The Funny Old Dark House

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“Don’t big, empty houses scare you?”
“Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.”

That wry exchange is one of the many little asides that typifies The Cat and the Canary (1939), airing in prime time this Friday on TCM. This Paramount production (now part of the Universal library) is the earliest surviving sound version of the original old dark house chiller that started life as a stage play by John Willard, and it’s a savory bit of counter-programming to Universal’s ongoing parade of beloved movie monsters (which were being toned down in the early throes of World War II). The idea of Hope starring in a horror movie (especially so early in his career — he’d only been starring in features since 1938!) sounds bizarre on paper, but it works beautifully in practice. Part of the charm here is the smart pairing of Hope (more subdued and urbane than usual here) with the gorgeous and charming Paulette Goddard, who was married to Charlie Chaplin at the time and was best known for Modern Times (1936). The chemistry between Hope and Goddard was so good they were teamed up for another horror comedy in 1940, The Ghost Breakers, and in between she made her most familiar film for many TCM viewers, The Women (1939). And as you can see in that promotional shot above for The Cat and the Canary, she also knows how to rock a Halloween costume like nobody’s business.

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For the uninitiated, The Cat and the Canary is the prototypical old dark house story about a group of relatives of varying degrees of morality gathered together for the reading of a will, with the lucky heir disqualified if they die or go insane within a month. The ensuing long night involves an escaped maniac called the Cat, hidden passageways, family secrets, and a booming thunderstorm, not necessarily in that order. The Hope/Goddard version relocates the action from England to New Orleans and renames the key family from West to Norman, but otherwise the usual elements are in place here. What’s gratifying here is how well this plays as a mild but entertaining horror film, with enough atmosphere and chills to make it ideal Halloween viewing. On top of that you get some welcome genre faces like Universal horror favorite George Zucco (who gets the obligatory famous scene involving a revolving bookcase and a clutching hand) and Gale Sondergaard, having a field day as the paranormal-loving housekeeper years before she went on to fame with an Oscar-nominated role in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and her delicious turn as one of Basil Rathbone’s finest foes in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944).

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If you enjoy this film, be glad that there are many more out there in a similar vein including two other legitimate adaptations. The original 1927 silent film directed by Paul Leni remains a staple of repertory screenings and a favorite of silent horror fans, with its powerful invocations of German Expressionism making it one of the wildest and most stylish films of its era. It also pulls off all the creaky conventions with gusto, even poking fun at what were already considered cliches. There’s also a fine 1979 version directed by Radley Metzger (famous for his string of elegant European erotic films in the ’60s and ’70s) with an all-star cast featuring an oddly cast Carol Lynley and Michael Callan in the hero roles alongside veterans like Honor Blackman, Olivia Hussey (whom I really would have loved to see cast in the lead), Wendy Hiller (a nice gender-bending twist on the lawyer role), and a hilarious Wilfrid Hyde-White, who gets the film’s best moment with the closing credits. There was actually another version made in 1930 by Universal, The Cat Creeps, which is now sadly considered lost. Well, two versions technically, since they simultaneously made a Spanish-language version (a la Dracula), but that one’s lost to the ages as well.

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But wait! There’s plenty more if you want to fill the Halloween season with billowing curtains, flashing lightning, and shadowy killers on the prowl. The Bat, a rival ’20s stage production by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood with a similar slant, was adapted for the screen three times: a 1926 silent, a very flamboyant 1930 sound version (The Bat Whispers), and a mild but diverting Vincent Price vehicle in 1959. Before the Hope film, James Whale did a much more mordant job of skewering the formula with his 1932 classic, The Old Dark House, which in turn was remade in far more brash fashion by William Castle (teaming up with Hammer Films for the first and only time) in 1963. Castle did a more refined job of offering a modern take on the template with one of his best films, House on Haunted Hill (1959, also with Price). (The 1999 remake wanders so far afield it doesn’t really qualify.)

The Old Dark House

House on Haunted Hill

If you want more out-and-out broad comedy with your old dark houses, there’s always the Abbott and Costello hijinks of Hold That Ghost (1941), and I have to confess I have a real soft spot for both times Don Knotts decided to venture into creepy old houses at night in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), which has recently been issued in a lustrous, very colorful (and cheap!) Blu-ray by Universal, and a film I’ve watched far more times than I’ll ever admit, The Private Eyes (1980), the last (and my favorite) of his starring vehicles with Tim Conway. There are plenty more out there, but hopefully this will be enough to get you in the mood this Halloween (or any time of year) to curl up on a dark night, settle in with a few blankets, and get ready to chuckle and shiver at the same time.

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

 

11 Responses The Funny Old Dark House
Posted By Doug : October 12, 2016 11:05 am

Love The Cat and the Canary; Hope was new to the game, but here his persona was still fresh, not yet mastering the snappy delivery/routine he later perfected. He even has to threaten someone at one point, and he does it with a flavor of true menace that would only play for laughs in his other films.
Goddard was also great-my favorite role for her is Molly McCorkle in “Pot O’ Gold” but she shines here, also.
Nate, I’m glad that you mentioned “Hold That Ghost”-one of the best vehicles for A&C. No one does funny scared like Lou.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : October 12, 2016 4:00 pm

Maybe it was because they turned up on television so often when I was a kid, but I share the love for Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Private Eyes. I always make sure to watch The Haunting every Halloween, but I’m tempted to make Mr. Chicken an annual staple, as well.

I thought I’d seen most of the classic horror films, but reading this, I’m realizing the old dark house genre is one I’ve overlooked. I love Whale’s Old Dark House, I’ve seen both of those Price films (I think they might be public domain, so they turn up a lot), but I’ve never seen any of those Cat & Canary films, or the older Bat films.

Posted By Nathaniel Thompson : October 12, 2016 9:28 pm

Thanks, Doug and Chris. I kind of wish Hope had continued in this vein a bit longer; it’s fascinating to see him actually trying to play a character and react to genuine menace. And glad to hear there’s love out there for the two Don Knotts movies!

Posted By Flora : October 13, 2016 4:48 am

I look forawrd to seeing The Cat and the Canary for the first time.

I am a big fan of The Bat. I have a DVD of it. I have read the novel and that book has a change in narative all the time. The movie was based upon a play. I have not seen the play.

I’m still not watching a lot of Halloween films because I prefer to be closer to the holiday to watch horror movies.

However, I have always loved the first two Frankenstein movies, Young Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, any version of Phantom of the opera, and the Abbott and Costello monster movies ast any time of year.

Posted By Mitch Farish : October 13, 2016 8:14 pm

The Old Dark House (1932) is the funniest one of them all – “Have a potato!” Eva Moore and Ernest Thesiger crack me up. It’s my favorite Halloween movie. I play it every year and it never gets old.

Posted By George : October 13, 2016 8:45 pm

Flora: Have you seen The Bat Whispers, from 1930? It has some eye-popping visuals. Last time I checked, it was on YouTube.

Embarrassing to say that The Ghost and Mr. Chicken terrified me the first time I saw it. I was 6 years old.

Posted By Flora : October 13, 2016 9:59 pm

George: no, I have not yet seen The Bat Whisperers. Thanks for the information that it might be on youtube.

As for being scared of a Don Knotts film at 6, well, dn’t be embarassed about it. My best friend at 5 years old saw ET and had nightmares. I skipped the movie.

Posted By Doug : October 14, 2016 12:23 am

It’s Spooktober, so send some love to “Sh! The Octopus!” I have the DVD, and I’m sure it can be found on most d/l flix sites. Even cold stone sober I felt drunk watching it.
On Kimberly’s latest post she mentions “The Uninvited”-an exceptional film. Gail Russell shines, Ruth Hussey and Ray Milland are excellent, and the cinematography is perfect.
Bring on the ghosts!

Posted By George : October 14, 2016 1:14 am

Here you are, Flora. And it’s in widescreen!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6vRzyM2wxM

Posted By Flora : October 14, 2016 1:21 am

Thanks, Doug. :)

Posted By Brian : October 18, 2016 3:46 am

Love Ghost Breakers, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard’s second pairing. It starts as a mystery and ends in an atmospheric supernatural setting. Paulette Goddard is luminous as usual.

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