When it comes to Halloween movies, for those of us of a certain age, the tried and true classics of which all spooky pictures are measured usually feature Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and maybe Vincent Price. And then there are the comedy spook flicks such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Hold That Ghost, and Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers co-starring Paulette Goddard.
The Ghost Breakers (1940) was actually a follow up to the Hope/Goddard screen hit of 1939, The Cat and the Canary. Classic film fans are probably familiar with The Ghost Breakers, but many may not have ever even heard of, let alone seen, The Cat and the Canary, which would be a real shame since it is the better of the two. For years it was kept out of circulation due to legal complications, but thankfully it is available now.
The Cat and the Canary is itself actually a retelling of an earlier silent picture which was taken from a stage play. John Willard’s stage melodrama Cat and the Canary was filmed four times over a fifty-year period. The silent 1927 version stars Laura LaPlante as one of several potential heirs to a huge fortune. Brought to a foreboding, gothic mansion on the 20th anniversary of their eccentric benefactor’s death, the heirs must sit in silence as the lawyer reads the terms of the will. This is one of the original “old dark house” stories where lights flicker, bookcases open up to hidden passages, people are pulled through trap doors, and things go bump in the night.
Bob Hope’s version is terrific and has been cited as the picture that made Hope a first-class movie star. This is the film where Bob appears for the first time in his famous film persona; you know, the cowardly braggart who also manages to be the heroic leading man. That characterization is the one audiences came to know and love so well throughout his film career.
His one-liners in this picture are pure Hope such as when he refers to the old, decade-long-deceased Cyrus Norman, who in his time was so crooked that “when he died they had to screw him into the ground.” Or when one of the relatives asks him, “Aren’t you afraid of big, empty houses?” to which Bob replies, “Not me; I used to be in vaudeville.”
It’s the kind of Hope picture I love best, one that mixes comedy with solid storytelling and in this case mystery, horror, and eccentric characters. Nobody did that kind of picture better than Bob Hope. Along with beautiful co-star Paulette Goddard the other stars include Gale Sondergaard, John Beal, Douglas Montgomery, Nydia Westman, Willard Robertson, Elizabeth Patterson, and George Zucco as the lawyer (ironically named Crosby).
The screenplay was written by Walter DeLeon and Lynn Starling, based on the Willard play and directed by Elliott Nugent. Charles Lang’s cinematography makes terrific use of shadows and lends the film considerable atmosphere and plenty of chilling moments. Produced for Paramount by Arthur Hornblow, Jr. it was Hope’s first starring A-picture.
Critics and audiences alike loved the picture when it opened in November 1939. Critic Howard Barnes wrote in the New York Herald, “Mr. Hope is a pillar of strength in holding the film to its particular mood of satirical melodrama.” Another review in Motion Picture Herald called Bob “one of the funniest comedians who ever faced a camera.”
Charlie Chaplin, one of Bob’s idols and Paulette Goddard’s real life husband told Bob, “Young man, I’ve been watching the rushes and I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I have ever seen.” There is no doubt that The Cat and the Canary was the film to at last give Hope his first opportunity to use wisecracks and one-liners in a way that seemed to be completely spontaneous, as if he were ad-libbing in front of a stage audience.
If you’ve never seen the picture, you should, especially if you are a Bob Hope fan. It’s probably available on Netflix, or you can purchase it on DVD in the Universal Vault series and as part of the Thanks for the Memories Collection. That collection also includes The Ghost Breakers which makes for a great double feature. So spend this Halloween with Bob and Paulette in a spooky old house and a creepy castle. Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney will still be around next year, this year go for the laughs along with the screams.