Comedy-horror is often thought to be a relatively modern phenomenon but the genre hybrid has been around in cinema from the early days. The first examples were silent adaptations of plays, often ‘old-dark-house’ style mysteries that were amusingly over-the-top. As sound was introduced to films, these were often remade with dialogue. Later, when Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein was released in 1948, to great success, the genre enjoyed another boom. However, just before that, the old dark house comedies had one last taste of the limelight, when Paramount once again remade a couple of the old plays, with The Cat and the Canary in 1939 and The Ghost Breakers in 1940. Giving the scripts some modern twists and putting rising stars Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in the lead roles, the pair of films proved to be big hits.

Having celebrated classic Hollywood horror a lot over the past few years, with various collections and boxsets themed around the era, Eureka are casting the spotlight on this pair of transitional comedy-horrors, releasing The Cat and the Canary alongside The Ghost Breakers on a single Blu-ray, with a few extra features to sweeten the deal.

I accepted the invitation to the old dark house and my recollections follow.

The Cat and the Canary

Director: Elliott Nugent
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon, Lynn Starling
Based on a Play by: John Willard
Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard, Elizabeth Patterson, Nydia Westman, George Zucco
Country: USA
Running Time: 72 min
Year: 1939

The Cat and the Canary is based on a very popular Broadway play of the same name, released in 1922. It was already made into a silent film by Paul Leni in 1927, a version some consider to be the first Universal horror, as well as a sound remake in 1930. The play was even adapted once again in the 70s.

With all this exposure, not to mention the old dark house concept being used for countless films over the years, the narrative will seem very familiar. It opens with the family members of the late Cyrus Norman congregating at his spooky mansion in the Louisiana bayous, preparing to hear his last will and testament.

Heading proceedings is the executor of Cyrus’ estate, Mr. Crosby (George Zucco) and also lurking around is the cold house mistress Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard). Crosby soon reveals that Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard) will inherit the estate, but only on one condition. Due to the history of insanity in the Norman family, Cyrus asks that Joyce must stay sane for 30 days before obtaining her inheritance.

Whilst Joyce seems to be of perfectly sound mind, there’s a worry that the family members that didn’t get the inheritance they’d hoped for might conspire to either kill the young woman or frighten her into insanity during her first month in the old dark house.

Indeed, strange goings-on soon begin to happen in the mansion, aided by the nearby escape of a psychotic murderer known as ‘The Cat’. Thankfully, Joyce has a trusted friend, in the form of Wally Campbell (Bob Hope). He may not be the bravest man in the world, but Wally is more than happy to step up for the beautiful Joyce.

The familiarity of the narrative is actually played up in the film, with Hope making some post-modern cracks at the turns of events his character faces. This form of comedy helps the film from seeming too dated as well as adding to the charm. I wouldn’t say I was laughing out loud throughout The Cat and the Canary, but it’s consistently funny, if rather light.

That’s not to say the horror is lacking though. Whilst it’s all very tame by today’s standards, the film still manages to provide a few chills. There’s a classic ‘body in the cupboard’ moment that managed to give me a jolt. The finale is tense and exciting too.

It’s all atmospherically presented, with great use of light and shadow, as well as some impressive sets.

A lot of the film’s charm comes from the cast. Bob Hope is a household name now but he was best known as a radio presenter back then. Whilst this was not his first film, it could be considered his big break, due to its success. This success was well warranted too, with his wisecracks doing most of the comedy heavy lifting. His style also ushered in a more modern form of humour away from the silent comedy greats that had dominated previously.

Goddard matches his charm and the pair make an excellent double act, with strong chemistry together. Some of the rest of the cast are less charismatic, though Nydia Westman is a lot of fun as Cicily and Gale Sondergaard is suitably unsettling as Miss Lu.

Overall then, striking a nice balance between laughs and scares, The Cat and the Canary is a fun time at the movies. It’s all pretty breezy, so don’t expect belly laughs or nightmares, but it’s hard not to enjoy yourself during its brief running time.


The Ghost Breakers

Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon
Based on a Play by: Paul Dickey, Charles W. Goddard
Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Willie Best, Pedro de Cordoba
Country: USA
Running Time: 85 min
Year: 1940

The Ghost Breakers was, once again, based on a successful play, this time 1909’s The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard. The film was made to cash-in on the success of The Cat and the Canary and it too made a big splash at the box office.

It similarly begins with Paulette Goddard’s character (this time named Mary Carter) inheriting a big spooky house. It’s in Cuba, so Mary prepares to leave to inspect her new property and its estate.

However, she’s warned by her solicitor, Mr Parada (Paul Lukas), that the place is cursed and nobody who lives there ever survives for long. This doesn’t deter Mary, but after she receives a second warning from a mysterious man over the telephone, who soon ends up dead outside her apartment, she starts to worry.

Bob Hope gets involved at this point when his character, Larry, arrives at the same apartment block to face a gangster he’s badmouthed on his radio show. A series of mishaps causes Larry to think he’s killed the aforementioned stranger, so he hides in Mary’s trunk.

When he gets out, Larry finds himself headed for Cuba with Mary. The pair grow close and Larry promises to help clear the mansion of any vengeful spirits or living conspirators, alongside his faithful manservant, Alex (Willie Best).

Once again, The Ghost Breakers offers a nice blend of comedy and horror. This time it’s a little more separated and episodic perhaps, with the first half leaning heavier on the comedy and offering a gangster/mystery thriller story before going into classic horror territory for the final act. However, it’s no less enjoyable.

In fact, I think I found some of the gags even more effective here, though these are mixed with some less politically correct moments. You see, Alex is an uncomfortably stereotypical black character, being a rather foolish servant. As such, there are several jokes that don’t settle with modern sensibilities, but, for the era, it’s a substantial role for an actor of colour and he is undeniably funny, so his inclusion is welcome, on the whole. Best got high praise from some of the press too and Hope himself once called him the best actor he’d ever worked with. The pair have wonderful chemistry together, making for a winning double act that’s perhaps even stronger than that of Goddard and Hope in the film.

Goddard is still a pleasure to watch though and her character is tougher than your average 40s heroine. Her attitude is pointed out from the start when she describes the violent lightning storm she’s witnessing as “exciting”.

Once again, everything is packaged together in a suitably atmospheric fashion, with excellent production design and cinematography. The ghost effects are pretty good too, with the first apparition making a wonderfully creepy entrance.

So, whilst I didn’t find it quite as well balanced as The Cat and the Canary and there are some unfortunate racial stereotypes and slurs on screen, I still found The Ghost Breakers equally as enjoyable as its predecessor, possibly even more so.


The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers is out on 5th December on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The Cat and the Canary looks astonishingly clean and detailed for its age. The Ghost Breakers has a notably softer picture, for the most part, though it looks sharp in some sequences and still looks good overall, with minimal damage. Both films sound very good, considering their age, with quite a pleasing depth, considering the titles were made during the relatively early days of sync sound.


– Limited Edition slipcase (2000 copies)
– 1080p presentation of both films from scans of the original film elements supplied by Universal, with The Ghost Breakers presented from a new 2K master
– Optional English SDH
– Brand new audio commentary tracks on both films with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
– Kim Newman on “The Cat and the Canary” and “The Ghost Breakers”
– “The Ghost Breakers” 1949 radio adaptation
– Trailers
– Reversible sleeve featuring original poster artwork
– PLUS: A limited edition collector’s booklet (2000 copies) featuring new writing by Craig Ian Mann

The commentaries with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby are both very enjoyable, with plenty of fascinating facts being imparted about the cast, crew and production. For instance, the actor playing ‘Frenchy’ in Ghost Breakers was John Wayne’s acting coach and reportedly gave him his trademark walk! The pair of commentators also help listeners better appreciate the films’ qualities.

In his interview, Kim Newman talks about the history of ‘old dark house’ comedy-horror, The Cat and Canary and The Ghost Breakers. As usual, he’s a fountain of knowledge and talks enthusiastically on the subjects.

You also get a radio adaptation of The Ghost Breakers, if you want to hear a different spin on the material.

The booklet contains an interesting essay on the early days of the horror-comedy genre in Hollywood.

So, it’s a decent package from Eureka, giving a pair of fun and still occasionally creepy films a new lease of life. Recommended.


The Cat and the Canary & The Ghost Breakers - Eureka
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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