Making Light of a Haunted Situation – The Cat and the Canary (1939)

While typical of its ilk, The Cat and the Canary is a cut above most of the rest, due in large part to its lead in Bob Hope who always seems to have a one-liner for everything. Directed by Elliott Nugent, he would take Hope and Paulette Goddard and place them in a spooky mansion for the night out in the middle of the swamp, an affair that would turn deadly before they could see it through.

All of this involves a will left by old Uncle Cyrus, who would ask that the family get together for its reading when he passed and where the conditions would be laid out for the sole inheritor. The guests would include Hope and Goddard as well as John Beal, Nydia Westman, Douglass Montgomery and Elizabeth Peterson along with George Zucco taking on the role of the lawyer, Mr. Crosby. With a bit of treasure, a little madness and a murderer on the loose, staying the night would prove a challenge but for what is on the line, the heirs are more than willing. All of them are looking for a payday, all except Hope that is as his character is already well off and has no need of the money, the man simply looking to protect the lovely young Joyce as played by Goddard from those that might look to do her harm.

For a horror movie, Nugent packs in what most would expect to see in a picture about a haunted house and it is quite effective. The house is old and full of secret passageways that are used to exploit that horror and it takes place late at night so everything is shadows and darkness. There is a fair bit of suspense at times as one never knows when the killer will strike and each of the characters, no matter how innocent they seem to be, could be hiding ill intentions as each has a hankering to get their hands on the inheritance. Making this film even better though is the lighthearted comedy brought on by Hope who does an exceptional job both in quality and the delivery of it. The man knows funny and is funny and never fails to elicit a laugh no matter how dire the circumstances might be. Even more hilarious is the fact that his character is a coward, something he would usually play up in future films and to great effect as he never seemed like the strong hero type. Adding another layer of hilarity to the proceedings would be how he predicts how things will go, from having a young and beautiful woman inherit the estate, to the treasure to the killer and so forth. One has to wonder if this was one of the inspirations for Scream sixty years later by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, as similar as they turn out to be in at least this one respect.

As for the rest of the cast, they would do a great job with the material, some of them often being as funny as Hope here and there though not as consistently as the funniest stuff was saved for him. That being said, it is nice that Hope did not have to carry the picture alone with Goddard making for the perfect damsel in distress and the rest of the cast starring as red herrings. Or were they? The atmosphere was perfect, the comedy spot on and everything from direction to script a joy to watch. If looking for horror with a bit of funny mixed in, The Cat and the Canary will fill that quota.

4 out of 5

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