Another month brings another delve into the Universal vaults as Eureka present a brace of films scanned from the original film elements to make their UK Blu-ray debut, a natural double bill of The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers, both starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard and released only months apart, in November 1939 and June 1940, and both based upon plays which had been previously filmed in the silent era.
Each played with elements of horror and comedy, both films also fit into a broader genre popular in the era exemplified by such films as The Old Dark House, the characters drawn to a mysterious property where they are obliged to spend the night and solve a mystery which threatens them, The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers both prompted by an inheritance bestowed upon Goddard’s character.
The will of the late eccentric Cyrus Norman stating that it is to be read ten years after his death at his home in the Louisiana bayous, it is happenstance that Joyce Norman (Goddard) is chosen to receive the estate as she is the only surviving relative to still bear the family name, though there is a caveat stating that she must be of sound mind and body after a period of thirty days otherwise it will pass to another as-yet unidentified party.
The assortment of relatives obliged to stay the night, Joyce is beset by frightful events which prompt her grudging aunts Miss Susan and Miss Cicily (Elizabeth Patterson and Nydia Westman) to suggest she is already going mad with only cousin Wally Campbell (Hope) believing her, though news that a dangerous lunatic known as “the Cat” has escaped from a nearby asylum puts all on edge.
Directed by Elliott Nugent and adapted by Walter de Leon and Lynn Starling from John Willard’s 1922 play, The Cat and the Canary wastes no time in establishing the personalities and quirks of the ensemble as they arrive for the reading of the will, with cousins Fred and Charlie (John Beal and Douglass Montgomery) treating Joyce as the prize in a private game they are playing even before the stakes are raised by the announcement of her sudden wealth.
The viewer never allowed to forget that Hope is the star of the film, the characters are all somewhat clichéd, given to splitting up despite the sinister circumstances and with the otherwise charming Joyce somewhat given to screaming and swooning, and few clues are given until the culprit is unmasked in a conclusion which is expected to be accepted rather than questioned.
Directed by George Marshall and adapted by Walter DeLeon from the 1909 play by Paul Dickey and Charles W Goddard, the title of which was the singular, The Ghost Breakers opens in New York City where the radio comedy star Lawrence Lawrence (Hope) is obliged to leave town when he becomes the lead suspect in a shooting, finding himself in the company of Mary Carter (Goddard) and unexpectedly travelling to Cuba.
Mary in her cabin, Larry in her trunk and both aboard ship, she is warned that in twenty years nobody has spent a night in the abandoned Castillo Maldito and lived to tell the tale, but accompanied by his faithful retainer Alex (Willie Best) “ghost breaker” Larry is determined to get to the truth of the ghosts and zombies which supposedly haunt the remote estate that locals including Paul Lukas and Anthony Quinn would prefer Mary never visits.
The vast sets of Gothic Castillo Maldito a playground for the second half of the film, complete with a portrait of Mary’s ancestor in flowing black gowns glaring down from above, the script of The Ghost Breakers is overall perhaps not as sharp as The Cat and the Canary, wrapping up less than convincingly, but the dialogue is more entertaining and as was the style of the era both are told efficiently without unnecessary diversions.
The new release of the The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers each carrying commentaries supplied by Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, there is also a 1949 radio adaptation of the second work and an interview with Kim Newman who tracks the history of the “old dark house” horror comedy strand from Seven Keys to Baldpate to its final adaptation, House of the Long Shadows, and beyond.
The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers will be available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 5th December