The Cat and the Canary/The Ghost Breakers [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (13th December 2022).
The Film

Ghosts and gags galore in this charming double-bill of horror-comedies starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard.

The Cat and the Canary: Ten years after the death of eccentric millionaire Cyrus Canby Norman, his relatives are summoned deep into the Louisiana bayou where his haunted mansion stands shrouded in perpetual fog. Cyrus hated his relations due to the strain of insanity that runs in the bloodline and only trusted lawyer Crosby (House of Frankenstein's George Zucco) and his Creole spiritualist housekeeper Miss Lu (Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman's Gale Sondergaard) who has kept the house just as he left it from the cobwebs to the grandfather clock that stopped when he drew his last breath. His relatives and potential heirs who have arrived for the will reading at midnight are a dysfunctional bunch: imperious Aunt Susan (The Secret of the Blue Room's Elizabeth Patterson), dotty spinster Cicily (The Ghost and Mr. Chicken's Nydia Westman), cousins Fred Blythe (The Vampire's John Beal) and Charlie Wilder (The Mystery of Edwin Drood's Douglass Montgomery) who are at each others throats over their shared attraction to beautiful cousin Joyce Norman (Goddard), and radio actor Wally Campbell (Hope) whose ability to predict the trajectory of the evening's events has more to do with his experience in radio melodramas than Miss Lu's spirits who have already predicted that one of the seven in the house will die before morning.

Wally's prediction that Joyce will be the sole heir turns out to be true but it is Fred who posits the danger she will be in when Crosby reveals the existence of a second will naming another heir should his first heir die or be declared mentally incompetent; however, Crosby assures everyone that Joyce will be safe since only he knows the contents of the second will (not revealing his and Miss Lu's earlier discover that both wills had been discovered opened in the safe where they had supposedly lay undisturbed for ten years). When local asylum warden Hendricks (Doctor X's John Wray) appears and reveals that a psychopathic murderous patient nicknamed "The Cat" has escaped and is loose in the bayou, the others decide not to frighten Joyce with the knowledge; however, everyone starts to question Joyce's mental state when she claims that Crosby vanished before her eyes. Wally suspects that the danger to Joyce is not from a psychotic killer but one of her greedy relations and resolves to be her protector despite being the biggest scaredy cat of the bunch.

Only the second official adaptation of the John Willard stage play previously adapted in 1927 by Paul Leni (The Last Warning) for Universal the 1939 version of The Cat and the Canary was part of the lighter side of Hollywood's second horror boom of the forties as well as a film vehicle for radio star Hope. While rich in atmosphere with some gorgeous miniatures, old dark house art direction, and handsome monochrome photography, it is the star vehicle aspect of the film that some viewers may find most jarring. Unlike many of the other old dark house retreads from the period, the source material play had a lot of plot mechanics that get overshadowed by Hope's meta quips to its structure with a lot of the character interaction that made up the plot falling by the wayside. Beal and Montgomery become almost interchangeable, Goddard does the imperiled heroine bit well enough but her chemistry with Hope is overshadowed by his more amusing interactions with Westman, and "The Cat" gets only slightly less screen time than the unmasked real killer whose motivations are also less clear. Although there were many unofficial adaptations (ripoffs) in between including Jess Franco's Night of the Skull which mis-attributes the Willard play to Edgar Allan Poe Radley Metzger's 1978 adaptation felt old-fashioned at the time (spurred as it was by the all-star Agatha Christie adaptations of the period) but was actually more faithful to the play and generally more dramatically-satisfying if not quite as charming as the Hope version or atmospheric as the Leni.

The Ghost Breakers: On a stormy Manhattan night, shop girl Mary Carter (Goddard) is about to set off for Cuba, having inherited the cursed Castillo Maldito on Black Island from a slave-trading ancestor. Cuban ambassador Havez (Before I Hang's Pedro de Cordoba) tries to warn her off going to the island, and lawyer Parada (The Lady Vanishes's Paul Lukas) reveals just after she signs the paperwork that a private buyer has offered fifty-thousand dollars for the castle; however, Mary is put off that tempting offer by a phone call from a man calling himself Ramon Maderos (Zorba the Greek's Anthony Quinn) who tells her Parada is up to no good and arranges to meet her later in the evening. Radio host Larry Lawrence (Hope) whose middle name is also Lawrence because his parents had no imagination has just relayed a humorous story about gangster Frenchie Duval (Red River's Paul Fix) after receiving intelligence from rival gang member Raspy Kelly (Road to Rio's Tom Dugan). When Frenchie summons Larry to the same hotel where Mary is staying to "set him straight" about his story, Larry fears for his life and carries a pistol provided to him by his valet and "family detainer" Alex (A-Haunting We Will Go's Willie Best) which he believes in a moment of confusion he has fired and killed one of Frenchie's men. Larry hides from the police in Mary's room and then in her trunk when the police search her room.

It is not until Mary's trunk winds up aboard ship to Cuba that she is able to get him out; whereupon they learn that the victim at the hotel was not only killed with a different caliber gun than the one Larry had but was also Maderos; leading Larry to suspect that Mary's life is in danger, and not from the spirits and voodoo zombies that supposedly haunt Castillo Maldito, especially when Parada turns up on board, along with Mary's well-informed acquaintance Geoff Montgomery (The Maze's Richard Carlson), and Maderos' own twin brother (also Quinn) who demands threateningly to known from Mary why his brother was murdered. While Mary sees the sights of Cuba, Larry and Alex head to Castillo Maldito where they are soon no longer sure that the things that go bump in the night are not of this world.

Paramount's follow-up to The Cat and the Canary re-teams Hope and Goddard in an adaptation of another dusted-off property in the Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard (no relation) 1909 haunted house farce "The Ghost Breaker" (singular). More expansive in action, locations, and production value not to mention about fifteen minutes more running time the film also more consistently balances the comic antics and suspense even if the admittedly striking supernatural sights are window dressing for a more conventional terrorize-the-heiress scenario. Carlson and Quinn (in two roles), along with Virginia Brissac's voodoo woman and Noble Johnson's zombie have little opportunity to make much of an impression less so than Lukas' sinister lawyer or Lloyd Corrigan as comic relief but Goddard and Hope have better chemistry this time around and the third act is wonderfully atmospheric with The Cat and the Canary's returning art direction team of Hans Dreier and Robert Usher creating a memorably cobwebbed castle for the haunted house antics. Paramount remade the property in 1953 as Scared Stiff with Jerry Lewis taking on the antics of the Alex character while Dean Martin played the Hope character as more of a straight man.

Video

Originally produced and released by Paramount, The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers wound up with Universal as part of a package sold to MCA for television distribution in 1958. Out of the three American official The Cat and the Canary adaptations, the 1939 version was the hardest to see outside of television airings, skipping VHS and arriving on DVD first in the UK in 2004 (followed by a 2019 release from Fabulous Films and only turning up in the US in 2010 as part of the Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories Collection (with a Vault Series solo DVD-R the following year). The Memories Collection content was combined with another set in 2014 ten film set Bob Hope Classic Comedy Collection in 2014 before finally making its Blu-ray bow in 2020 from Kino Lorber. The Ghost Breakers had wider television play stateside and preceded its appearances in the aforementioned Hope sets with a 1993 Universal Encore Collection laserdisc and MCA VHS release and its DVD bow in 2002 and also made its Blu-ray bow in 2020 from Kino Lorber.

Eureka's double feature utilizes the same masters for their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen tranfers, with The Cat and the Canary derived from an older HD master with windowboxed credits and text inserts that is otherwise fine for a film this age (although one cannot help but wonder what textural details of the production design a newer 4K scan might reveal) while The Ghost Breakers came from a newer 2K scan that revels in deep noirish blacks, better highlight detail in those moody setups (from the Manhattan blackout hotel interiors of the first act to the moonlit haunted castle of the third act).

Audio

Both films feature clean-sounding but not totally hiss-free RCA "noiseless" recording on the LPCM 2.0 mono tracks conveying crisp dialogue, canned effects, and also highlights differences in the approach to incidental scoring between the films. Optional English HoH subtitles are provided.

Extras

The Cat and the Canary is accompanied by an audio commentary by film historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons who note that just seventeen years after the source play opened on stage and twelve years after the Leni film the property needed modernizing for the second Hollywood horror boom, noting both the major and seemingly arbitrary changes as well as remaking comic relief character Paul Jones into genre-savvy Wally Campbell. They also discuss the stage-to-screen genre antecedents with the earliest example being the stage adaptation of Mary Roberts Reinhart's "The Bat" and its film versions.

In "Kim Newman on The Cat and the Canary" (20:44), on the other hand, Newman goes back further to Earl Derr Biggers' "Seven Keys to Baldpate" and its film adaptations with the last actually following the final to date official The Cat and the Canary adaptation by Metzger in Pete Walker's The House of the Long Shadows. His coverage also include discussion of The Ghost Breakers and its source play. The film's theatrical trailer (3:40) is also included.

The Ghost Breakers is also accompanied by an audio commentary by film historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons who also discuss the source play, the earlier lost film adaptations, and the changes made to the Hope/Goddard version but also note that while the film is a horror comedy, the original play was considered "melodramatic fare" the way the stage adaptation of "Dracula" was considered a "thriller" with the genre label of horror not really taking hold until the thirties. Also included is the 1949 radio adaptation with Hope from "Screen Director's Playhouse" (30:02) and the film's theatrical trailer (2:14).

Packaging

The disc is housed in a case with a reversible sleeve while the first pressing of 2,000 copies includes a limited edition slipcase and collector's booklet featuring new writing by Craig Ian Mann (none of which has been provided for review).

Overall

The Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard duo The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers marks not only radio star Hope's big screen break but also a more meta turn in the horror comedy genre.

 


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