Film, DVD, Blu-Ray & Streaming Reviews - By Fans For Fans



 Directed by Elliott Nugent / George Marshall.
Starring Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal, Gale Sondergaard, Douglass Montgomery, George Zucco,
Willie Best, Richard Carlson.
USA 1939 / 1940 72 mins / 83 mins. Certificate: PG

Released on Blu-Ray by Eureka on December 5th, 2022


The two Paramount movies collected on this disc, released around eight months apart in the early days of WWII and capitalising on a demand for comedic old dark house escapism, were also timely star vehicles for their leads, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. They would make a third film together, for the same studio, in 1941 – the non-spooky NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH.


Their origins, however, date back much further: THE CAT AND THE CANARY was the third known adaptation of John Willard’s 1922 Broadway play of the same name, having previously been translated to the screen in 1927 and, as THE CAT CREEPS, 1930. THE GHOST BREAKERS is even older, inspired by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard’s 1909 ghostly farce THE GHOST BREAKER, itself adapted into two silent movies.


The films, which both benefit from HD transfers, are still a lot of fun - though the nippy, witty CAT is the superior of the two. In the bayous of Louisiana, George Zucco’s imposing family lawyer arrives at said mansion (overseen by the ominous, black-clad Gale Sondergaard) for a midnight will-reading, just as the gold-digging (extended) family members of the deceased show up hoping for significant riches. Lights flicker, clocks stop, there’s an early “cat scare”, eyes move in paintings, cobwebs abound, and bodies fall out of cupboards – while radio actor Hope (“the original flutterbrain”) and artist Goddard (whom he once called a “twerp” at a school dance) play off each other delightfully.


Alongside the hand-on-shoulder scares and assorted red herrings, there is considerable atmosphere and a subplot (hackneyed even in 1939) about an escaped mental patient that pays off with a genuinely creepy reveal. It is, of course, built around a series of Hope wisecracks, some of which have entered the pantheon of the much-quoted:- “Big empty houses always scare me”, “Not me – I used to be in vaudeville”.


THE GHOST BREAKERS reverses a key CAT one-liner (”You mean like Democrats?”) and rekindles the chemistry between the stars, while relocating, initially, to New York City – where an unprecedented storm has plunged the Big Apple into darkness (storm-hating broadcaster Hope, renowned for exposing members of the city’s underworld, quips: “Basil Rathbone must be having a party”). This time out, Goddard inherits a Cuban castle and ends up paired with the wisecracking racketeer-expert in a plot involving a possible ghostly slave trader and lumbering zombies.


Key elements of the format are reliably in place – creepy organs, stirring coffins, creaks and cobwebs, moving suits of armour – and there’s a prominent role for the prolific African-American actor Willie Best, playing Hope’s valet for stereotypical bug-eyed, scaredy-cat laughs characteristic of the period. It’s baggy compared to its predecessor and the more dated trappings will jar with some (“If this keeps up, I’m gonna have to paint you white”), but there’s plenty of snappy zingers and physical comedy to make for a very pleasant watch.


Eureka’s disc has a commentary for each film from the charming, erudite pair of Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, taking us through the cast members, differences between stage and film incarnations, the socio-political context of the movies and the “meta” elements that creep into both. In a 20-minute featurette, Kim Newman contributes a valuable guide to the tropes and origins of the “old dark house” movie, incorporating SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE, the significance of THE CAT CREEPS in the Universal pantheon and other 1940s ghostly comedies. You also get a recording of the 1949 THE GHOST BREAKERS radio adaptation and an illustrated booklet with a new essay by Craig Ian Mann.


Steven West.


This web site is owned and published by London FrightFest Limited.


FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.

© 2000 - 2024

Film, DVD, Blu-Ray & Streaming Reviews
By Fans For Fans