Program Notes: The Cat and the Canary (1939)
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Baby boomers who grew up watching Bob Hope (1903-2003) on television – on his many U.S.O. specials, hosting the Oscar telecast, and appearing as a guest on various variety shows – may not realize that Hope was a major movie star as well.
Granted, Hope’s heyday on the silver screen had pretty well petered out by the mid-1950s, when most boomers were in elementary or junior high school. But by that time this British-born funnyman – who showed uncanny wisdom in his financial and career choices (he was among the biggest landowners in Los Angeles) – had established himself as a regular presence on the boob tube.
Born in London in 1903, Hope was only five when his family emigrated to the U.S. (which explains his lack of an English accent). He spent a few years in Cleveland, Ohio, before moving to Los Angeles, where he devoted much of his adolescence to earning money as a street performer. He spent five years on the vaudeville circuit, but the movies proved a hard sell. When Hope failed a 1930 screen test, he made one of his smart moves, turning to radio, where he won fans for his quick wit.
Finally, in 1934, Hope began appearing on the big screen in a series of shorts for Warner Bros. These audience pleasers allowed him to hone his self-deprecating screen persona, that of a wise-cracking coward who was full of bravado until push came to shove, at which point his instinct was to run away.
In his first few feature films he shared the screen with other comic performers like W.C. Fields, Martha Raye, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. As part of large comic ensembles, Hope was able to put his “brand” in front of moviegoers without taking the risk of being a star who could be blamed for a film’s failure.
Which brings us to 1939’s The Cat and the Canary. It’s an ensemble effort as well, but here Bob Hope clearly emerges as the star, the most interesting thing on the screen.
This Elliott Nugent-directed comedy/thriller was actually the second movie version of a 1922 Broadway hit. John Willard’s black comedy is considered by some to be the originator of the “old dark house” genre of horror/suspense stories in which a group of individuals are trapped overnight in a spooky environment.
The first film version, a silent released in 1927, was directed by Paul Leni, a veteran of the German Expressionist movement who employed the weird cubism-inspired camera angles and skewed production design audiences had seen in movies like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
The Bob Hope version of the tale, which fairly faithful to the play, is much less visually inventive. But thanks to Hope, it didn’t need much visual pizzazz.
The setup is classic: A decade after the death of eccentric millionaire Cyrus Norman, his potential heirs have assembled at his isolated mansion in a gator-infested Louisiana bayou for the reading of the will. Their hostess is the creepy Miss Lu (Gale Sondergard), the old man’s housekeeper and mistress, who seems to be in a trance most of the time and is given to droning on about the spirits of the dead.
The will reveals that Norman’s pretty niece Joyce (Paulette Goddard) inherits the estate, but only if she can remain sane for the next 30 days. (Evidently madness runs in the family.) Which means, of course, that her rivals for the money need only create the circumstances to drive her crazy.
Siding with Joyce is Wally Campbell (Hope), who thinks she’s the cat’s meow (apparently he’s a distant-enough cousin that questions of incest are not an issue.)
Toss into the mix “the Cat,” a homicidal maniac who has escaped from a nearby lunatic asylum. He’s the object of a manhunt, and a uniformed hospital guard is now patrolling the grounds of the Norman estate in case the madman shows up.
And then there are secret passages, and sliding panels from which hands emerge in an effort to strangle sleeping houseguests. People go missing. Bodies pile up.
As a mystery, The Cat and the Canary is perfunctory. Perhaps audiences in 1939 found it intriguing, but after six decades of television thrillers its takes something really gnarly to interest modern sensibilities, and this ain’t it.
But Hope’s wise-guy performance is really quite enjoyable, the main reason to see the film today.
At one point, his character is asked if he believes that people come back from the dead.
Wally’s answer: “You mean like Republicans?”
The Cat and the Canary made Hope a stand-alone star. The next year he starred in The Ghost Breakers, yet another “old dark house” comedy. More importantly, in 1940 he teamed up for the first time with crooner/actor Bing Crosby in Road to Singapore, launching a fabulously successful series of seven Road movies between 1940 and 1962.
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Comedy (Part 2)”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- June 7: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) Not Rated
- June 14: The Cat and the Canary (1939) Not Rated
- June 21: In Name Only (1939) Not Rated
- June 28: Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.