The Cat and The Canary, Elliot Nugent’s 1939 horror, has a lot more comedy in mind than its silent Paul Leni-directed 1927 original or even the stage origins of John Willard’s original play. The laughs come mostly from Bob Hope, who stars in his first leading role as Wally Campbell; a golden-hearted feather-weight with a crippling case of cowardice. It’s not a stretch for Hope or his classic brand of humour but, with enough good lines to top the bad ones, he proves a charismatic and lovable hero. Nicely, the writers and Hope work a sound amount of critical reasoning into Campbell’s character, making him a quick-talking deducer with a good knowledge of Mystery tropes. The result is a surprising self-awareness that removes much of the fatty material, the aimless meandering, seen in many “Old Dark House” films.
Paulette Goddard makes a bold horror heroine, striding around the ancestral family manor with suitable aplomb, easily handling herself around a group of shady incestuous second cousins. Her and Hope make a great team, leading the film with a terrific chemistry and keeping the stakes high when each is isolated from the other. Interestingly Elizabeth Patterson, who plays Susan, played the same role in the 1930 adaptation The Cat Creeps, now unfortunately considered a lost film.
Special mention is reserved for Charles Lang’s (Some Like It Hot, Wild is the Wind) cinematography, which frames the bayou plantation house with perfect grandeur. This grandeur is in part thanks to the art direction of Hans Dreier and Robert Usher, Dreier’s touch is particularly noticeable, since the rotten splendour of the West house is oddly projected in his later work on Sunset Boulevard. The outside shots are particularly effective, capturing the gothic atmosphere implicitly; huge swathes of swamp-matter encroaching on the house and its grounds. The hut where the film’s thrilling finale takes place is a shed warped to Grimm-like proportions by the harsh undergrowth, a fantastical set in this theatrical thriller.
Nugent’s The Cat and The Canary is an enjoyable old-school romp, but its wise-cracking genre awareness is an innovative approach to a well-aged method. Hope and Goddard steal the show, delivering a savvy pair of horror heroes the audience can relate to, whilst delivering a few note-worthy scares amidst its laughs.