Movie Review: The Cat and the Canary (1939)

CatAndCanaryThumbby Brad Nelson   12/1/13
What do you get if you combine an Agatha Christie mystery with Scooby-Doo? (They would have gotten away with it if weren’t for that meddling Bob Hope.)

In a film that is warmly, but not outrageously, funny, Bob Hope quips his way through a haunted house mystery. Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard) has inherited her uncle’s fortune. But the terms of the will are as strange as the house and the house’s forboding black-dressed caretaker (who, suitably, can usually be seen with a black cat).

Because mental illness apparently runs in the family, the stipulation of the will is that Joyce must last for thirty days without either going insane or dying. And she and the other members of the will-reading party are trapped for the moment in an old dark house deep in the bayou, accessible only by boat (which dropped them off and will return the next day). She and the others must therefore stay the night.

Even if Hope isn’t your cup of tea, the film holds together well as a light mystery. The setup is almost a spoof of some of the contrived Agatha Christie mysteries. In this case, if Joyce doesn’t survive the 30 days (or just the one night), there is a second will which will name another beneficiary. If that isn’t a setup for mayhem and murder, I don’t know what is.

Hope brings his light charm to this film and is a good mix with Paulette Goddard whose character does not devolve into simply a screaming-woman caricature. There is some good chemistry between the two. And the production values of this film are weighty, in both cinematography and sound, despite the often light comedy that runs through it. If you like Bob Hope, you must see this film.

And you could watch it as a double feature with The Ghost Breakers. Although I did not find this film to be plotted anywhere as well as The Cat and the Canary, it has its moments. But by far the better haunted house film is The Cat and the Canary. Start with this one if you are on a Hope retrospective (as I am).

Bonus Review: The Expendables 2. This is slightly better than the first movie, which isn’t saying much.

This is basically a buddy-buddy movie whose shtick is that they are all (or mostly) aging mercenaries who are well aware that they are past their prime. At least that is the case with the central character played by Sylvester Stallone. Stallone, like Schwarzenegger, is a patchwork of plastic surgery (which is the trend these days…growing old gracefully is not in vogue). Stallone’s face, in particular, seems to be held together with cosmetic glue. You’re really not sure that all the parts belong on the same mug. And what’s with that mustache?

This is supposed to be a buddy-buddy movie. But the one-liners thrown around like grenades can’t disguise the fact that this is a conglomeration of walk-on performances by people you might presume weren’t even in the same room when this was filmed. They all talk, on cue, like trained parrots. And the script is as thin as the action is thick. But it’s all made up for by the blood-fountains that gracefully arc and trace every knife or bullet wound. Such artistry.

They try to patch-on a “this is for Billy” revenge motivation. But it’s just an excuse for more explosions. Of all the primary actors, the only one who even gives an attempt at acting is Bruce Willis. The rest are caricatures of caricatures. This film comes across as one of those Burt Reynolds/Dom Deluise films where you  suppose the making of the film is just an excuse to have a party among friends (and a great party it must have been). But the actual quality of the film is secondary.

A quirky all-star-cast buddy-buddy mercenary film that comes off much better is Red 2, starring Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Anthony Hopkins. The sequel is slightly better than the first if only because of the hilarious quips and asides of John Malkovich who steals every scene he is in.

The premise is somewhat Bourne-Identity-like. And the plot is just an excuse for getting the various stars together and featuring nice explosions and such. But in this case there is some good chemistry between the characters. They are not (as much as these films can ever be) cardboard cut-outs. If you’ve seen the first Red, the chemistry between between Brian Cox and Helen Mirren continues. It generally the small touches — not the large explosions — that make this film worth viewing.

But I did find the sidekick character (Willis’ love interest) of Mary-Louise Parker to have become somewhat annoying and cliched. But there are enough other characters and action to keep this moving going to a mostly satisfying ending. Willis makes it all somehow hang together with his surprisingly sardonic and under-stated performance. This isn’t Die Hard Willis, although the same tough-guy/good-guy charm is there.

If you have a couple hours to waste, you could do worse than seeing this one. But stay away from any of the Expendables films unless you really do think Jason Statham has charisma.

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The classic “old dark house” motif is given sterling treatment in this second filmed version of the hit play. Bob Hope’s status as a star was assured with his role as Wallie Campbell, the cowardly protector of Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard), who must spend one night in the eerie mansion of her late, eccentric, millionaire uncle. If she can make it through the night without losing her mind, Joyce stands to inherit her uncle’s entire fortune. Of course, all the other potential heirs now have a motive to drive her insane. The frights are nonstop as hands reach out from nowhere, people disappear between trap doors, the halls echo with terrifying sounds, and secret doorways lead to hidden passageways. Three people are murdered before Wallie solves the mystery and sees Goddard through the night. Hope integrates his wiseacre comedic style into a essentially straight role, with the humor well-placed in the otherwise moody material. Creepy lighting and music also aid director Elliott Nugent in crafting an effective and fun version of one the genre’s archetypal stories. ~ Don Kaye, Rovi. More »

Available on DVD ($14.41 new, $13.96 used). Also available in the Thanks for the Memories Collection ($19.49 new, $17.62 used) along with The Ghost Breakers, Nothing but the Truth, The Road to Morocco, and The Paleface.  Available online in somewhat crappy video at Dailymotion. Not available for streaming on Netflix.

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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One Response to Movie Review: The Cat and the Canary (1939)

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I believe the Wikipedia entry for Ghost Breakers mentioned Tge Cat and the Canary as another Hope comedy-thriller. The setup certainly reminds me of the novel And Then There Were None (originally titled Ten Little Niggers in England, which is why a Cincinnati NAACP member squawked when a local high school planned to put on the play version — Ten Little Indians — a few years ago). Now, if the movie will appear on AMC or TCM anytime soon . . . I’ll find out when I try to play my DVD of How the Grinch Stole Christmas if I can still play DVDs on my TV.

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