Laughter in the Night
Something about horror comedies speaks to the craven coward in all of us. They’re meant to play off of the fact that while we’d all like to be Bruce Campbell when we grow up, most average Joes would feel fearful to a certain degree in the event of a Deadite attack. This is as true now as in the time of The Cat and the Canary, the grandpappy of old dark house stories. John Willard’s stage hit made it alright to laugh in the spookiest situations, especially in a 1939 film version starring Bob Hope. It’s about as cheery as mysteries can get, and while not as sinister in tone as its comrades, there’s still plenty of fun to be had, no matter how dark or stormy the night.
Just how eccentric was creepy old Cyrus Norman? When he finally kicked the bucket, the geezer’s will stipulated it be read no less than ten years after his death. The time has now come for his fortune to be divided, although Cyrus has one last trick up his decayed sleeve. Radiant young Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard) is named the heir, but before she can claim the family riches, she must prove herself to be of sound mind. It’s hard enough with rumors of an escaped lunatic nicknamed the Cat roaming the premises, but with the Norman estate entrenched in the Lousiana bayous, there’s ample chance for a disgruntled relative to drive Joyce batty. However, our girl finds an unlikely defender in Wally (Hope), an actor and childhood chum who won’t let anything -- including his own wimpiness -- get in the way of his sweetie’s inheritance.
It's interesting that The Cat and the Canary has been adapted for the screen as often as it’s been ripped off straightaway. In fact, the Hope version has less to do with its eerie 1927 predecessor and more with 1941’s The Black Cat, which shares both a similar premise and cast member Gale Sondergaard. Still, this tale’s been told too often for true ownership to be staked, and this Canary knows it. Part of the film’s charm is that it’s self-aware to a tee, winking at viewers at the right times and in the right ways. Hope’s Wally is like a Mark I version of Randy from Scream, using his experience performing shows just like this to keep Joyce safe from the nutzoid du jour. Of course, none of this is remotely freaky, not even when the Cat does come out to creep. The Cat and the Canary plays itself for goofs, but they’re affectionate goofs, and while I miss the 1927 flick’s moody edge, the production design team has preserved the secret passages and hidden hallways that have become the show’s memorable mainstays.
Knowing how broadly early screen farces painted themselves, The Cat and the Canary seems downright Amish in comparison. While not a British production, the movie has the same mindset of making a joke funnier by downplaying the insanity. This is a perfect match for Hope’s sensibilities, as he’s too busy rattling off snarky one-liners to get all blustery and ruin a good gag in the process. If anything, the man isn’t cartoonish enough, but although you never believe Wally’s as big a wuss as he’s supposed to be, Hope’s natural charm and mile-a-minute delivery bless him with the right appeal. Even the supporting actors bring life to a pretty standard line-up of stock characters; Sondergaard is great as an improbably suspicious housekeeper, and fellow Universal vet George Zucco pops up as the Norman family lawyer.
Other versions have been available for a while now, but this Cat and the Canary has at last hit DVD in a box set with other Hope gems. Checking it out is a no-brainer for classic movie buffs, yet admirers of Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead might be inclined to see how horror comedies were done in the good ol’ days. So it may not strike fear into the hearts of men, but rest assured The Cat and the Canary comes up with plenty of other ways to try and leave you in titters, if not jitters.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Paramount Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)
Check out Adam's review of the 1927 version at Classic Movie Guide: http://www.classicmovieguide.com.