In 1922, playwright John Willard wrote the stage play The Cat and the Canary. It is the quintessential old dark house tale. Cyrus West, a rich and eccentric old man, has died. He described his relatives as cats and himself as a canary. In the play, his will is read twenty years after his death, bringing his relatives to his old home, which now fits the stereotypical haunted house. The will is read and young Annabelle West has been awarded the house and fortune, unless she is declared insane by the next in line to inherit it all. She begins to question her sanity as the incidents of murder and mayhem begin to pile up.
Universal Pictures would acquire the rights to the play and produced no less than six different versions of the story on the big screen over the years. The first, and perhaps the most famous, is the 1927 silent classic. Director Paul Leni laid the foundation for decades of old dark house movies, many patterned after what we first saw in 1927. Mysterious figures, untrustworthy relatives, a lunatic escaped from the asylum, hidden passageways and just a little bit of humor to lighten the mood. Three years later, with the arrival of sound, it was remade as The Cat Creeps (unfortunately, now a lost film). A Spanish-language version was filmed on the same sets starring Lupita Tovar, much like Dracula was the following year. However, as the genre expanded and the originality wore off, the story was laid to rest until 1939 when Bob Hope brought it to life once again.
Unlike the earlier versions, the 1939 tale is approached strictly as a comedy. However, it is full of atmosphere and with the presence of George Zucco (The Mummy’s Hand), it fits in very well amongst the other more serious adaptations. Bob Hope (The Ghost Breakers) heads up the cast as Wally Campbell, an actor spitting out the one-liners as only Hope could do. The role of Annabelle West is now known as Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard, The Great Dictator), but is played mostly straight with very little comedy. Crazy relatives lurk about and help to lighten the mood as the atmosphere is definitely creepy and really comes off quite well as a horror film. Of course, not all is as it appears to be and before the final act is done, a chase ensues through hidden tunnels and the real killer will be revealed.
Another first time viewing for me, I thoroughly enjoyed The Cat and the Canary and highly recommend it for someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy horror movies but is okay with an occasional bump in the night. A Paramount Picture, this is one of many still licensed to Universal Pictures. It was recently released as part of their Vault Series. However, for less than $10 more, you can also get five more Bob Hope movies by buying the Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories Collection, which also has The Ghost Breakers. In either case, it makes for a great watch in the Halloween season.