‘The Cat and The Canary’ has been made five times for the cinema, but it began life as a stage play in 1922, written by John Willard. The play was transformed into its first movie version in 1927, produced by Universal Studios, however it is the 1939 Paramount re-make starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard which has become the most celebrated and loved version. The ‘Cat And The Canary’ is a classic “old dark house” movie whose comedy/horror script was the perfect vehicle for Bob Hope, who played the role of entertainer Wally Campbell. Although ‘The Cat And The Canary’ is not the first film to have been set in a haunted house, its screenplay did establish the template for the “old, dark house” genre; the term of which is actually derived from English director James (Frankenstein) Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’ from 1932 and refers to “films in which murders are committed by masked killers in old mansions.” The ‘supernatural’ events in the film are all explained at the film’s conclusion as the work of a psychotic criminal. Other films in this genre influenced by ‘The Cat And The Canary’ include ‘The Last Warning’, ‘House On Haunted Hill’ (1959), and the monster films of Abbot and Costello, along with those of Laurel and Hardy.
The film’s plot centres around the late Cyrus Norman – a millionaire who lived in the Louisiana bayous in a suitably creepy mansion with his mistress, Miss Lu. When the film begins, Norman has already been dead for ten years; now the executor of his estate – a Mr. Crosby – is seen making his way by boat with a native American guide, through the alligator-infested swamps to Norman’s mansion where he will read the late Norman’s will to his selected benificiaries at midnight. At the mansion Crosby is greeted by Miss Lu and her large black cat. Upon removing the will from a safe, he discovers that it has been tampered with. Norman’s relatives arrive, including Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard) Fred Blythe (John Beal) Charles Wilder (Douglass Montgomery) Cicily (Nydia Westman) Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson) and Wally Campbell (Bob Hope).The group convene to the parlour to hear the reading of the will, and as they do so, a gong sounds seven times. Ominously Miss Lu warns the assembled group that only seven of the eight people gathered there will survive the night! Further surprises are in store as Crosby reveals the contents of Norman’s will, which has been divided into two parts. The first part names Joyce Norman as the sole heiress of his entire estate, but with one major condition – concerned about an apparent streak of insanity which runs in his family’s blood, he has demanded that his heirs must remain sane for the next thirty days. Should Joyce loose her sanity within that time, then the heir will be determined from the second part of the will. Of course, this immediately raises concerns for Joyce’s safety, as the will is the perfect incentive for other members of the Norman family to increase their chances of inheriting, either by murdering Joyce or deliberately trying to unhinge her pyschologically.
Once Crosby has finished reading the will, he informs the assembled beneficiaries that they must stay overnight and Miss Lu once again warns in a foreboding manner of spirits that wander loose in the house.At the same time, a security guard is found prowling the grounds outside with a rifle, searching for a murderer called “The Cat” who has escaped from the local lunatic asylum. Crosby takes Joyce into the library to warn her about something and whilst her back is turned on him, a hidden doorway suddenly opens in the wall behind him and he is grabbed and pulled inside by an unseen assailant. A shocked Joyce turns to see that Crosby has evidently vanished into thin air and calls for help; subsequently she is horrified to discover that only Wally believes her story. Amidst a highly-charged atmosphere, (in which suspicions and accusations abound) Miss Lu hands Joyce a letter from the late Norman. Upon opening it, she discovers clues to the location of a diamond necklace, which she and Wally eventually find hidden in the garden. Joyce retires for the night (with the necklace) to whatused to be Norman’s bedroom and hides it under her pillow for safe-keeping. As she sleeps, she is suddenly awakened by a terrifying clawed hand which appears from a panel in the wall behind her bed and takes the necklace. A hysterical Joyce screams for the others and upon investigation Wally finds a hidden door in the wall near Joyce’s bed which leads to a secret passageway. As he opens the door, much to their horror, the lifeless corpse of Crosby crashes to the ground.
Wally takes Joyce into the parlour and proceeds to chat with her in order to calm her nerves. He leaves to fetch some liquor, when he hears a noise in Norman’s room and goes to investigate, opening the hidden door in the wall and setting out to explore.At the same time, Joyce sees the door in the parlour as it opens and proceeds to enter Norman’s room where she hears Wally call to her through the passageway.She enters the passage to locate him, but as she does so, somebody shuts her in from behind; frightened and on edge, Joyce makes he way nervously along the dusty, eerie, shadow-filled tunnel. She passes a dark cranny where the security guard is hiding, waiting to catch the escaped psychopath. Not long after, ‘The Cat’ (who has been stalking Joyce) appears and the guard apprehends him, prying the necklace from his grasp and telling the madman that his days of murdering are over. Foolishly however, he turns his back on the lunatic to admire the necklace, who then proceeds to stab him in the back. Meanwhile, Joyce has made her way to the end of the tunnel and found steps with a trapdoor at the top which leads into the garden of the house. As she climbs the steps, she suddenly looks back and catches the horrifying site of the pursuing ‘Cat‘ – knife in hand. As their eyes lock, he makes a mad sprint for her. Joyce escapes through the hatch and into a nearby garden shed, but the ‘Cat’ breaks through the barricade and moves in for the kill. At this point a breathless Wally arrives and yells to the ‘Cat ‘ “Charlie – STOP!” (later we find out that Wally had uncovered the Cat’s true identity when he found the second part of Norman’s will in Charles’ coat). A maniacal Charles rips off his ‘Cat’ mask, pins Wally to the wall with his knife and attempts to strangle Joyce, but Miss Lu arrives in the proverbial nick-of-time and shoots him with a rifle. The next day Joyce and Wally explain everything to the assembled press and at the same time un-officially announce their engagement.
Paramount released “The Cat And The Canary” in November 1939; it is one of the lesser-remembered gems from possibly the biggest year in movie history, but considering its competition at the time came from the legendary ‘Gone With The Wind”, “The Wizard Of Oz” and “Wuthering Heights”, this is hardly surprising! Bob Hope had been under contract to Paramount for a couple of years before he made “The Cat and The Canary”, but at that point still hadn’t made a big impact, or found his niche on-screen. He was, however, a huge star on radio at the time and Paramount obviously wanted to take advantage of his popularity. With the character of Wally Campbell – a bumbling, charming comic with a hilariously funny, cowardly streak, they hit the jackpot. This type of character became Hope’s signature role for the rest of his movie career and was probably exemplified best in his “Road” pictures with fellow Paramount players Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. The extremely lovely Paulette Goddard was fresh from her role in MGMs “The Women” and was under personal contract to David O. Selznick – producer of “Gone With The Wind”. Paulette herself had tested for the role of Scarlett O’ Hara, but had been turned down in favour of Vivien Leigh; Selznick had subsequently sold her contract to Paramount, who offered the comedy actress a seven-year option.” The Cat And The Canary” became Goddard’s first film under this new contract and proved to be a watershed in her career.Paulette was married to comedy legend Charlie Chaplin at this time, who had co-incidentally been the childhood idol of Bob Hope! During the shooting of the movie, Bob was introduced to Chaplin at the Santa Anita racetrack.An awe-struck Hope told Chaplin how much he had enjoyed “Modern Times” as well as working with Paulette, Chaplin returned the compliment by informing Hope: “I’ve been watching the rushes of ‘The Cat And The Canary’ every night. I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I have ever seen.”
Chaplin was right, Hope’s gags and one-liners set him apart from the competition. In ‘The Cat And The Canary’ he finally identified his niche in Hollywood and cinema-goers loved his new-found personna.As ‘Wally’, he balanced out the character’s brashness with self-deprecation, combined with the comedic timing of a seasoned pro and the helplessness/vulnerability of a young boy. His character works keenly within the story, protecting heiress Paulette Goddard from real and supernatural threats, but he also works outside of the narrative, mocking the dusty conventions of the plot and his own exaggerated cowardice.For example, in a scene where fellow potential heir Cicily asks Hope: “Don’t big, empty houses scare you?” he replies: “Not me, I used to be in Vaudeville!”. The Cat And The Canary was a smash-hit at the box office and in fact was so popular that Paramount rushed its follow-up ‘The Ghost-Breakers’ into production, which re-teamed Hope with Paulette Goddard. This movie too, met with great success. The character-type which Bob Hope created for ‘Cat’ subsequently became so pervasive in American comedy (as developed by performers from Woody Allen to Steve Carell) that it is easy to forget today just how original his concept/portrayal of Wally was/is. In any event, in 1939 ‘The Cat and The Canary’ and ‘Wally Campbell’ immediately established Bob Hope as a top box-office and comedic attraction, a position which he held right throughout the 1940s until the arrival of Martin and Lewis, with their newer, more anarchic line of comedy.
BOB HOPE: WALLY CAMPBELL – A wisecracking actor who knew Joyce in high School & whom Fred calls “The original flutterbrain”
PAULETTE GODDARD: JOYCE NORMAN – A sketch artist, the last living family member carrying the “Norman” name
JOHN BEAL: FRED BLYTHE – A sullen man who is romantically interested in Joyce
DOUGLASS MONTGOMERY: CHARLIE RYDER – A charming, attractive man who wishes to resume a previous relationship with Joyce
GAIL SONDERGAARD: MISS LU – An attractive but spooky Creole
woman who was Norman’s mistress and housekeeper.
ELIZABETH PATTERSON: AUNT SUSAN – An older woman who was once close to Norman
NYDIA WESTMAN: CICILY- an excitable (neurotic!) woman who reveres Wally
GEORGE ZUCCO: MR. CROSBY – a lawyer, executor of Norman’s estate
JOHN WRAY: HENDRICKS – Guard from the local insane asylum, searching for “The Cat”
GEORGE REGAS: Indian Guide
CHIEF THUNDERCLOUD: Indian Guide
MILT KIBBEE: Photographer
FRANK MELTON: Reporter
CHARLES LANE: Reporter
Miss Lu: There are spirits all around you.
Wally Campbell: Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice? I need it badly!
- Miss Lu is the character that was named Mammy Plessant in the original movie and Broadways versions of “The Cat And The Canary”.
- In the original Broadway play and movie, the dead man was named Cyrus West. In this version, the dead man is named Cyrus Norman, possibly because the actress Mae West was still making films at this time.
- Elizabeth Patterson played the role of Susan in both this and the first sound version of the story, The Cat Creeps (1930).
‘THE CAT & THE CANARY’ ARTICLE TEXT ©copyright Gary Alston 2013.
House Of Retro/Gary Alston makes no claim to the ownership of the images appearing on this page.