Thursday, 12 February 2015

Movie Review: The Cat and the Canary 1939

Title: The Cat and the Canary
Year: 1939
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Directed by: Elliot Nugent
Starring: Bobe Hope, Paulette Goodard, Gale Sondergaard, et al.
Costume Design by: Edith Head
Genre:  Comedy, Horror

It's been awhile since I've reviewed a movie. It's not that I haven't seen any. I've watched plenty of movies over the last couple of months, and I've planned on writing reviews for them, I've just never gotten around to doing them. I either lose track of time or I have to prioritize more important things. I've really wanted to talk about at least one horror film before the winter ends, with good reason; winter is the most dreary and depressing time of year for me. I suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) which means I get drowsy, irritable and unhappy during the winter months. This year I've been very fortunate because we've had plenty of natural sunshine flowing through our windows and brightening up the house, but then I look down and see all that white fluff and it's depressing. What I like to do during these times is watch horror films. It seems odd, but I feel it's an appropriate winter pastime. It helps me to concentrate on something when I struggle with sad feelings and it's perfect for those dark, silent nights. I truly feel that winter enhances the viewing experience. There is definitely a parallel between the atmospheric tension of an old black and white horror film, and the anxiety that I feel about a never ending black and white winter. Funny, but true.

I happen to own a handful of films on DVD but I acquire the majority of what I watch through downloads. I've had The Cat and the Canary sitting on my computer since October! I originally intended to watch it around Halloween, but the holidays got so hectic that I kept putting it off and eventually forgot about it entirely. It wasn't until recently that I rediscovered it. I had just watched One Body Too Many; an apparent spoof based off The Cat and the Canary - I'm merely speculating here, but the former film does utilize the name of the deceased relative, "Cyrus", as well as the exact same portrait of him. At first I wasn't sure if OBTM was intended to be something of a remake. Rehashing storylines was commonplace back then as films would only show in theaters for so long, viewing times were limited, so it would make sense if OBTM was an attempt to cash in on The Cat and the Canary's success. But the more I think about it the more it seems OBTM is just paying homage to The Cat and the Canary. Either way, the timing is awfully ironic, I didn't plan to watch both films together, nor did I know of any connection between the two!

Speaking of remakes, The Cat and the Canary (1939) is a remake of The Cat and the Canary (1927), which is based off of the play of the same name!

The Plot

The film is set in the Louisiana bayous at the residence of Cyrus Norman, a millionaire who died ten years prior and whose will is now going into effect. Mr. Norman's mansion is situated in a remote location, his beneficiaries must travel via an alligator infested swamp just to get there (and there's no going back either, not until morning). The guests clearly feel uneasy at the prospect of staying in the mansion; it's old and creepy, and the caretaker, Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard), is a bizarre woman who claims to be in tune with the other world. Intent on getting things over with, the guests assemble in the living area and are told the details of the will. The potential heirs are Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Pattesrson), Cicily (Nydia Westman), Fred (John Beal), Charles (Douglass Montgomery), Wally (Bob Hope) and Joyce (Paulette Goodard) - Norman's only surviving blood relative. Not surprisingly, Joyce is the sole beneficiary to Norman's will. It's indicated that should Joyce fall mad within thirty days (madness being an inherent problem in the Norman bloodline) then the inheritance shall be awarded to the next heir. This puts her at considerable risk of any wrong doing from the other potential heirs, who feel bitter sweetly about Joyce's inheritance. It's made all the more complicated by a disturbing letter given to Joyce by Miss Lu, that implies Joyce's good fortune will be short lived. Not to mention that there's also an escaped mad man loose in the bayou who looks like a human cat...

Everyone acts concerned for Joyce's well being, but it's not clear if they are being truthful or if they're after her fortune (and the hidden treasure, naturally). Of all the guests, Wally, Joyce's childhood friend and the film's comic relief, appears to be the most genuine of the men. This is kind of a given as much of the story takes place around the two of them. This is your archetypal haunted mansion kind of film; there's flashing lights, ghostly noises, hidden rooms and trapped doors, being watched, being stalked, murder, mayhem, mystery, so on and so forth. It's a good film and I don't want to give too much away, so go ahead and watch it.

How would you rate this film? ★★★★ - I loved it!

What did you like about the movie? I like a lot about this movie. First off, the atmosphere was stellar. They did a really good job of set design, it all felt very immersive, like you felt as though you were actually there. When Joyce and Wally go outside, you can almost feel the mugginess of a swampy summer night. I loved the flickering lights and the sounds, I wouldn't say I felt scared, not in the way that we feel scared with horror films today. Instead, I would more describe the feeling of thrill when watching this film. For an older film that in itself is a hell of an accomplishment. To feel thrill at the thought of a spooky mansion, or when Joyce is being violently perused by something lurking in the dark, it's just great. Beyond the atmosphere I found the characters to be fairly interesting, too. Aside from the protagonist, I enjoyed Miss Lu. Gale Sondergaard did an immacualte job of playing a haunting and mystical care taker. I think she was around forty when the film came out, but she was just gorgeous. I found that refreshing. Ordinarily when we see these kinds of murder mystery/haunted house films, there's usually a crochety woman but she's terribly old so we sort of excuse her behavior. But when the woman is younger, and very pretty, it's much more alluring. You wonder why she's so mysterious and withdrawn, and you get the feeling she has a tremendous wisdom about the house and other worldly things.

The genre for this film is a horror comedy, and I think that was entirely successful. Bob Hope was a powerful comedic presence at the time and he really did an excellent job in this film. I felt Westman was good during her parts as well, but unfortunately you don't hear as much from her. Unlike other horror films that attempt to incorporate a comedic element, this film didn't let it get in the way of the thrill, it seemed like the timing was well planned. For example, Hope might dish out a handful of puns and then leave the room, then something suspenseful would take place, and he might joke afterward to take the edge off, but it never interrupted what would otherwise be a scary moment, it just flowed right.

What did you dislike? It's hard to say I dislike something about a movie that I awarded a five star rating. I rarely give a rating that high. I only did it because I felt that in comparison to other films of that time, this film stands out. I would put it with the Universal monster films, and let's be honest, some of those really weren't that great, but it is ranking it quite highly. Although there are a few things I would have liked to see improved, I don't think they hurt the film in any way. What I would have liked to see is more time with the other guests, including Miss Lu. It seemed like some of the characters was seriously underutilized.

There were limited interactions with the group as a whole, it was usually Joyce on her own and then one person would interact with her at a time. This made it so other characters didn't get as much screen time. I felt that if they were given more lines and more depth it could have created greater tension within the group and heightened the suspense. I found that half way through I really didn't consider Cicily or Aunt Susan as a threat and they were shown so infrequently that they might as well have not even existed. The same for Fred, Joyce's other suitor, who happens to be a crusty guy that seems too easily defeated. He competes for her affection against Charles but gives up way too easily. You just want them to break into a fight over her but it never happens. I wanted Aunt Susan to be more consumed by greed so that she could be a potential killer. I wanted more lines from Cicily because she's also comic relief and had a decent comedic chemistry with Wally. The film did have me guessing, but honestly only between like three people and there were a lot more characters in this movie than just that.

Who was your favorite character? Bob Hope's character, Wally. And that's only if I had to choose one, but he certainly stands out to me. I might be a bit biased though, as he reminds me of my fiancé. He has excellent timing with his lines and they really make me laugh, just in his delivery. He's kind of cocky and silly, but I also thought he was hot when he was wooing Joyce. I'm a sucker for being called "baby".

How did you feel about the costume designs? Edith Head was the costume designer for this film, and if you know me you're already aware that I adore her designs. The story takes place over the course of a single night, so there's not much in the way of wardrobe. Joyce has three cute dresses, she starts off with this adorable little gingham number, which I was eyeballing the entire time. The film ends with her in another simple dress, this time floral, but still cute. The real gem, is the dress she's wearing at the height of the film's suspense. I absolutely gush over it. It's a stunning white gown. I couldn't find many stills of it, but she's wearing it in the photo below. It has a kind of beaded/sequined knotted motif on the front yoke. It's gathered near the collar bone and has a plunging neckline. She also wears this adorable little brooch with it.

How many movies are there from this time where the woman in danger is wearing a beautiful white gown? I'm pretty sure White Zombie had it, I know I walked with a Zombie had it, and I know it makes me think of the Bride of Frankenstein. Keep that in mind if you ever plan on making a horror film: give the female lead a sexy, virginal white gown.