The Cat and the Canary

The Cat and the Canary
Ten years to the day after the death of wealthy eccentric Cyrus Norman, a group of relations gathers at his old, dark, isolated mansion, on the shore of a bayou near New Orleans. Cyrus has left instructions that his will is to be read at midnight. His lawyer, Crosby, is the first to arrive, greeted – if that’s the right word – by Cyrus’ devoted and rather intimidating housekeeper, Miss Lu. She has lived in the mansion since Cyrus’ death, with only a black cat for company.

The first incarnation of The Cat and the Canary came in 1922 as a stage play written by John Willard, the title stemming from a line in Cyrus’ will telling his relatives that they “... have watched my wealth as if they were cats, and I – a canary.” The same title was used for a 1927 silent movie version of the story, and finally for the 1939 movie with Bob Hope in his first starring role.

The screenplay for this movie kept the basic plot of the stage play; just a few character names were changed. The major difference was the introduction of comedy into the story – essential, since this was to be Bob Hope’s first major movie. In the role of radio actor Wally Campbell, Hope creates the character type he became so well known for – the likeable coward who nevertheless steps up and does the manly thing in the end.

In The Cat and the Canary, Wally’s manly act is to protect his distant relation Joyce Norman (played by Paulette Goddard) who has been named as Cyrus’ sole beneficiary – she being the only one who shares Cyrus’ surname. Fearful of the streak of insanity that runs in the family, Cyrus has named a second beneficiary, who will inherit his wealth should Joyce die or become insane during the next thirty days. Only Crosby knows who is the second person named, but everyone present has a motive to drive Joyce mad, or worse. And a guard from a nearby asylum arrives to say that a homicidal maniac nicknamed ‘The Cat’ has escaped. Can Joyce, with Wally’s help, hold on to her life and her sanity?

Director Elliott Nugent and cinematographer Charles Lang give the movie a very eerie feel. The old, dark house is swirled by mists rising from the bayou, and the black cat is a spooky presence. Though tame by modern standards of horror or mystery, The Cat and the Canary is atmospheric and thoroughly enjoyable.

Bob Hope delivers some great one-liners, such when the fey Miss Lu remarks that Wally Campbell is surrounded by spirits and he replies, “Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice? I need it badly.”

Hope and Paulette Goddard were popular as co-stars, and made another spooky comedy together, The Ghost Breakers in 1940. Most notable of their supporting actors in The Cat and the Canary is Gale Sondergaard as Miss Lu. Sondergaard was a character actor known for playing menacing and mysterious roles.

If you enjoy classic movies, I think you will find that The Cat and the Canary stands the test of time and is well worth viewing.

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