Paramount had signed Hope in 1938 and launched him—and what would become his theme song, “Thanks for the Memory”—in The Big Broadcast of 1938. This auspicious beginning gave way to five pictures that ranged from OK to plain awful before producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. came up with the idea of fitting him into John Willard’s 1922 “melodrama in three acts,” The Cat and the Canary. Not surprisingly, Hope’s character’s name was changed from Paul Jones in the play (Paul Jones being the name of another Paramount producer). He became Wally Campbell, and his brash screen persona was given free rein by making him a radio actor and former vaudevillian (something that—with slight variations—became a staple in Hope’s best films). This also allowed for exchanges like Cousin Cicily (Nydia Westman) asking if big empty houses don’t scare him and Wally answering, “Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.”
The whole play was slightly streamlined and updated. Strangely, the 1927 version had retained the housekeeper’s name Mammy Pleasant, but cast a white actress in the role and removed all the play’s voodoo references. Here Mammy Pleasant has becomes Miss Lu and is played by sinister and svelte Gale Sondergaard. The old dark house on the Hudson River has been relocated to an island in the Louisiana bayous, which makes the business of the characters being stranded there a little more explicable. But in the main, the film sticks to the play in terms of plot and tone, which is in its favor, since the play essentially defined the genre.
It all revolves around Lawyer Crosby (George Zucco) assembling the possible heirs to the Norman estate at the house at midnight 10 years after the death of Cyrus Norman as per the instructions of the old boy. (Since Hope’s famous teaming with Bing Crosby wouldn’t happen till his next movie, no joke is made out of the lawyer’s name.) Like the play, the whole of the estate turns out to go to pretty young heiress Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard), but unlike the play, the film realizes that this has become a cliché since 1922 and has Wally make wisecracks about it and predict what will happen. The mix of thrills and Hope’s comedy was perfect, and like many of Hope’s films from this era the comedy holds up today. (When asked if he believes that the dead can come back, he quips, “You mean like Republicans?”) The mix proved so successful that Paramount dusted off an even older play, The Ghost Breaker, turned it into The Ghost Breakers and put Hope and Goddard in that the following year to even greater effect.
Everyone is at the top of his or her game in the film. Hope is perfect and he and Goddard make a good team. Gale Sondergaard is every inch the creepy housekeeper. George Zucco gets every ounce of good out of the sympathetic, yet sinister role of the lawyer. The indispensable Elizabeth Patterson had already played her character in the lost 1930 version, The Cat Creeps. Nothing in Elliott Nugent’s filmography suggested that he was in tune with the atmosphere needed here, but he certainly delivered—and wisely opted to play the climax for straight horror. If only all comedy thrillers were this good!
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Cat and the Canary Tuesday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.