The Cat and the Canary (1939) | Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard are a class act in the creaky comedy chiller
‘Don’t big empty houses scare you?’ ‘Not me, I used to be in vaudeville!’
A slick mix of wisecracking comedy and spooky thrills, the 1939 classic comedy chiller, The Cat and the Canary, turned Bob Hope into a Hollywood star and won Paulette Goddard a 10-year contract with Paramount.
One of the earliest ‘old dark house’ mysteries, first filmed as a silent in 1927 (watch t below), it was tailored to Hope’s characteristic style which he’d go onto hone in his buddy comedies with Bing Crosby, and gave Goddard the chance to shine as the spirited heroine. Together they play a radio actor and an heiress who turn up at a decrepit old mansion in a mist-shrouded Louisiana swamp for the reading of a will. Secret passages, a portrait with eyes that move, a valuable diamond necklace, and an escaped lunatic keep the couple and a cast of eccentric characters on their toes until the final act, in which Goddard’s spunky ‘canary’ is lured into an underground passage by the shadowy ‘Cat’.
Stylishly staged and filled with a suitably spooky atmosphere, it boasts wonderfully gloomy performances from George Zucco as a stiff lawyer and Gale Sondergaard as the sinister housekeeper. Following this film. Zucco and Sondergaard went on to play the villainous Moriarty and The Spider Woman in Universal’s big-screen Sherlock Holmes adventures opposite Basil Rathbone.
The success of the film led to Hope and Goddard re-teaming for The Ghost Breakers (1940), while John Willard’s classic story was later remade by erotic arthouse director Radley Metzer in 1979. The film was also the model for the Frankie Howerd comedy The House on Nightmare Park in 1970 (see my review here).
THE UK RELEASE
The Cat and the Canary is available on DVD from Fabulous Films in the UK, and includes as extras, a trailer and three galleries.
THE 1927 SILENT IN FULL
With the 1940s Universal horror The Mad Ghoul out now on DVD in the UK (check out my review here), I thought I’d share with you something from my personal collection. It’s the filmbook that appeared in Issue 130 (featuring Basil Gogos’ fab Peter Cushing painting on the cover) and Issue 131 (with Christopher Lee on the cover baring his fangs as Dracula) of the cult magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Truly of its time, the article by Eric Ashton perfectly sums up the silly fun that this vintage Universal oldie had to offer.
The Mad Ghoul (1943) | Murder, mutilation – and mirth? George Zucco’s nutty professor is on the prowl in the vintage Universal horror
A NEW SENSATION IN HORROR
Chemistry professor Dr Alfred Morris (George Zucco) has rediscovered an ancient nerve gas that was used by the Mayans during rituals of human dissection to appease their gods. When he discovers his new assistant, medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce), is in love the same woman, concert pianist Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers), he devises a fiendish plan to break them up. He deliberately exposes Ted to the nerve gas, turning him into a mindless living dead slave, and only periodic heart transplants can return him to normal.
Thinking he is desperately ill, Ted breaks off his engagement with Isabel. Regretting the decision, Ted follows her six-city concert tour to try and win her back, but in each place he visits, corpses from local cemeteries start turning up with their hearts cut out.
With the Mad Ghoul now making the headlines, wisecracking reporter McClure (Robert Armstrong) and clueless detectives Macklin (Milburn Stone) and Garrity (Charles McGraw) set out to solve the mystery. Dr Morris however has a new rival for Isabel’s heart, her pianist Eric (Turhan Bey). Time to send out the ghoul again…
‘There’s something strange about the whole thing’
Throughout the 1940s, it was staple viewing to catch a Universal horror at your local cinema. The same year that The Mad Ghoul was released, the studio brought out Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, its first attempt to stir up dwindling box office receipts by multiplying its monsters, Son of Dracula (both starred Lon Chaney Jr), and the extravagant musical Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains. It also had a rival in RKO, whose haunting and intelligent horrors I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man were breaking new ground.
Despite its B-movie budget and familiar mad scientist story The Mad Ghoul is whole lot of fun and has its roots in 1930s serials and screwball comedies. It also gives popular supporting actor George Zucco one of his few starring roles. In fact, he’s at his unctuous best playing the subtly evil Dr Morris that makes this otherwise mediocre affair worth checking out. The final shot of Zucco’s mad doctor frantically scratching at the dirt in the cemetery gives the film its biggest – and only real – chill. The film’s pro animal experimentation story however is certainly another one, and subtly alluded to by Bruce’s Ted: ‘I can’t help feeling a sense of evil in all this’.
This was the last film by ‘quota quickie’ director James Hogan (he died a week before the film’s release aged 53 from a heart attack). Bruce’s white-faced wrinkle make-up effects are by the legendary Jack Pierce (who probably did it in his sleep or after having oatmeal porridge for breakfast). Lillian Cornell dubbed Ankers’ singing voice, while the stylish gowns worn by Anker’s Isabel are by Vera West. Robert Armstrong, best known for his turn in King Kong, has one of film’s funniest scenes – he hides in a coffin to catch the ghoul.
Favourite cornball line: ‘She was tearing their hearts out with music’
Favourite non-PC line: ‘You can never tell with these musicians, a lot of them are pretty queer ducks.’
THE UK DVD RELEASE
The OEG (Odeon Entertainment) DVD release, part of their Hollywood Studio Collection, features a pristine print in a PAL 4:3 picture mode (Region 2), with Dolby Digital mono audio (although the soundtrack is quite scratchy in the first couple of reels and on the songs). All in all a great addition to any classic horror film collection.