31 July, 2009

The Cat And The Canary


I often defend TV -- good TV -- to near fisticuffs because of how difficult it is to put out good work week after week.  I love movies, but nowadays as much as two or three years can be spent on telling one two-hour story (and often for good reason) but a TV show is there, in the trenches, giving it to us again and again, week to week, each episode often better than some movies.  They’re two different mediums, sure, but good TV?  Engaging us that often;  bringing us back for more on such a steady basis?  Let’s not get to fisticuffs, but I’m happy to defend them.

Which brings me to my favorite decade in Movies, the 1940s.  Now, I love a whole heckuva lot from the mid-30s to the mid-50s, but for this particular write-up let’s chat those wonderful 40s. 

The 40s were when Series reigned.  The Thin Man, Boston Blackie, The Falcon, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Blondie, Charlie Chan;  so many great ones.  (Can you believe Hopalong Cassidy was in sixty-six of his own?  That’s features.)  Sure, you have James Bond spanning decades (and I love James Bond) but imagine eight or ten films in as many years.  Well, it happened.  And it happened well.

Which brings me to one of my favorite stars of the period, Bob Hope.

We’re not talking Gable or Bogart or Tracy.  Or Garbo or Davis or Hepburn, and fair enough.  Well, their equivalent in the laugh department?  (And my God, I’m not discounting Chaplin or Keaton or Benny or even Woody Allen but)  There’s no one to compare but Hope.  (Incidentally, Mr. Allen once said he’s spent his entire career trying to be Bob Hope.  Don’t believe me?  Watch Allen’s early stuff -- Play It Again, Sam -- man is it there.)  While Bob Hope wasn’t solely in his own Series, between 1939 and 1947 -- in just those eight years -- he was in ten hits.  Think about that.  Ten hits in eight years.  (And those weren’t the only movies he made in those years and, keep in mind, he was visiting the troops in between.)  I’m not taking anything away from the Co-Stars and Writers and Editors and Directors and everyone else that helped those films be as good as they are, but that’s a hell of a run.  Let’s take a look at the list --

The Cat And The Canary (1939)
The Road To Singapore (1940)
The Ghost Breakers (1940)
The Road To Zanzibar (1941)
Nothing But The Truth (1941)
My Favorite Blonde (1942)
The Road To Morocco (1942)
They Got Me Covered (1943)
The Road To Utopia (1946)
My Favorite Brunette (1947)

For my money, it’s his best work. 

Our film today leads the pack plus the three best of his Road series -- Zanzibar, Morocco and Utopia -- are in there, plus The Ghost Breakers, Nothing But The Truth and, culminating with what I believe to be his best film, My Favorite Brunette.  (And let me quickly qualify:  while Ghost Breakers is my personal favorite, I still call Brunette his best.)

Well it all had to start somewhere …

You know at least some of the legend surrounding Old Ski Nose.  Hustling in Vaudeville and on Broadway;  reigning in Radio;  his break with The Big Broadcast Of 1938, where he sings what would become his theme song, “Thanks For The Memory;”  leading to stardom in Movies and TV;  the U.S.O. Tours.  But the Bob Hope we think of -- that persona -- really began with a run-of-the-mill little movie, a remake based on a play.  A “base hit” for the studio.  They weren’t expecting a “home run;”  and, yes, they really used to talk like that.  You can probably hear Walter Pidgeon saying “Let’s keep the black ink in the books” in The Bad And The Beautiful.  Well, sensing some lightning, Paramount figured out how to bottle “Bob” -- the comic, the emcee -- synthesizing what he does best, properly packaging that run-of-the-mill little movie into the grand slam we now know as:

                  The Cat And The Canary (1939)
                  w Walter DeLeon & Lynn Starling from the play by John Willard
                  d Elliot Nugent

Great ready for thrills and chills that tickle your funny bone as Hope & Company cook up one of the great comedy thrillers.  They start with a dark and gloomy mansion deep in the Louisiana bayou, invite a family for the reading of a will -- including the brave and beautiful Paulette Goddard -- let loose a shadowy killer who starts picking them off one by one, pepper it with witty wisecracks, and voilà:  the perfect recipe for a frightening -- and frighteningly funny -- good time.

Welcome, dear readers, to these Top 5 Retrospectives I’m happy to share.  That’s Five Movies of Five Actors, starting with my favorite comedian, Mr. Bob Hope.

To begin, our movie today is not the first time this story was told.  IMDB lists a total of five projects with the title, though I don’t believe either of the 1912 or 1921 shorts can be counted.  (And there’s a rumored 1930 version, all copies of which are said to be lost, not even listed on the beloved site.)  But the other three -- the 1927 silent, our 1939 version, and the 1979 version -- are definitely birthed from the John Willard play.  I’ve never seen the play (although I’d love to;  if anyone hears of a revival in the Los Angeles area, please let me know), but it’s a straight thriller.  Well, where this 1939 version shines is the genre-bending genius of putting the wise-cracking Hope into the mix.

And let’s touch on that for a moment.  “The wise-cracking Hope.”  He himself would always credit Canary as the point he became a star (and he’d be right) and this is what I meant by Paramount synthesizing what he does best.  Everything he’d learned from Vaudeville, Broadway and his earlier Hollywood experiences molded to create the essential characterization he was to display in most of the “Bob Hope movies” that followed:  the Cowardly Hero who meets his fears head-on with a bold, silly quip.  (This, of course, was the same direction his Radio Writers were steering him.)  And, really, this spoof on the Haunted House Movie is perfect for that.  That Paramount -- and Canary’s Screenwriters and Director -- “let Bob be Bob” was the genius.  Like when the lights go out and he says, “Yeah, they do that when you don’t pay your bill.”  Or while stoking the fire, trying to break the tension:  “Let’s drink Scotch and make wry faces.  Get it, Scotch & Wry?”  He hands over the poker, “Here, I don’t need this with jokes like that.”  That he could play a character we wanted to see him play -- the emcee fumbling through whatever setting -- finally paid off (Canary was indeed a big hit for Paramount). 

There’s an old adage in screenwriting -- I think it was Kubrick who said it -- that stories need to build to a surprising yet satisfying conclusion.  And you’d be surprised how difficult it is to hit both of those well.  Well, as difficult to achieve both of those in any genre is to mix genre.  It’s dangerous because, when handled badly, it’s disastrous.  When handled well, well …

  Anyone who knows me knows what a Joss Whedon fan I am.  And talk about genre bending, there’s a gentleman who does it well.  From Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which wonderfully mixed horror, drama and comedy, to Firefly which mixed westerns and sci-fi, he has a knack for taking characters and situations we know, are comfortable with, and turning them into something surprising yet as-equally satisfying.  And to give credit where credit is due, a great example of that -- almost eighty years before! -- is Hope’s Canary.

Let’s touch on that talent for a moment.  Today’s script comes from Walter DeLeon & Lynn Starling.  DeLeon started in Vaudeville, performing alongside his wife, Muggins Davies (and isn’t that a perfect Vaudeville name?).  Over a 70-film career, DeLeon would help introduce Bob Hope in The Big Broadcast Of 1938 -- in fact he helped with all of the Big Broadcasts -- and would work with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, Abbott & Costello and Charles Laughton.  Lynn Starling was born William Lyne Starling and began on The Stage [with, interestingly, a young Humphrey Bogart and Clifton Webb in Meet The Wife (1923)].  Starling was comfortable in Hope’s wheelhouse, as he’d just picked up where the ’38 Big Broadcast left off, scripting Hope’s Thanks For The Memory.

The pieces of the puzzle seem cliché now -- the gloomy mansion in the middle of nowhere, the midnight reading of the will, the Ten Little Indians esque counting down of victims, the secret passageways, even the eyes in the painting that follow people -- but it’s few and far between to see it put together so well.  The screenplay itself is essentially a simple one, but that’s where it shines.  Incidentally, the Canary mystery is solved far more quickly than it’s setup, but that doesn’t take away from the joy of the thing.  Because the real joys in this film don’t come from the meat and potatoes, but their gravy.  The moody shadows, the great Ernst Toch score, Hope’s one-liners (natch) and (just as natch) his and Goddard’s undeniable chemistry.  Truthfully, where DeLeon, Starling and Director Elliot Nugent shine is having a good story, telling it well, and then getting out of the way.

Delving one step further into The Script means sharing with you a treasured goldmine we have right here in Los Angeles.  Some of you will nod knowingly and some will wonder how quickly you can get there.  Now, I’m really trusting you with this, so you must promise to guard it appropriately.  Ready?  Okay, here we go.  I’m talking about The Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library;  a vast archive and one of the world’s preeminent research facilities.  Since 1928 it’s acquired Books, Scripts, Photographs, Production Reports, you name it.  In the hundreds of thousands.  Want more?  It’s open to the public … at no charge.  Yeah, for cinephiles, “goldmine” hardly does it justice.

And I knew they’d have a copy of the original Script -- and read that again if you need to:  a copy of the original Script -- so I rushed down there and sat down to read.  What do I mean by a copy of the original script?  Well, each of their scripts are what appear to be -- I’ve only looked at a handful but they appear the same -- a copy of one of the shooting drafts.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re original copies, but you often see different dates on the pages of the library’s bound versions.  For instance, their Cat And The Canary -- a 129-page copy (for a 70-min Movie) -- consists of five dated versions, white and blue pages, between 22 March, 1939 and 29 May, 1939.

And what treasures did I find inside?  Some.  To be fair, most of the script is indeed the same as what you see on the screen.  Remember, this was Paramount -- a Studio -- in the 30s so there would have been little “change,” adlibbing and the like;  certainly on a project with as little budget/esteem as this.  (Remember, too, this was Hope’s first starring feature so he wasn’t Bob Hope yet.)  But, yes, I still found some fun things.

For instance, Aunt Cicily isn’t an "Aunt" in the Script.  Kinda, by blood, but she’s eighteen and has a crush on Wally.  Then there are two long scenes that were cut entirely.  Both are when everyone’s trying to say goodnight and Charlie, Fred & Wally take their turns telling Joyce to be careful.  Well, the first cut scene is Susan & Cicily talking to Joyce about the insanity in the family, and the second is Fred doing the same (the very end of his scene remains in the film with his, “Leave it to Charlie to get somewhere first”).  One can presume we the audience get that there’s a second heir, Joyce better keep her wits about her, and we didn’t need two additional scenes reminding us.  Most interestingly is it’s during the cut Fred scene -- intercut with it -- that Wally discovers the sponge in the closet (in the film that happens later when Joyce walks in on Charlie, Susan and Cicily conspiring).  Then there’s an interesting cut bit during the scene where Wally & Joyce are trying to make sense of what they’ve learned.  Talking about the necklace, Aunt Susan’s name comes up:

JOYCE
                                                      Say I’ve just remembered -- That necklace was originally
                                                      made for her!  As a bridal gift.

WALLY
                                                      A bridal gift?  Yeah.  She loved him -- but he changed his
                                                      mind.

“Him” being Old Man Cyrus.  (Looks like this cut was covered by Fred listening at the door.)  It gives us some insight as to why Susan’s more miffed than everyone else;  plus, I suppose, making her something of a red herring.  Then, lastly, there’s a button at the end.  It plays the same -- Wally proud to have discovered the foam rubber, thinking it’s part of The Cat’s mask, only to discover it’s really Joyce’s art eraser -- but here’s how the script plays out.  Caught by The Reporters hearing Joyce say so, Wally stammers to them, calling back the joke from his Intro:

WALLY
                                                      Oh - I was - I was just telling her about the farmer who had
                                                      a cow, but he couldn’t afford to feed it alfalfa, so he fed it
                                                      sawdust.  He saved money all right -- but he sure wasted a
                                                      lot of time --

THE THREE REPORTERS
                                                      (together they finish it for him)
                                    -- getting the splinters out of the milk.

WALLY
                                                                        (crushed)
                                                      The way these jokes get around.  I told that last night to one
                                                      Indian and now it’s all over town!

                  Joyce leans over and kisses him as we,

                  FADE OUT

Fun, right?  Now don’t go telling everyone about The Margaret Herrick Library, that’s our goldmine.  For now, we can continue with our Behind The Scenes …

‘Cause look who’s in there with Hope & Goddard!  George Zucco as the family lawyer, Gale Sondergaard as the housekeeper -- those two to do a few pictures with Hope -- Elizabeth Patterson as Aunt Susan -- yep, most famous as Mrs. Trumbull on I Love Lucy -- and William Abbey (uncredited but man is he there) as The Cat.  It still makes me laugh when Sondergaard, a medium, says to Hope, “There are spirits all around you!” to which he replies, “Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice?  I could really use it.”  And I still think it’s a particularly frightening shot when The Cat -- first his clawed hand then that masked visage -- creeps up from behind the chair in the library.  And did you recognize Chief Thundercloud as Hope’s Indian Guide at the beginning?  He was widely famous at the time for playing Tonto in the Lone Ranger Serials.  For him to undercut Hope’s joke by crediting it to Jack Benny is -- and especially was to audiences then -- hilarious.

John Beal (Fred Blythe in our movie today) remembers, “Nobody gives Bob credit for the extraordinary discipline and precision of his style.  It was a pleasure to play with Bob because he was always on top of things and, moreover, always there for his fellow actors.  He knew ensemble playing backwards and forwards and inspired people to give their best -- and when they did he saw to it they got their moment in the sun.”

Frank Nugent (no relation to our Director today) wrote in his original New York Times review (in part), “Since mystery melodramas laid in old dark houses are mostly nonsense anyway, Paramount has had the wit and wisdom to produce a nonsense edition of John Willard's old shocker.  Streamlined and played to the hilt for comedy, the new version is more harebrained than hair-raising, which is as it should be.  What goes on in the old Cyrus Norman house in the swamps should be no mystery to the mystery-story addict once he learns that Uncle Cyrus thoughtlessly had named a contingent beneficiary after willing his estate to Miss Goddard. What better invitation to murder could there be? Elliott Nugent has directed it smartly, taking full advantage of the standard chiller devices for frightening the susceptibles of his audience but never losing sight of his main objective:  comedy.  In Mr. Hope's hands and with the aid of Miss Goddard (who is getting better and better) and the others, the objective is carried briskly and to our complete satisfaction.  Good show.”

It was during a recent rewatch of The Cat And The Canary that put me on this path;  wanting to write these Top 5s.  Because I suddenly thought, “Well I love it, but how many others have even heard of it?”  So I decided to share with you a few of my favorites.  And, sure, Bob Hope is a name you’ve at least heard of, so I hope I get to introduce you to at least one or two of his you might not know.  Because -- “Are they any good?”  Well, this is the easy barometer -- I realized how well they hold up.  They’re still good.

               I hope you agree.



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