Well…after being tricked (and certainly not treated) by one of my rotten kids into enduring the new Halloween Kills nightmare (woefully, even comically inept…and no, I don’t find Jamie Lee “Witchie Poo” Curtis hot anymore), it was a dire necessity for my autumnal equilibrium to scare up some old-timey nostalgic Halloween fare.
By Paul Mavis
Descending into my subterranean DVD vault (anyone tired of this gag yet?), I blah blah blah 40 fathoms below the earth’s crust blah blah blah electric tram rail blah blah blah northwest wing, substation A12 blah blah blah corridor 40, vault 69 blah blah blah and came up with a suitably restorative draft of All Hallow’s Eve spookums: 1939’s The Cat and the Canary and 1940’s The Ghost Breakers, a Bob Hope laffer/chiller double feature from Universal’s Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories Collection. Hope’s sly, wisecrackin’ scaredy cat persona works particularly well in the horror genre (it’s surprising he didn’t do more of them), so let’s look briefly at these two vintage Paramount Pictures gems…before my vodka-and-candy corn diabetic coma kicks in.
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THE CAT AND THE CANARY
Down in the dark, mysterious swamps of the Louisiana bayous, a moldering, crumbling mansion sits, waiting for its new owner to be named. Its previous owner, millionaire Cyrus Norman, has been dead for ten years, but the house has been looked after by his shadowy Creole housekeeper/mistress (?) Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard). Now, a decade later, as prescribed in his last wishes, his remaining relatives have gathered at the mansion to hear the reading of the will by his attorney, Mr. Crosby (George Zucco). Distant cousins “Aunt” Susan Tilbury (Elizabeth Patterson), Cicily (Nydia Westman), Fred Blythe (John Beal), Charlie Wilder (Douglass Montgomery) arrive before art illustrator Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard) and hambone radio actor Wally Campbell (Bob Hope).
Tensions are high among the squabbling relatives, but the real anxiety kicks in once everyone learns the contents of Cyrus’s last will and testament: Joyce is to receive the mansion and all monies…but someone else named in a second, sealed document will inherit everything should Joyce either become insane or…die within the next thirty days. And that second sealed envelope? It’s been tampered with. Soon, people are bumping into each other in darkened hallways and swampy grounds, wondering who might be ready to kill, before the night’s terror is ratcheted-up with the arrival of “The Cat,” an escaped mental patient and homicidal murderer who tears his victims to shreds.
Probably the best known of the five movie adaptations of John Willard’s 1922 play (although with the advent of DVD, the celebrated 1927 silent adaptation by director Paul Leni is receiving its renewed due for its seminal influence on Universal’s horror genre), 1939’s The Cat and the Canary still manages to scare up some laughs and thrills, even though its format and techniques have been subsequently copied to death in innumerable subsequent horror and suspense outings. A “scare comedy” perfectly suited to Bob Hope’s evolving ‘fraidy-cat persona (he isn’t an out-right chicken here…but he certainly isn’t a brave, crusading hero, either), The Cat and the Canary shows radio star Hope, still early in his movie career, taking a big leap in on-screen confidence, exuding a sureness of approach that indicates he’s finally finding his métier in big screen outings.
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Introduced to the audience apart from the other performers (in his canoe ride to the creepy mansion), Hope starts wisecracking immediately, with director Elliott Nugent giving him a funny sight gag (an alligator catches his thrown-away cigar) that immediately places The Cat and the Canary firmly on the side of comedy first, and horror second. Once inside with the rest of the suspicious characters, Hope need only throw out a joke a minute (“Don’t big, empty houses scare you?” “Not me—I used to be in vaudeville.”), react with fear to loud noises, and woo the gorgeous Goddard, to effortlessly keep the audience’s attention.
Paulette “The Body” Goddard, fresh off the disappointment of her career (narrowly losing out Gone With the Wind‘s Scarlett O’Hara), is a fairly plucky heroine for this type of horror flick, staying good-natured and spunky whenever Hope’s around (keep an eye on her when Hope’s clowning; she’s always laughing right along with the viewer), and delivering believable fright when menaced by “The Cat.” This was the first of three movies the attractive, sexy Goddard made with Hope, and she’s a good romantic foil for the jittery Hope, with that underlying hardness of hers a fun contrast to the marshmallowy Bob.
As for The Cat and the Canary‘s horror credentials, it’s almost impossible for an adult who has seen his or her fair share of horror movies, from any decade, to be taken aback by anything in this thriller—not so much because the chills are tame, but rather because they’ve been Xeroxed so many times by hundreds of other productions: the creeping hand coming out of the paneled wall; the menacing shadows on the floor; the creaking doors and sighing winds through the crumbling shutters. However, nostalgia does have its pleasures, too, and despite our familiarity with The Cat and the Canary‘s conventions, they work just fine.
With remarkably evocative cinematography by Charles B. Lang, and equally impressive art direction by Hans Dreir and Robert Usher, The Cat and the Canary‘s bayou mansion (supposedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction…and no doubt many subsequent Italian-made American Southern gothic slashers) is a palpably spooky apparition, while the final sequence of “The Cat” attempting to kill his prey is genuinely scary under Lang’s chiaroscuro lighting and director Nugent’s violent staging. Spooking jaded viewers in 2021, while delivering still-topical jokes from the vaults (“Do you believe in reincarnation? Dead people coming back to life?” “You mean like Republicans?”), would seem high praise, indeed, for a 82-year-old horror flick.
THE GHOST BREAKERS
A violent thunderstorm knocks out all the lights along Manhattan’s storied skyline, including Mary Carter’s (Paulette Goddard) hotel room. A knock on the door reveals Mr. Parada (Paul Lukas), a Cuban solicitor who officially hands over to Mary the deed to Black Island’s Castillo Madito, built by her great great grandfather…after which he immediately offers her 50 large to purchase the island. Mary can’t understand why he would offer so much, but Mr. Havez (Pedro de Cordoba) of the Havana consulate explains: no one in the last twenty years has survived the night at the castle.
That disturbing fact isn’t going to stop Mary from sailing for Cuba, though, but what she doesn’t count on is meeting radio personality Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope). Ticking off the wrong mobster with some on-air gossip, Larry is summoned to gangster Frenchy Duval’s (Paul Fix) digs for a heart-to-heart…which just happens to be located in the same hotel as Mary’s. Armed with a pistol owned by his manservant Alex (Willie Best), Larry witnesses shady Cuban operator Ramon Mederes (Anthony Quinn) outside of Parada’s room, and somehow convinces himself that he’s shot Mederes…when it was Parada all along. Time to find a hiding place for the scared Larry, and what place better than Mary’s trunk. Soon both are on their way to Cuba and Black Island, but ghosts, zombies and flesh-and-blood killers await them in the shadows of the imposing mansion.
I would imagine that most TV viewers of my age better remember The Ghost Breakers‘ remake, 1951’s Scared Stiff, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, if only because it was more TV-friendly in syndication, with the pesky racial stereotyping of Willie Best’s character replaced by Jerry Lewis’ moronic mugging (far more insulting to whites, I’d say, than Best’s portrayal to blacks). The Ghost Breakers is also frequently mentioned (perhaps mistakenly) as some kind of direct inspiration for Ghostbusters, even though the Hope character here only jokes about breaking spooks for a living (the original trailer, interestingly enough, does seem like it could have sparked the idea for Bill Murray’s 1984 smash hit).
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Whatever its future permutations and influences in cinema pop culture, The Ghost Breakers, back in 1940, at least, continued a successful run at the box office between Hope and the comedic spooks genre (and his re-teaming with Goddard, as well), and as seen today, it holds up quite well. Speedy in length, but slightly protracted in its buildup (the genuine scares don’t even come until the third act when the participants visit Black Island), The Ghost Breakers moves assuredly through the invisible direction of old pro George Marshall (who would also helm the Martin and Lewis remake), creating a subtly menacing atmosphere amid the clowning (helped enormously by the effective score by Ernst Toch).
Hope here is in the first full flower of his shaky coward persona, and he’s quite amusing alternating cowardice with bravery brought on by lust for Goddard (not surprising when one of the first images you see of her is the sultry actress stripping down to her underwear). The one-liners that will come to dominate later Hope vehicles are becoming more prominent (“It’s worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly, with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they’re doing, not caring.” “You mean like Democrats?”), while his timing with other performers is razor-sharp (the movie’s best joke may be when the caretaker zombie screams and runs out of the room, with Bob deadpanning a bathroom joke after her, “Upstairs, down at the end of the hall.”).
Acting against the undervalued Willie Best (whom Hope famously said was one of the best comedic actors he had ever encountered), Hope’s delivery is alternately brash and craven—which may best sum up his approach to many of his subsequent roles. As for Best, it’s difficult to discuss his performance without referencing the obvious stereotyping that goes into the role, but it’s important to note that he has almost as much screen time as Hope, once the action starts, along with some stand-out comedy moments (calling for Hope among the trunks on the pier is a notable scene), all of which Best executes flawlessly (when he asks the locked-up zombie, “Is you there, Zom?” with the zombie growling an answer back, and Best deadpanning, “Okay,” it’s certainly the funniest exchange in the whole movie).
And Goddard again shows that she’s a worthy bounce-back for Hope’s banter; it’s a shame she didn’t do more comedy in her up-and-down career. Once horror takes over for the comedy, director Marshall has no difficulty coming up with several unsettling moments (the shot of the zombie son, played by Noble Johnson, turning to look at Hope through his window, is worthy of any moment in the more celebrated “classical monsters” period over at Universal), bringing The Ghost Breakers to a satisfying funny/chilling conclusion.