MGM’s adaptation of the Oscar Wilde fantasy is wonderful stuff. In 1634, blustery aristocrat Sir Simon de Canterville (Charles Laughton) disgraces his family by fleeing a duel. Walled alive inside his ancestral mansion, Sir Simon is cursed to haunt its halls until a kinsman performs a brave deed on his behalf. Unfortunately, three hundred years of cowardly Cantervilles pass by, until his only surviving descendent, six year old Lady Jessica de Canterville (Margaret O'Brien) welcomes a company of American G.I.s into her grand home. Initially spooked, the rowdy Yanks face down Sir Simon’s nightly apparitions, while Lady Jessica discovers Cuffy Williams (Robert Young) is a long-lost relative. Can Cuffy perform the brave deed Sir Simon so desperately needs, or will the Canterville curse create yet another coward?
A change of pace for crime thriller specialist Jules Dassin, The Canterville Ghost isn’t the most faithful adaptation of Wilde’s story, but is definitely the best. Relocating the story to Blitz-era Britain, the film contrasts the gruff, easygoing Yanks with stately English manners; stuffy British protocol vs. American pragmatism; lovably neurotic Charles Laughton with amiable, “can-do” Robert Young. In that sense it’s a period piece yet, like A Matter of Life and Death (1946), appeals for Brits and Yanks to settle their differences and work together. Their cooperation births a brave, new world embodied by our child heroine. In their wholly delightful first encounter, the rough, tough G.I.’s expect some classy English totty, but are unexpectedly charmed by spirited, dainty, little Lady Jessica. And why wouldn’t they be? Twinkly-eyed, adorable Margaret O'Brien was one of the greatest child actors ever, never straining to be cute, always sincere. She recounts the legend of the Canterville ghost with endearing gusto and, fighting her fears, greets Sir Simon with a curtsy and a brittle: “How do you do?”
O’Brien more than holds her own against Charles Laughton whose mournful refrain touches the heart (He also delivers the immortal line: “Should I prance joyously around like a saucy antelope?”), and the ever-likeable Robert Young. Memorable moments include the soldiers cowering from Sir Simon’s scare tactics before scaring him off with a spooky trick of their own; Cuffy stripped to his underpants for bragging too much; Simon railing at portraits of his cowardly descendents; and a boogie woogie number where G.I.s cut a rug with a clearly awestruck O'Brien. There’s a Forties feel-good factor evident here that is very MGM, evoking joy and laughter to stave away the traumas of war. It’s a sweetness that has kept The Canterville Ghost endlessly watchable through successive generations. Steven Spielberg apparently drew some inspiration for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) from Dassin’s spook scenes. And this was a rare black and white movie that thrilled kids when I was at school. The fantastic finale features Cuffy, Sir Simon and Lady Jessica tangling with a “blockbuster bomb” and admirably suggests courage doesn’t mean fearlessness, but doing the right thing in spite of being afraid. The epilogue where Jessica practically proposes marriage to Cuffy might sound potentially queasy, but is really rather sweet.