Cat and the Canary, The (Paramount 1939)
The Cat and the Canary is a confident movie. The timing of the clattering window shutter is too perfect, the cinematography too slick, the Spanish moss in the trees too perfectly coiffured. It’s not some cheap bargain-basement production shouting “this is spooky!” at you. It knows it’s creepy, and it makes it abundantly clear that you should feel unsettled.
We’re also smiling, though. Bob Hope’s here as garrulous Wally Campbell, rattling off the jokes and looking every inch the fish out of brackish water. Everyone else is almost (not quite, though) playing it straight as they gather in the imposing, overgrown mansion of the dear departed Cyrus Norman for a midnight reading of his will.
There’s skulduggery afoot in the Norman household, from left: Gale Sondergaard, Douglass Montgomery, Elizabeth Patterson, Nydia Westman, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in The Cat and the Canary (Paramount 1939)
Gale Sondergaard is hatchet-faced housekeeper Miss Lu, scowling her way around the mansion and apparently being everywhere at once. Having mourned Cyrus’ death a decade before, she’s clearly made a career of it. When seven gongs resound through the house, she doesn’t flinch while imparting the delightful fact that this means one of the eight people present will be dead soon. Meanwhile, Paulette Goddard is sweet, fresh-faced Joyce, who’s poised to inherit Cyrus’s fortune on the condition that she stays sane. However glad the other potential heirs are pretending to be for her, you can see the dollar signs ringing up in their eyes.
All the ingredients are in The Cat and the Canary for what turns out to be a textbook example of how to do a horror-comedy-murder-mystery movie. Chez Cyrus is a full-on haunted house experience, with all the eerie trappings you’d expect. There’s a spooky basement with scary noises and lots of shadows. In the library, the portrait’s eyes are all a-swivel. There are secret passages aplenty. And in case the expertly-layered elements of creepiness weren’t working for you, there’s a killer called the Cat on the loose. The group dynamics are fleeting yet effective; the characters are almost caricatures, but not quite.
Wally (Hope) and Joyce (Goddard) wonder at the identity of the second heir in The Cat and the Canary (Paramount 1939)
At the centre of it all is the whirling dervish of Hope’s performance. Never faltering, his comic timing and restless energy keep things moving brilliantly. You feel you ought to find him annoying, but you never do. His nervousness reflects our own; you like to think you’d behave the same way if you ever found yourself in a spooky house with lots of suspicious characters around.
But let’s be clear about something – The Cat and the Canary isn’t all played for comedy. There are plenty of real scares here too, Elliot Nugent’s direction making the most of the atmosphere without becoming broody or morose. Ernst Toch’s score takes the tension up several notches but never overpowers the action. It feels like a unique movie in its own right, not a remake of a silent movie based on a play. The horror moments, in particular, are excellently handled.
Check out our feature on The Cat and the Canary in Classic Monsters of the Movies issue #5
The mystery deepens, and the pace quickens. Miss Lu’s magic gongs have predicted another death. We’re still laughing at Wally, but it’s all more threatening than we were expecting. When Joyce heads into the secret passage in defiance of all common sense, it simply doesn’t feel right. She’s too vulnerable in the cobweb-draped tunnel. And when she emerges in the bayou, it’s outside the kind of tumbledown shack you remember from your nightmares, with the killer in hot pursuit.
Inside the house, the killer’s eyes are beautifully lit, silent star-style, as his knife unfolds, but thankfully Miss Lu is on the case, and has brought her shotgun as well as some explanatory dialogue. It’s resolved. Joyce wasn’t going crazy. She’s going to marry Wally. And Miss Lu gets the house too.
If you’ve never seen The Cat and the Canary, you have absolutely no excuse. If you have, you should probably watch it again. After all, who can resist a happy ending, even if it took a couple of corpses and plenty of screaming to get there?