Great ready for thrills and chills that tickle your funny bone as Bob Hope and company cook up one of THE great comedy mysteries! They start with a dark and gloomy mansion deep in theLouisiana bayou, invite a family for the reading of a will – including the brave and beautiful Paulette Goddard – let loose a shadowy killer who starts picking them off one by one, pepper itall with some classic one-liners, and voila: the perfect recipe for a frightening – and frighteningly funny – good time!
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In my first review in this Bob Hope retrospective, My Favorite Brunette, I talked about how great – and, unfortunately, timely – the series of the 40s were. And how Hope, though not solely in a series of his own (though some Road pictures make up part of the run), had ten hits in just eight years. (And those aren’t the only films in those eight years. AND, lest we forget, part of those eight years had him overseas entertaining the troops!) For those of you keeping track, let’s look at the list again. We have –
The Cat And The Canary (1939)
Look at that run! Four Road pictures, and the three best – Zanzibar, Morocco and Utopia – are in there. Plus The Ghostbreakers! I haven’t decided yet which of Nothing But The Truth, My Favorite Blonde or They Got Me Covered (all well done, certainly funny, and well worth talking about) will make it into the Top Five, into this retrospective. And there were certainly hits – big hits – after ’47, but we’re talking about MY list, MY favorites (and, yes, I digress yet again).
Well, as Brunette came at the end of that run, I thought I’d go back to the beginning, and talk about the film that set-off those hits, made Hope a star, and without a doubt deserves its own review: the great, the funny – and still creepy to this day – The Cat And The Canary.
The Hope Canary was not the only time this story was told. IMDB lists a total of five projects with the title, though I don’t believe either of the 1912 or 1921 shorts can be counted. (Andthere’s a rumored 1930 version, all copies of which are said to be lost, not even listed on the beloved site.) But the other three – the 1927 silent, our 1939 version, and the 1979 version – are definitely birthed from the John Willard play. I’ve never seen the play (although I’d love to; if anyone hears of a revival in the Los Angeles area, please let me know), but from what I gather, it was a straight thriller. Well, where this 1939 version shines is the genre-bending genius of putting the wise-cracking Hope into the mix.
There’s an old adage in screenwriting – I think it was Kubrick who said it – that stories need to build to a surprising yet satisfying conclusion. (And you’d be surprised how difficult it is to hit both of those well.) Anyone who knows me knows what a Joss Whedon fan I am. And talk about genre bending, THERE’S a gentleman who does it well. From Buffy The Vampire Slayer,which mixed horror and comedy, to Firefly which mixed westerns and sci-fi, he has a knack for taking characters and situations we know, are comfortable with, and turning them into somethingsurprising yet as-equally satisfying. And I think a great example of that – fifty years before! – is this Hope version of Canary.
The pieces of the puzzle may seem cliché now – the gloomy mansion in the middle of nowhere, the midnight reading of the will, the Ten Little Indians esque counting down of victims, the secret passageways, the eyes in the painting that follow people – but it’s few and far between to see it put together so well. And it’s no mystery to see why the movie made Hope a star.
Already a leading personality, this launched the entertainer into the realm of comedy’s leading man. Selfdeprecatingthough enormously witty, here he is in the type of role that no one did better: every living room’s funnyman thrown into outlandish situations, and no one we’d rather root for.
The screenplay itself, by Walter DeLeon & Lynn Starling, is essentially a simple one. Neither DeLeon nor Starling get to shine here, although DeLeon would the next year, in his adaptation of another great comedy-mystery play for Hope & Goddard, The Ghostbreakers (soon to be a review here from yours truly). In fact, the Canary mystery is solved far more quickly than it’s setup, but, admittedly, that’s the joy of the thing. The real joys in this film don’t come from the meat and potatoes, but their gravy. The moody shadows, the on-the-nose but it-works-so-well score, Hope’s one-liners (natch) and (just as natch) his and Goddard’s undeniable chemistry.
Truthfully, where DeLeon, Starling and Director Elliot Nugent shine is having a good story, telling it well, and then getting out of the way to let Hope, Goddard et al outshine.
And et al to be sure! George Zucco as the family lawyer, Gale Sondergaard as the housekeeper, Nydia Westman as Cicily, William Abbey (uncredited) as The Cat. It still makes me laugh whenSondergaard, a medium, says to Hope, “There are spirits all around you!” To which he replies, “Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice? I could really use it.” And I still think it’s a particularly frightening shot when The Cat – first his clawed hand then that masked visage – creeps up from behind the chair in the library. And did you recognize Chief Thundercloud as Hope’s Indian Guide at the beginning? He was widely famous at the time for playing Tonto in the Lone Ranger serials (and feature-length recuts of those serials), so for him to undercut Hope’s joke by crediting it to Jack Benny is – and especially was to audience’s then – priceless.
Rewatching The Cat And The Canary as I did for this review reminded me why I wanted to write the review in the first place, why I wanted to put it in this Top Five Retrospective, why I wasexcited enough about it to write it second. As simple as the story itself may be, the movie simply works. And it works well. More than that, it holds up. I enjoyed it as much this time as I have each time before that. My dad once reminded me to always remember that the same amount of hard work goes into movies that don’t click, for whatever reason (a nice bit of advice for all fans and reviewers). So to see one that does? From sixty years ago? That still clicks today? That we enjoy over and over again?
That IS special.