Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on October 12, 2016
“Don’t big, empty houses scare you?”
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.
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.)
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.
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