The Cat and the Canary (1939)

03/04/2018 13:28

Film: The Cat and the Canary

Year: 1939

Director: Elliott Nugent

Writer: Walter DeLeon and Lynn Starling

Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard and John Beal



This film starts with a lawyer going to a house that is in the middle of a Louisiana bayou. He is George Zucco. He meets with a housekeeper, Gale Sondergaard. She worked for the previous owner who passed away. She informs Zucco that nothing in the house has changed since his death. She is also very superstitious and thinks that the house is possessed by ghosts. Zucco opens the safe and discovers that both envelopes containing the will have been opened. Sondergaard states she didn’t know the combination to the safe and she thought Zucco was the only one who knew it.

The rest of the family arrives. There is John Beal and Douglass Montgomery who are cousins. Beal is kind of a jerk and is aggressive toward Montgomery. Elizabeth Patterson is their aunt. She comes with Nydia Westman. Finally there is Bob Hope. He is a famous actor in this film who is nervous by nature. He also brings in a bit of meta in that he feels this is set-up like a stage play. Finally the last person arrives, Paulette Goddard. All of the men are sucked in by her beauty, but she seems to be interested in Hope.

The will is read and Goddard is the one who inherits everything. There is a stipulation though, she has stay alive and sane for 30 days or it goes to a second person. Whoever read the other letter knows who that person is. Sondergaard gives her another letter that was written by the former owner before his death. He had a very expensive necklace made, but it has been missing for some years. Everyone has to stay in the house for the night as no boats will be coming until morning.

To make matters worse, there is a police officer, John Wray, who states that a man escaped from a nearby mental institution. He is known as the cat because he likes to walk on all fours and attacks like an animal.

Goddard and Zucco are in the library talking when he disappears. We see that he is pulled into a secret tunnel through a bookshelf. Goddard tries to tell them that he disappeared and Patterson starts to think that she is losing it. Everyone else defends her, but they are starting to wonder themselves.

Hope and Goddard talk in her room and she finally reads the letter that was given to her. They go outside to find the necklace hidden in the fountain that’s in the garden. When she goes to sleep that night though, a hand comes out a compartment above her head. The necklace is taken and she freaks out. Hope was the only one to see her with the necklace though.

Can she prove that she’s not going crazy? Who is ‘The Cat’? Can Goddard survive the night and figure out what is going on here? Can she recover the necklace as well?

I was turned on to this film from a horror encyclopedia that I compiled my list of horror films to see. I had watched the original version of this story already and I have to say I liked this version more. This one is actually based off a stage play and there are quite a bit of moments that it felt like a play. This version is shorter, but it really seemed to trim the fat on this one. I liked that they made references to the title in a couple of ways. There is a black cat that magically appears where Sondergaard was standing at one point. I do wish that scene was explained a little bit more as it feels out of place. The other is a reference to the film, which Goddard has to keep her sanity and life in order to inherit everything. I do enjoy how this film becomes a murder mystery. I also felt this was a fuller film than many in the era, even with as short a running time as it has. I also enjoyed the ending. Something else interesting is that this film has a bit of a meta nature to it. Hope mentions a few times if this was a stage play what would happen next. This isn’t something that was seen a lot until almost 60 years later.

The acting in this film was really good. I have never watched anything that starred Hope, but I was impressed. He had me cracking up with his comedy. It makes sense why that was what he was known for after seeing this film. Goddard was solid in her role and I thought she was natural with Hope. She was also beautiful. Beal comes off as quite aggressive and a jerk. I liked his character even more at the end of the film as it makes sense why. Montgomery was solid as the opposite of Beal as well. At the reveal it makes sense as well. The rest of the cast round it out well, with Sondergaard giving a spooky feel with her beliefs and Patterson being that uppity aunt.

There aren’t a lot in the way of effects, except I loved the look of ‘The Cat’. At the reveal it makes a lot of sense what they were going for and it really impressed me. I also like all of the passageways and things like that in the house. It almost makes it another character. The editing of the film was good as well. The film is light by nature, but it still built the tension to the reveal and climax. The score of the film didn’t really stand out to me. It doesn’t hurt or help the film in my opinion.

Now with that said, I would recommend seeing this film if you are into murder mysteries. This version is better than the silent film one in my opinion. This one is based off a stage play and I thought what was trimmed help tighten the film. It has an interesting story to the reveal. I liked the idea of the villain. The acting was solid across the board. There aren’t a lot in the way of effects, but the look of ‘The Cat’ and the house are good. The editing of the film helped build the tension despite its light nature. The score didn’t really stand out, but I won’t hold that against the film. I will warn you that this is from 1939 and in black and white. If that is an issue, I’d avoid this film. If not, I think it is a fun film with a short running time.


My Rating: 8 out of 10