Watching 1939: The Cat and the Canary (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Cat and the Canary

Release date:  Nov. 10, 1939

Cast:  Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard, Elizabeth Patterson, Nydia Westman, George Zucco

Studio:  Paramount Pictures

Director:  Elliott Nugent

Set in the Louisiana bayou, relatives of the late Cyrus Norman gather at his remote mansion. The millionaire left instructions for his will to be read ten years after his death and for everything in his home to remain the same until then. His housekeeper Miss Lu (Sondergaard) stayed on alone and welcomes the guests (Hope, Goddard, Beal, Montgomery, Patterson, Westman, Zucco) into the home, warning them of spirits. Norman’s lawyer, Crosby (Zucco) reads the will – announcing that Joyce Norman (Goddard) is the heir. Cyrus Norman believed insanity ran in the family, so a second person was named as a backup if Joyce dies or is insane. The guests must stay in the creepy mansion overnight and it seems Joyce’s life is at risk, or is she just imagining it?

1939 Notes:
• Paulette Goddard was in two films in 1939, “Cat and the Canary” and “The Women.” Her film with Bob Hope is what helped boost her acting career.
• Bob Hope was in three films released in 1939.
• Gale Sondergaard was in four films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Version of The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Cat Creeps (1930), which were based on a 1922 play written by John Willard.
• Martha Raye was originally supposed to be the female lead, according to the book “Hope: Entertainer of the Century” by Richard Zoglin
• The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Paramount closed the set so the criminal would be a surprise.

John Beal, Paulette Goddard, Bob Hope, and Douglass Montgomery in “The Cat and the Canary”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
What a delightful film!

“The Cat and the Canary” has a little bit for everyone. Want something spooky for Halloween that keeps you guessing on “who done it”? This fits the bill. But you also don’t love horror (like me) and want it to be sort of light? This film also has that.

“The Cat and the Canary” is exciting, suspenseful, spooky but also has some laugh out loud jokes thanks to Bob Hope.

And on top of all that, it is only an hour and 12 minutes – so not only is it fun but quick!

As far as 1939 goes, it helped both the careers of Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. While it’s hard to imagine Bob Hope as anything but one of Hollywood’s top performers, his film career was struggling as this point, according to his biographer Richard Zoglin.

Hope started in film shorts in 1934 and his first credited full-length film was The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). Hope’s other two films released in 1939, “Never Say Die” and “Some Like It Hot” (not the one with Marilyn Monroe), did poorly in the box office. This film “rejuvinated” his film career and made Hope rank in the top 10 actors at the box office. Hope would stay in the top 10 for at least 10 years after this, according to Zoglin’s book.

This year was profitable for Paulette Goddard as well. From 1929 to 1936, Goddard acted in largely uncredited roles. Her only credited role was in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936). Making no films in 1937, Goddard played higher quality supporting roles in 1938, such as with Luise Rainer in “Dramatic School” (1938) and Janet Gaynor in “The Young in Heart” (1938). But 1939 was successful for Goddard: She was only in two films but both were hits – “The Women” (1939) and “The Cat and the Canary” (1939). She even was considered for one of the top films of 1939, “Gone with the Wind” as Scarlett O’Hara, which went to Vivien Leigh. Goddard’s two films with hope, “The Cat and the Canary” and “Ghost Breakers” (1940), both did well in the box office and helped increase her star rank.

After 1939, Goddard switched from supporting character to leading lady. I’m thankful that Goddard was the leading lady and not Marthe Raye.

Not only was “The Cat and the Canary” fun, but it also helped catapult it’s two leads into stardom. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the supporting cast: John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard,

Elizabeth Patterson and Nydia Westman in “The Cat and the Canary”

who all add to the mystique and suspense.

Patterson and Westman may be my favorite characters! Westman is nervous and Patterson is the uppity older lady.

If you want a spooky movie for Halloween that the whole family can watch or won’t keep you awake at night jumping at every noise – this is your pick.

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4 thoughts on “Watching 1939: The Cat and the Canary (1939)

  1. Definitely a fun flick – have you seen it’s sequel, “The Ghost Breakers”? It’s a good one, too (BTW, Zoglin’s book is one of the best Hollywood bios around, I reviewed it a while back.)


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