An attempt to celebrate Halloween with laughs this year, rather than with gore, led me to haunted mansions in the Bayous near New Orleans and off the coast of Cuba. Along for the ride is the comedy team of Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, an unlikely pair whose coupling seems to work in these haunted environments.
Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard paired for the first time in Elliott Nugent’s The Cat and the Canary, a 1939 remake of Paul Leni’s 1927 silent adaptation of John Willard’s 1922 play. Willard’s play also inspired, among other productions, 1930’s The Cat Creeps and its Spanish-Language counterpart, La Voluntad Del Muerto. For our 1939 production, Universal sold the story to Paramount who cast Hope and Goddard at the top of their game. Hope was starring in two popular comedies released in 1939, Elliott Nugent’s Never Say Die and George Archainbaud’s Some Like it Hot. He was also about to begin his road picture journey alongside Bing Crosby with the first release in the series, Road to Singapore in 1940. Goddard, on the other hand, was working on Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and had Cukor’s The Women showing in theaters across the country when The Cat and the Canary was released.
The Cat in the Canary tells the story of a group of first and second cousins twice removed who gather in an old mansion located in the bayous of Louisiana for the reading of Cyrus Norman’s will, Cyrus is the millionaire relative who died ten years prior. Cyrus’ will is very specific about when and who was to gather for the reading. You have the executor of the will, Mr. Crosby (George Zucco), and Cyrus’ surviving relatives: Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard), Fred Blythe (John Beal), Charles Wilder (Douglas Montgomery), Cicily Young (Nydia Westman), Aunt Susan Tilbury (Elizabeth Patterson), and popular actor Wally Campbell (Bob Hope). Finally, there is Cyrus’ former housekeeper and lover, Miss Lu played to great effect by Gale Sondergaard.
At the reading of the will per the instructions of Cyrus Norman, Mr. Crosby holds two envelopes. The first holds the name of his sole heir, which turns out to be Joyce Norman, the only one with the “Norman” last name. The second envelope, which holds the name of Cyrus’ second choice of heir, is to remain sealed unless the primary heir is declared insane. With that tidbit of information and the fact that a murderous madman has escaped from a nearby insane asylum, the bedlam that ensues is not surprising. Although funny and appropriately creepy for this fan, which is the best part of The Cat and the Canary. Nugent does a fine job of directing by keeping both the freight – dimming lights, secret passageways, shadows – and comedy working throughout the story, which moves at a brisk pace.
Bob Hope introduced his funny coward character in this film, a character he would play for decades to the delight of audiences. Although, he’s quite heroic too in both movies mentioned here. Of course, Hope’s one-liners, which he slings often in The Cat and the Canary, are worth the price of admission all on their own. Although I must say that my favorite joke in this is not his. As his character Wally makes his way to Cyrus Norman’s mansion in a canoe on alligator-infested waters, he makes a joke to try to get “his mind off the malaria germs.” Upon hearing the joke, Wally’s companion, the Native American guide who paddles everyone to Norman’s estate, does not laugh. When Wally turns around to see why, the guide says, “I heard that joke last year on The Jack Benny Program.”
The entire cast in this is stellar with special mentions to two prolific character actors, Elizabeth Patterson who is best remembered for her portrayal of Mrs. Trumball on I Love Lucy, and Nydia Westman who appeared in numerous popular TV shows and provides a great running gag in this picture. Also, Gale Sondergaard is enjoyable as the one who adds plenty of the mystery in The Cat and the Canary. As Miss Lu, you are never quite sure which side Sondergaard is on. She speaks to the spirits that inhabit the mansion and translates their messages, including when they tell her someone will not survive the night. Miss Lu is also always skulking around in a combination Mrs. Danvers – Mrs. Hammond manner that makes one’s hairs stand on end.
Finally, there is Paulette Goddard who is likeable in this as the intended victim of the evil that lurks in and around Norman’s estate. Goddard and Hope have great chemistry, which resulted in a huge hit for Paramount, which means they quickly moved to team them again. In less than eight months, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard hit the screens in George Marshall’s The Ghost Breakers.
The Ghost Breakers, with a screenplay by Walter DeLeon based on a play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, was filmed twice in the silent era, in 1914 directed by Cecil B. DeMille and in 1922 helmed by Alfred E. Green. George Marshall directed Martin and Lewis in the 1953 remake, Scared Stiff, which is good as well. However, it is the recycling of the script for Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard with the help of the comedic talents of Willie Best that proved to be inspired. Adding gravitas to this version is the supporting cast which includes Paul Lukas, Pedro de Cordoba, Paul Fix, Anthony Quinn, and Richard Carlson.
In The Ghost Breakers Bob Hope plays Larry Lawrence, a radio commentator who has a way with mystery stories. Willie Best plays Alex, Larry’s devoted Butler. Somehow Larry and Alex get mixed up with gansters and a murder, which leads them to a cruise ship – in hilarious fashion – and Mary Carter played by Paulette Goddard. The cruise ship is bound for Cuba where Mary will visit the mansion she inherited, a mansion with a well-known reputation for ghosts and danger. Mary is warned several times but is set on claiming her inheritance.
The real fun starts when Larry and Alex arrive on the small island where Mary’s mansion sits. There to welcome them is a small shack inhabited by an old woman and her catatonic son whom she reportedly brought back from the dead. In other words, he’s a zombie. And he is plenty scary. Larry and Alex arrive at the old mansion and ghosts begin appearing almost immediately. By the time Mary arrives we’ve been treated to two hilarious men trying to navigate the supernatural with their lives intact.
Alex: Hey, boss, you ain’t goin’ upstairs, are ya? Where those ghosts is?
Larry: Listen, you stay there, and if a couple of fellas come runnin’ down the stairs in a few minutes, let the first one go. That’ll be me.
Alex: If somebody passes you, that’ll be me.
Besides the creaking sounds, cobwebs and impressive ghosts, there are humans with much more sinister goals in the mansion as well. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter what was going on behind the scares. What matters are the actors in the story doing what they do best. George Marshall manages what Nugent did in The Cat and the Canary, which is find a perfect balance between comedy and fright.
Paulette Goddard is lovely here and has plenty of opportunity to be sexy. Paulette’s chemistry with Bob also stands firm. In fact, the formula from its precedecessor works brilliantly in this outing for all players, including the hands the reach out in the night, which always reach for Goddard.
The best part about The Ghost Breakers for this fan, however, is watching and hearing Bob Hope and Willie Best. They are terrific together. While Larry overcomes some of his fear because he is motivated to help Mary, Alex has no such interests in ghosts or any of their relatives. He is so good. As was the unfortunate situation in classic days for African American actors, Best was usually only offered demeaning roles to play, but The Ghost Breakers offers proof of his skill and razor-sharp comedic timing on par with Hope who called Willie Best “one of the finest actors I’ve ever worked with.” I wish they’d had the opportunity to co-star in other romps together.
Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard and Willie Best reunited in 1941 for Elliott Nugent’s Nothing But the Truth, but since there are no haunted mansions there it does not rate anything more than a mere mention here.
These are my recommendation for a happy, healthy, and safe Halloween, standards of the comedy horror genre. This is a terrific double feature full of laughs, scary thrills, and tricks and treats. So, be sure to have fun, beware of what’s behind the door, and be kind to black cats.