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  Cat and the Canary, The Splitting Heirs
Year: 1939
Director: Elliott Nugent
Stars: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard, George Zucco, Elizabeth Patterson, Nydia Westman, John Wray
Genre: Horror, ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Lawyer Crosby (George Zucco) travels by boat through the uninviting Louisiana swamps to get to the mansion of the deceased Cyrus Norman, so that his will can be read to his distant relatives. He meets the housekeeper, Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard), who claims to be psychic, and then the potential heirs start to arrive. One of them is radio personality Wally Campbell (Bob Hope), who is none too happy about being so close to the local alligators on the journey there, but there will be more danger for him to encounter that night - especially as there is no way back from the house until morning, and the guests find good reason to be nervous in Cyrus' creepy dwelling...

Based on the classic "Old Dark House" play by John Willard, this was a remake of the original 1927 screen version, and written by Walter DeLeon and Lynn Starling as a vehicle for popular radio comedian Hope. It was here that Hope's movie career got its first and biggest boost, and the moment he appears onscreen it's clear that he's a star in the making, enlivening the previously oppressive atmosphere with a jolt of wisecracking humour that is to the story's benefit. He is already comfortable in his acting persona as the cowardly braggart, firing off jokes in the face of life-threatening situations while terrified, although not afraid to show his fear, which is where most of the laughs spring from.

Once the guests are assembled, the will is read (Crosby neglects to mention that a mysterious party has already broken into the safe and read the will beforehand), and the attractive, young Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard) is named to inherit the fortune. That is, if she survives the night: a bell tolls, and Miss Lu informs everyone that this means someone will die soon, meaning that a new heir will be named, handily mentioned in another, unopened envelope. Not only that, but there's the rumour of a priceless necklace that has been hidden in the house or its grounds, and Joyce is given a riddle which once deciphered will lead her to the treasure.

The trappings of the mystery house horror are closely adhered to, so much so that they begin to look as corny as Hope's gags sound. There's the extravagantly creaking front door, a black cat that skulks around the place for red herring duties, secret passageways and sliding panels, and the generally spooky air, conjured up by excellent set design of decay and isolation. Then there is, of course, a killer on the loose, a lunatic who has escaped from the nearby asylum who is called "The Cat" by the other inmates - could he be the one spying on the guests and could he have killed Crosby, who disappears early on after being grabbed 'round the neck by a hairy hand?

The cast is well chosen, with Goddard a spirited heroine (although she does faint when confronted with a claw reaching for her), and expert menace from Zucco and (especially) the coolly imperious Sondergaard. The two other young men, John Beal and Douglass Montgomery, are largely interchangeable, mostly present to look down on Hope, but the duo of dotty old ladies are nicely played by Elizabeth Patterson and Nydia Westman. However, it's Hope's film for most of the way, and many of his lines are genuinely funny: when the lights flicker and go out, he observes, "That's what they do when you don't pay the bills," and when asked if those old, empty houses scare him, he replies, "Not me, I was in vaudeville." Only when the non-stop thrills of the last fifteen minutes arrive do the jokes dry up, but the chase around dark passages and into a tumble-down cottage make up for it. This version is good quality, old-fashioned fun. Remade in 1977. Music by Ernst Toch.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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