classic. This version serves up the same plot and set-pieces from the 1927 version but the emphasis is now more on comedy than thrills. For example in the 1927 version, the girl who inherits the fortune was the central character of the film. Now the lead becomes Bob Hope, whose character in the original was merely a standard romantic foil for the leading lady.
The film certainly opens well. We get a classic old mansion, which has now been located in the midst of the Louisiana bayous, covered in moss and creepers (albeit a studio backlot version of the swamps), where Bob Hope is rowed there by an ominously inscrutable Indian local. On the other hand, once the film gets everybody inside the house, the atmosphere telescopes down into something crashingly banal. While other Old Dark House films and in particular the 1927 version gave us amazing studio built mansion interiors full of giant drawing rooms with massive windows and shadowy hallways of billowing curtains, the house here seems utterly ordinary.
Director Elliott Nugent, a former actor who directed a number of comedies during this era, most famously Bob Hopes My Favorite Brunette (1947), gives all impression of being a studio contract director who has been brought in to whip the show out as quickly as possible. He does nothing whatsoever to light the sets or try to find any atmosphere among them. When Nugent does try to spice proceedings up, it is all corny theatric effects lights mysteriously going off, black cats prowling and their giant illuminated shadows seen in rooms, eyes moving behind a portrait. While Elliott Nugent replicates many of the originals set-pieces the lawyer disappearing behind the panel, The Cats hand creeping out towards the sleeping heroines neck and so on there is nothing of the amazingly dynamic visuals that Paul Leni gave to the 1927 film. Nugent does get it together at the very end for some moderately atmospheric skulking around in cobweb covered secret passages and a climax in a shed that is clearly channelling Universal horror in its stylised lighting contrasts the unmasking of The Cat is even conducted with the killers face heavily underlit in shadow but this comes far too late and never approaches anything in the neighbourhood of Paul Lenis masterful stylism.
Bob Hope wheels out various lines, most of which crack a vague smile but often seem terribly corny today. It is commented, The spirits are about, to which he replies, Can you put some in a glass with a little ice? He is asked Do you believe in reincarnation? When dead people come back, to which Hope comes out with You mean like Republicans? Most amusingly, he is asked, Dont big, empty house scare you? Not me, I used to be in vaudeville. Anticipating the wildly surreal gags that regularly broke the fourth-wall in the Road movies with Bing Crosby a couple of years later, there is a minor level of meta-fiction with gags about needing a leading lady just as Paulette Goddard turns up, or centred around the cliches that should be expected of a heroine.
Most of the rest of the cast are passable. British-born actor George Zucco gained a prominence after this and soon became regularly cast as a mad scientist in various cheap horror films throughout the 1940s. One standout performance comes from Gale Sondergaard who does the sinister retainer role to perfection.