The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - THE CAT AND THE CANARY / THE GHOST BREAKERS | The Movie Waffler


Bob Hope's horror-comedies make their UK blu-ray debuts.

Courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, the Bob Hope horror-comedy vehicles The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940) make their UK blu-ray debuts in this double set.


The Cat and the Canary
the cat and the canary

Directed by: Elliott Nugent

Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Gale Sondergaard, George Zucco, John Beal

The drawing room mystery was a staple of Hollywood throughout the 1930s. Inspired by the literary works of Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, Earl Derr Biggers and the like, these films followed a simple but effective template. Stick a bunch of toffs in a creaky old mansion on a stormy night, usually for the reading of a will, throw in a murder, an inquisitive detective (amateur or professional) and maybe an escaped lunatic (or supernatural creature, usually to be debunked Scooby Doo style in the final reel).

By the end of the decade the major studios had moved on from this formula towards more epic productions, leaving the drawing room mystery in the hands of poverty row studios. Paramount came up with the novel ideo of reviving the sub-genre as a comedy vehicle for Bob Hope, remaking Paul Leni's 1927 silent The Cat and the Canary.

The title has a double meaning. It refers to a comment made by deceased patriarch Cyrus Norman, who refers to his heirs as cats treating him like a canary in terms of their desire to get their hands on his fortune. "The Cat" is also the nickname given to the obligatory escaped lunatic.

Following his death, Norman subjects his heirs to a 20-year wait before his will can be read. On a dark and stormy night, the family members assemble in Norman's spooky Louisiana mansion, now cared for by his sinister mistress Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard, giving the sort of eerily distant yet strangely seductive performance that was her trademark) as the will is read by executor Crosby (genre staple George Zucco).

Among the eager potential heirs is the wise-cracking Wally Campbell (Hope). What makes The Cat and the Canary so effective is that Campbell is the only character that treats the movie as a comedy, which allows him to mock the rest of the straight-playing cast members in the manner of the Marx Brothers. As far as everyone is concerned, this is an old dark house thriller, possibly even a horror movie. Sondergaard and Zucco play their parts exactly as they would if they were appearing in a straight genre piece. It's a template that Universal would subsequently adopt for their revival of their classic monsters in the 1940s, beginning with Wallace Ford's comic sidekick to Dick Foran in the Mummy series and reaching its OTT apex with the Abbot & Costello movies. In the 1970s we saw a revival of this idea courtesy of Woody Allen's "early funny ones" and later with Eddie Murphy dropped into otherwise straight action movies and thrillers like 48 Hrs and Beverly Hills Cop.

While Allen is quick to acknowledge the influence of Hope on his work, The Cat and the Canary sees Hope play a character closer to those Murphy would later essay. This isn't the nebbish of later movies; rather Hope's Wally Campbell is the straight man to his own comic sidekick. There's a unique mix of cockiness and cowardliness to Wally. If he's the most scared person in the room, it's because he's the smartest.

Paulette Goddard proves a charming romantic foil as the one potential heir who doesn't seem all that bothered about her inheritance. Some of Hope's most memorable one-liners are flirty in nature, reflective of the arrogant figure Hope really was offscreen.

With cinematographer Charles B. Lang keeping the mansion shrouded in shadow and some classic creepy old house production design, The Cat and the Canary proves surprisingly atmospheric, a horror-comedy that blends both disciplines with a natural ease that would elude so many filmmakers who later aped its formula for scares and sniggers.

The Ghost Breakers
the ghost breakers review

Directed by: George Marshall

Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Willie Best, Richard Carlson, Anthony Quinn

The success of The Cat and the Canary lead to a similar blend of horror and comedy with 1940's The Ghost Breakers. Where the previous film saw Bob Hope play a character who was simultaneously the romantic lead and comic sidekick, The Ghost Breakers has him oddly pass on most of the comic duties to Willie Best, leaving Hope as a not so convincing dashing lead.

Hope plays Lawrence Lawrence, a radio host known for his inside stories from the world of New York's criminal cartels. Believing he accidentally shot a mobster, Lawrence hides in the luggage of Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard), who is travelling to Cuba, where she has inherited a spooky old plantation. Lawrence is joined by his butler/dogsbody Alex (Best), and the two find themselves investigating yet another creaky old mansion.

This one is less ambiguous than The Cat and the Canary when it comes to the supernatural element. There's a translucent ghost that even the Scooby Doo gang wouldn't be able to explain away. Of course, there's skulduggery of a more earthly nature afoot too, involving various dodgy figures, including Anthony Quinn in an early dual role of the slain mobster and his vengeful brother.

Most of the show is stolen by Best. Like Mantan Moreland, Best was an African-American comic whose film roles saw him usually play a racist caricature of a bug-eyed coward. While there's certainly some of that on display here, Best gets a lot more to do than he usually did in the sort of poverty row programmers he was making a living from at this time. With Hope stepping back from the comedy, Best gets most of the movie's memorable lines and physical comedy bits. You might even say The Ghost Breakers is a Willie Best movie co-starring Bob Hope.

New audio commentary tracks on both films with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby; Kim Newman discusses both films; a 1949 radio adaptation of The Ghost Breakers; and a trailer.

The Cat and the Canary / The Ghost Breakers is on UK blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment from December 5th.