Thursday, 3 November 2016
THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939)
(Abridged web-only draft)
In April 1939, Bob Hope’s fortunes changed when he began shooting the comedy-horror remake of 1927’s silent The Cat and the Canary. At last, here was a vehicle where the material could begin to show him off as both a film comedy actor and a leading man. The original film had been very successful for Universal whilst they were gearing up for their horror boom beginning with Frankenstein and Dracula in 1931.
Directed by Elliott Nugent who already knew Hope’s style from directing two of his earlier films, The Cat and the Canary is an interesting film in his career trajectory especially for fans who’ve only seen his later movies. They would be constructed around a winning formula - his cowardly lover character partnered with beautiful female co-stars and jabbering his way out of jeopardy with assorted villains - often placing him in period settings for the likes of Monsieur Beaucaire (1946) and The Paleface (1948) for added comedic incongruity. (Woody Allen as a devoted fan would acknowledge borrowing this device for his own early movie comedy protagonists). Here though, Hope is more or less slotted into a pre-defined modern lead role within the Scooby Doo fake-ghost skulduggery recycled from the first version. The light relief part that previously relied on scaredy-cat facial mugging by Creighton Hale was now however bolstered with witty verbal one-liners tailored to Hope’s radio persona and placed him more heroically centre-stage in the main action. In fact, his character Wally Campbell (disparagingly referred to as ‘the original flutterbrain’) is easily remodelled to echo his real-life radio fame.
Playing an actor of radio mystery thrillers also gives Hope license to try out what became his trademark mischievous meta-angle of standing apart from the action as a commentator, second-guessing the horror tropes before they appear and puncturing the macabre atmosphere:
‘Don’t big houses scare you?’
‘Not me. I used to be in vaudeville’.
From his first entrance, through the excellently-realised misty Louisiana bayou, Hope is already making with the funnies. He yacks incessantly to the sombre Native American Creole Indian who paddles him toward the deceased Cyrus Norman’s estate. Whilst his guide of course is ignorant of Wally’s work, he dead-pans knowing the real source of his passenger’s gags as Jack Benny – a nice in-joke reference to their shared real-life similarity that allegedly was one of the reasons Paramount nearly let Hope go the previous year.
Amongst the co-stars to our reluctant hero is the imperious estate housekeeper Miss Lu, an enigmatic portrayal of sinister poise by Anthony Adverse Academy-Award winner Gale Sondergaard. Reminiscent of a young beautiful Frau Bluecher, Sondergaard had the gift of projecting a cold sexuality that actually bagged her the Wicked Witch role in that year’s The Wizard of Oz but she rejected it over concerns that the make-up would require her to be rendered distastefully ugly.
To reinforce the horror credentials further we have on board George Zucco, recognisable to genre fans for a very busy war during which he appeared as Professor Moriarty opposite Rathbone and Bruce in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), three of Universal’s The Mummy sequels, House of Frankenstein (1944) and others for the ‘House of Horror’. The British-born Zucco makes a fine Mr Crosby, the gravely serious executor of the Norman estate and protector of the heir.
In the cross-hairs of the scheming disinherited other family members, Crosby defends to the death the personable Paulette Goddard as Joyce Norman. Goddard was a former Ziegfield showgirl who enchanted Charlie Chaplin so much that he married her and cast her in the lead role of an orphan girl in her first film Modern Times (1936). She took the part of Joyce while waiting for Chaplin to begin production of his dark satire masterpiece The Great Dictator (1940) and matches Hope’s energy and pizzazz as Joyce with a believable chemistry of affection befitting their background as old high school friends. One day when Goddard’s husband visited the set having already seeing rushes of shot scenes, Chaplin was likewise entranced enough by the star-struck Hope to tell him: “I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I have ever seen”.
What makes Hope’s work in The Cat and the Canary surprising is that particularly in the second half the demands of playing the plot’s straight leading man at times take over from his amusing one-liners. When Elizabeth Patterson’s spiteful spinster Aunt Susan prattles self-servingly about Joyce’s precarious mental state, it’s quite a shock to hear the playful gag-meister suddenly round on her: “Shuddup” he spits, threatening her with the steel of a hardened Warner Brothers’ gangster.
This is not to say that Hope’s wise-cracking is completely submerged. He commits to the fun of the irrepressible survivalist coward that audiences grew to love over the years, such as when he and Nydia Westman’s Cicily go to investigate the dark cellar. Eschewing male posturing, he tries to pass off his unmanly fear as good manners: “Ladies always go first”. There’s also a little topicality to his zingers. The man who would become famous as a clubby political conservative finds time amid the chills to poke fun at his fellows in response to a line about the dead coming back to life: “You mean like the Republicans?”
Director Nugent and cinematographer Charles Lang supply the requisite eeriness of tone, re-staging the famous shot of the phantom hand looming over Goddard’s imperilled heiress in bed, the cut-out eyes in the painting and great use of shadows. The escaped asylum lunatic (nicknamed the Cat) is teased as a crouching bestial silhouette. Better yet, check out the highly effective climactic shot as he terrorises Joyce, his body shrouded in darkness but for a strip of light across his eyes as his switchblade flicks open.
As with the original, the prowling killer is exposed as the handsome Charles (Douglass Montgomery), who’d hoped to scare his way to the estate, the valuable family necklace and Joyce until blown away by the frighteningly resourceful Miss Lu and her shotgun.
The Cat and the Canary became a huge and important hit for Bob Hope, proving that he could talk big as the blustering fraidy-cat yet play it small enough with a subtle film actor’s learned technique. It placed him in the front rank of box-office stars that would continue almost uninterrupted beyond the real horrors of the Second World War.