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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

More Spooky Than Funny?

Paramount Says --- Sell The Cat and The Canary Either Way

It never mattered how much comic relief you threw at horror films in the 30's. They'd still be scary. I'll bet as many youngsters got nightmares from watching The Cat and The Canary as from various Frankensteins or Draculas. Value in chillers came of setting and atmosphere, which Cat/Canary had in abundance. A haunted house with secret passages is still a formidable thing no matter your approach to it, murder a serious business whatever wisecracks made by Bob Hope. At least that was case in 1939, when Hope was not yet confirmed as full-time jester and demolisher of screen genres. Here he is at a start as sheep in would-be wolf clothing, more earnest than as the braggart he'd later evolve to. Scaring skittish Bob was as sure-fire as would be case for Red Skelton or Lou Costello, repeat cycle for these clowns so long as they did movies. What seemed a contradiction in the scare-pair Hope made with Paramount, Canary and then The Ghost Breakers, was done-straight settings with humor eclipsed by fright. Maybe adults weren't affected, but children surely were. Here was a wire movies walked whenever laughter met thrills --- even Disney with his Shaggy Dog had moments to go rough on small fry.

Paramount selling saw the contradiction. They'd promote The Cat and The Canary more for chills than comedy. Menace of a cat claw as it hovers over Paulette Goddard was dominant art for both the one and three sheets, Bob Hope not pictured on either size display. Anyone seeing these on a theatre front would assume Cat/Canary was horror pure and simple. Certainly the title was pre-sold to that effect, The Cat and The Canary having barnstormed far/wide in terms of fright. The story, known to most who had seen the play or silent era version (and that took in bulk of pop culture followers) was basically serious, a will read at midnight that unleashes mayhem in a spooky house where a madman offs those who stand between him/her and the family fortune. To that was added mirthful seasoning, but in moderation. Paramount kept Bob Hope in check to keep faith with the source property, a good thing as he might have over-tipped scales even a year or two later as his popularity from radio touched a peak. Most of what went on in haunted houses relied on inspirations that were The Cat and The Canary and also-famed The Bat. These two defined the genre, at least on stage. For all I know, they're still being adapted for school or community plays.

We know The Cat and The Canary today mostly for Hope. He was a new sort of lead for romantic comedy, a fraidy cat if not outright coward that leading ladies could still cotton to. Hope was early to burlesque convention, fourth walls yet to be breached as they would be after a brasher Bob made that expected. You could argue that he's easiest to like in The Cat and The Canary before being ruled by radio further entrenched and movie vehicles the same. To project sincerity was to betray the kid-everything space Hope would be locked into. The Cat and The Canary came pleasingly before that, a sort of what if? relaxed lead Bob Hope might have been under different circumstances. Cat/Canary helmsman Elliott Nugent had his own early 30's go at affable performing before switch to direction. His ideas likely informed the screen character Bob Hope became. Did Hope ever credit Nugent for guidance? They had worked together before, would several times again. Hope did cite Frank Fay as his vaudeville inspiration, but had less to say about screen assist he received.

I will guess that Paramount sales got handed this job, looked around and saw the current revival of horror films (Son Of Frankenstein, released early in 1939), and decided that The Cat and The Canary would fly best under that flag. Production and publicity were separate animals, one often at odds with the other. Creative ends often had no idea, and less interest, how merchandising would move a finished product. We say "creative end," but should be mindful that ad/pub called for at least as much creativity, like where that end game had to be played on behalf of dodgy wares. Of filmmakers who followed through to the ticket windows and luring customers in, Alfred Hitchcock was a best example, maybe an only one so actively involved, but here was the most-part thing: home office staff, generally New York based, did the exploitation for what movies were shipped from the west for distribution and ultimate payoff, if there was to be one. The Cat and The Canary looked like a surer bet for scare selling, so that is how it was sold. Paramount focused on the cat fiend and his "horrible, hairy grasp." Past chillers were evoked, comparisons with Dracula and Frankenstein made, masks available to children so they too could be cat creatures, and midnight spook shows were proposed as a best format to launch The Cat and The Canary. It must have struck chords because a same theme and leads were back within a year with The Ghost Breakers. The Cat and The Canary was gone for awhile because of rights snafu, but is among us now on DVD and occasionally at TCM in HD. It is a must for expert blending of titters and thrills, certainly among most handsome of 30’s genre mash-ups.


Blogger DBenson said...

Hanna Barbara is still ringing variations on "Scooby Doo", a kiddie version of the scary comic whodunit. But it's the whodunit -- with or without a horror angle -- that was and is a comedy mainstay. Beyond outright comedies, many of the series detectives played murder for laughs, and descendants of Nick and Nora persisted on television for decades.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love the Paul Leni 1927 CAT AND THE CANARY. This one is okay. The Leni version is awesome.

12:01 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From Joe McGrenra via e-mail:


Loved your article on The Cat and The Canary, and as you mentioned it was quickly followed by The Ghost Breakers. I am a huge Bob Hope fan, and something that has always amazed me is that after his success with these two horror comedies/spoofs, Hope would never return to the genre in a starring role during the rest of his film career.

His only further brushes with this type of movie was a pair of cameos. The Martin and Lewis film Scared Stiff was actually a remake of the The Ghost Breakers with a quick cameo by the team of Crosby and Hope, and his final film appearance (1994’s That Little Monster).

Joe from Virginia Beach

Joe McGrenra

6:03 AM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

I watched this recently with my kids, along with Ghost Breakers. Our family loves Scooby Doo, so I thought it was time to delve into the film roots of comedy horror. They loved it (along with A&C Meet Frankenstein, and Hold that Ghost).

1:57 PM  

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