Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cats, Cuba, and Murder

by Diana Killian

Unlike Mr. Thrilling I can watch movies over and over. In fact, I like to write with old movies playing in the background. Music is way too distracting–I either start singing or, worse, I start dancing. Have you ever tried to type and dance at the same time? It is neither graceful nor efficient.

Two of my favorite background movies happen to star Bob Hope. You didn’t expect that, did you? You were probably thinking…HAUNTED SUMMER or something on those lines, right? (Actually, I did enjoy Haunted Summer, but even I don’t think about Romantic poets 24/7.)

As I’ve grown older (not A LOT older, mind) I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Bob Hope. Nope, he wasn’t startlingly handsome or particularly dashing–in fact, he got a lot of mileage from playing a wisecracking “coward,” but in his best roles he has moments of nice guy integrity where he faces up to his fears usually to help a beautiful dame.

“I don’t mind dying, but I hate the preliminaries.”



Naturally I love all the Road movies with Bing Crosby (my dad taught us all to sing dozens and dozens of Bing Crosby songs when we were young–and now he’s doing the same to the grand kids), but my favorite Bob Hope movies are a pair of comic mystery efforts–both with the beautiful Paulette Goddard.


“I’m shaking so hard the water in my knee just splashed.”


THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939)

I have a second generation version of this film–I was lucky to get any version because it is extremely rare and is not currently in print. I found my copy on ebay. There is an earlier version–and a later verison–neither of which I’ve seen.

Our story takes place way out in the Bayou in a creepy, isolated, mossy mansion inhabited only by the Creole housekeeper “Miss Lou” who sees spirits. And probably imbibes them. But now the remaining relations of Cyrus Norman have arrived ten years after his death for the reading of his will.

Note: Gale Sondergaard does a great job as Miss Lou–she’s always wonderful as these intense, teetering-on-the-edge-of-sanity women.

Hope is Wally Campbell a radio star and one of Cyrus’s nephews. Goddard is Joyce Norman–I trust they aren’t first cousins. There are plenty of cracks about the streak of insanity that runs in the family, and apparently it’s not all funning, because the condition of old man Norman’s will is that if his sole heir should be found insane within a month of inheriting, a second heir (whose name is in a sealed envelope) will receive everything, no questions asked.

So…everyone seems pretty happy for Joyce (apparently the ramshackle state of the house is no indication of Norman’s vast fortune–or maybe it is) although a couple of folks mention that the terms of the will are an invitation to murder. Two nephews are smitten with Joyce–and that’s even before she inherits all the alligators in a ten mile radius–and Wally shows a decided interest, although he’s eager to escape the house as soon as possible and shows that wiseacre streak that tells a girl he won’t be a pushover for her charms.

I should mention that Cyrus has left a letter for Joyce about treasure (a diamond and emerald necklace) hidden in the garden.

Got all that?

MEANWHILE a crazed killer called The Cat, who slashes his victims to death with his long claw-like fingernails, has escaped from the local insane asylum. He’s believed to be in the near vicinity. Like the cellar.

Mr. Crosby, the lawyer, suggests that no one tell “the girls” about the crazed killer on the loose, because it might make them nervous. Uh huh. Wally doesn’t reveal the confidence, but he does warn Joyce to keep her eyes open. That’s how we know he’s starting to fall for her, since being a radio personality we can safely assume he’s essentially self-absorbed.

Hope has a lot of great lines, although this is definitely a film that could be remade even funnier and spookier–from what I understand the last remake was a bit weak. Carol Lynley. Need I say more?

In an odd reversal, Mr. Crosby (the lawyer) warns Joyce that she’s in great danger (but in that oblique hinting way that doomed informants prefer) and then he’s murdered. We know he’s murdered, but Joyce has her back turned to him and doesn’t see him hauled off into the secret passage.

(There is a very scary scene in the library when the thing in the secret passage nearly gets Joyce too.)

Joyce is one of these super-pretty, down-to-earth all American girls–a little excitable once the weirdness starts–but overall as sane as any chick in the 30s. She and Wally join forces and and set out to find who killed the lawyer and is now trying to drive Joyce over the edge.

Portraits with eyes that move, secret passages, buried treasure, maniacs, spirits–I needn’t explain why I like this movie. Still, even I can see there are a lot of holes in it. It’s still fun–with some genuinely spooky moments. Hope and Goddard make a great team–which brings us to:


THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)
With a bigger budget and better script, this was a successful follow up to the Hope/Goddard 1939 comedy thriller “The Cat and the Canary.”

Mary Carter inherits her family’s ancestral home on small Black Island located off Cuba (back in the days when you weren’t arrested for traveling to Cuba–and what is with that, by the way? We can travel to Red China and the USSR, but not Cuba?). The film kicks off with an eerie electrical storm over New York–which Mary loves, so we know she is a spunky gal and not afraid of the dark–which is lucky, because apparently there is no electricity on Black Island. AND, by the way, Mary’s ancestral home is a castle AND it is reputed to be haunted. I’m thinking about the plumbing in a place like that…ugh. Now THAT’S frightening.

Anyway, despite outlandishly high offers for the decrepit homestead–not to mention dire warnings and a death threat or two, Mary is determined to proceed to Cuba. MEANWHILE, radio commentator and personality (to spare) Larry Lawrence has run afoul of the local mob boss. He winds up believing he has killed one of Frenchie Duval’s gunmen, and decides he needs to get out of New York fast–and the fastest way is in Mary’s trunk.

There are some very funny bits with the trunk and on board the Cuba-bound ship, but not so funny are the attempts on Mary’s life. One thing leads to another, and Larry, despite his instinct for self-preservation, decides that Mary needs his protection. Or at least his company–despite the fact that she meets a handsome and debonair acquaintance, Jeff Montgomery, who is probably more her type, anyway. But this is how we know Bob is the true gent. Even though he suspects he is not going to wind up with Mary, he still intends to see her through.

Bob Hope (as one would expect since he is the star of this movie) has most of the good lines–though not all. Mary’s role is fun. She’s scared but persistent and she’s good at the wisecracks even when shaken.

Another plus in this one is the role of Alex, Larry’s black manservent. Like Larry, he does his very best to avoid death and danger, but he is loyal to Larry and he generally shows more commonsense (Alex is the one who figures out that Larry is not a killer).

Anyway, Larry and Alex and Mary arrive on Cuba and head for the island where some genuinely scary things happen–the first time I saw this movie, I was about eleven, and I thought it was GREAT!!! Ghosts, voodoo, zombies, a spooky castle and a vein of silver as wide as the island itself–THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!!

Originally based on a play by Paul Dickey and Charles Goddard, this was remade as SCARED STIFF with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in the 1950s. The remake is amusing too, but the pace is slowed by all these extra gags for Jerry Lewis that go on and on and on. (Yes, I know he’s a considered a genius in France.) However, in the interests of full disclosure, each and every one of my nieces and nephews have found Lewis’s Carmen Miranda take-off to be side-splitting stuff.

And your famous vintage comic mystery move is….?