The Cat and the Canary

By Randall D. Larson

The Cat and the CanaryElliott Nugent’s archetypal thriller is a stagey but extremely entertaining treatment of what’s become a familiar concept: a group gathers for the reading of a will in a mysterious old house and one by one they begin to die. Based on John Willard’s oft-filmed 1922 play, this most satisfying cinematic treatment is a remake of Paul Leni’s silent classic of 1927. Leni’s version, a classic of German expressionism brought to Hollywood, is considered to be the cornerstone of Universal’s original school of horror and set the stage (so to speak) for innumerable “old dark house” films to come. Universal’s 1930 remake, directed by Rupert Julian as THE CAT CREEPS, has unfortunately been lost; a colorful and star-studded 1979 remake was filmed in England by Radley Metzger but is not well regarded.

For all its creaky age the 1939 film is extremely entertaining, mostly due to the vitality of its cast – Bob Hope provides a great semi-comic turn as the hero in his first leading role, with some very good comic and dramatic nuances to his character. Paulette Goddard makes a very natural and likable heroine, and they have great chemistry together. Gale Sondergaard is appropriately enigmatic and delightfully creepy as the mysterious housekeeper, Miss Lu, with Nydia Westman very funny as the slightly loony niece Cicily, effective playing off of a straight-laced Elizabeth Patterson as Aunt Susan. George Zucco opens the show as Mr. Crosby, the lawyer who reads the will, and is always wonderful and slightly mysterious. Bolstered by a first rate musical score by Ernst Toch, the film is a very entertaining and very theatrical old fashioned comic horror film.

Toch’s score revolved around a variety of essentially nonthematic action motifs, along with a splendidly melodic romance theme. The violin performances in the action music are especially energetic and driving, as is the string soloing in the love theme. To my knowledge the score has never been recorded, but a thorough enjoyment of the score can be had while watching the film (released on DVD in 2007) as there are several sustained action sequences powered by music with little sound effects and no dialog.

The score opens with a very theatrical flourish of orchestra that introduces a short Main Title sequence. After its heraldic flourish, the music segues into a pretty but intricate and slightly exotic melody for strings, growing in power and eventually becoming very dramatic and interesting. It’s a very compelling opening which promises mystery and suspense, as well as a few laughs.

The House, The Woman, The Guests

The Title music gives way to a gentle mysterioso as the story opens with New Orleans lawyer Mr. Crosby (George Zucco) sitting in a boat being rowed by an Indian Guide (George Regas). They traverse the Louisiana bayou and arrive at a mysterious mansion, accessible only by boat, hidden deep within the swamp. Sight of the mansion is greeted by a four-note heraldic motif from light horns. The motif carries an air of regal mystery, at once a feeling of majesty and of decay, as in the appearance of the mansion itself.

Wicked chords from the same light horns blare as we see a mysterious woman – Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard) – looking out a mansion window at the boat. The tone of the music clearly identifies her as unsavory and potentially dangerous. A second cut-away to the woman peering out the window reprises the same orchestral stinger.

Brusque footsteps of fast-paced strings, playing a quick two-step rhythm, accompanies Crosby’s landing on the porch of the decaying mansion. This motif grows in power until he reaches the front door, and then subsides as his loud raps on the door echo across the veranda.

The Cat and the Canary

Crosby is greeted by the mysterious and subdued housekeeper, Miss Lu. We realize that Crosby is a lawyer who is here to read the will of millionaire Cyrus Norman, who died ten years ago and has specified that his relatives gather ten years afterwards for the unveiling of his will. A diverse group has indeed gathered: the dowdy Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson) and her companion, niece Cicily (Nydia Westman), a pair of cousins, amiable Charlie (Douglass Montgomery) and gruff and dour Fred (John Beal), charming daughter Joyce (Paulette Goddard), and cocky famous actor Wally Campbell (Bob Hope).

Lights flicker as guests arrive, accompanied by an eerie tonality, almost Theremin-like. “They get into the machinery,” Miss Lu states. “Don’t big empty houses scare you?” Cicily asks Wally as the group dishes up for dinner. “Not me, I used to be in vaudeville!” Wally quips.

The will is read, but to the disappointment of the others, it reveals Joyce to be the sole heir. However, a stipulation is made because of a streak of insanity known to run through his family: a second will has been made in case Joyce falls victim to it. Fred is concerned that this puts the heir in danger since the second heir has every reason now to see that Joyce succumbs to insanity – or worse. Crosby states that the name of the second heir is sealed in an envelope so no one will know who it is and no one, consequently, would have the motive to harm Joyce.

Thus the stage is set for mysterious adventures and macabre intrigue. Especially when Mr. Crosby, opening the safe earlier with Miss Lu, realized that the envelopes containing the names of both heirs had been opened… and resealed, by person or persons unknown. Especially when seven weird gongs are heard from upstairs, and Miss Lu announces that it means that one of the eight of them… will die. Especially when a mysterious envelope from daddy Cyrus is handed to Joyce by Miss Lu with instructions to open it later that night. And, especially, when Hendricks, local law officer (John Wray), shows up outside to warn them that a homicidal maniac called The Cat has escaped from a nearby asylum and is reported to be lurking somewhere on the grounds. All of this is impacted by the fact that no one can leave until the following day when the daily boat returns.

Toch provides plenty of musical moments to accentuate these suspenseful activities and story points. An eerie reverbed tonality exudes from the orchestra as the lights flicker after the reading of the will, as group is preparing for bed. Glissando-like upsurges of spritely woodwinds take flight over a pavement of innocuous string activity as Joyce considers the puzzling envelope Miss Lu gave her, unaware that she is being watched by someone behind the portrait, whose eyes peer out in place of the painted eyes. The brazen, ascending pipings call out attention to a potential danger that Joyce does not see. In marked contrast, a repeated descent of woodwind glissandi are heard when Joyce picks up a book entitled The Psychology of Fear – perhaps evidence that someone may be studying up on how to frighten someone… or drive them mad? The ascent/descent of this pair of motifs is very effective, and builds the story’s sense of intrigue and mystery.

As clues mount, Toch accentuates each one dramatically. While this is certainly not a cartoon-styled score, the music is used at least in the film’s first half in a cartoonlike manner, to emphasize and call attention to various visual elements. It’s not a subtle score.

Ongoing Mysteriousness

The Cat and the CanaryLater in the drawing room, Joyce is visited by Mr. Crosby who comes to warn her of something. But before he can do so, while Joyce is facing away, a secret door in the bookcase swings inward and a hand grasps Crosby and pulls him into the darkness within. The secret door slides shut and Joyce is mystified by the lawyer’s disappearance. Toch leaves the snatching of the lawyer unscored, but effectively casts its aftermath in a subdued acoustic glow of ambient strings, accentuated with woodwind filigrees as Joyce reflects in the drawing room. Later, after fending off the unbelief of the others (all except Wally) about her assertion that Crosby vanished, Joyce reflects alone in the drawing room. Toch’s mysterious violin tonalities shimmer in the windowed moonlight as, unseen by Joyce, the bookcase door glides open. She doesn’t see the mysterious figure of madman The Cat emerge from the bookcase door and silently approach her through the shadows. But something panics her all the same; the music crescendos with a jarring blare of horns as Joyce darts out of the room in panic. Blaring horns crash in as the figure recedes back into the passageway.

Mysterious sinewy strings resound as Ms Lu, while bringing into fresh linens for Joyce’s room, finds a pistol hidden in the dresser drawer. Strings and winds sound faintly as she empties the gun of bullets and replaces it; an eerie high vocal ambiance floats above the orchestra, spooky and shrill.

Joyce meets up with Wally and reads the mysterious letter. It guides them to a secret panel in an outdoor fountain, wherein they find a valuable jeweled necklace. Unseen, The Cat is watching them from the shadows. So is Toch’s brief rhythmic warble from gathering woodwinds, signifying danger. A nondescript string motif accompanies them back to the house, pausing briefly for a couple of daggers from violin as we cut back to The Cat, moving away into the shadows, and then the strings blossom into a gorgeous lyrical love theme as Joyce and Wally take necklace back to her bedroom and she puts it on. The melody, hinted at earlier when they found the necklace hidden at the fountain, becomes a lilting and gently elated melody, made up of a repeated six-note melody layered over and over itself, growing in intensity, a melody full of promise and full of the likelihood of young love between Joyce and Wally. The theme softens poignantly as Wally moves close to Joyce, a melodic chaperon tenderly bringing the two of them together. But their moment of idyll is interrupted by a movement in the curtains; Toch reintroduces his violin suspense music – the same fast-paced two-note string motif we heard when Crosby arrived at the mansion; here the motif generates some suspenseful energy through a cyclic repetition of rapid clusters of high register violin bowing, again layered on one another in quick succession as Wally carefully approaches the curtains and crashes a chair into the curtains – and the window behind them – to reveal no hidden villain but… Miss Lu’s house cat. By now it’s a tired cliché of old dark house movies, but in 1939 it was still somewhat fresh, and Toch’s musical effervescence gives it a nice sparkle.

The Cat and the CanaryToch reprises a pretty version of the Love Theme for violins as Joyce kisses Wally goodnight (his reaction is priceless) and dresses for bed. A sour stinger intrudes momentarily as we cut to The Cat watching from a cistern. Lyrical solo violin tucks her into bed, and then a shimmering vibrato of strings, punctuated by descending arpeggios of xylophone, as we cut away to show the doorknob turning and the key falling quietly onto the floor, effectually locking the door from the inside. Strands of sinewy, eerie violins sound as Joyce puts book away, takes off the jeweled necklace and puts it under her pillow, and lays her head down to sleep… as a behind her bed slowly opens… This is the classic hand-out-of-the-bedroom-panel scene that most audiences associate with the film’s title, and is a deliciously creepy moment, nicely accentuated by the musical score.

As the hand creeps closer to Joyce’s face, the music becomes more urgent; willowy whistles of flutes, furtive flurries of violin, rising in force and assertiveness until Joyce opens her eyes, sees the hand before her face – proclaimed as it is by strong intonations of brass – and then she screams and lurches from the bed. A mélange of melodic, descending violin figures prompts her across the floor but she finds the door locked. Repeated ferocious strokes of violin stab at her panic until she faints, a single hollow echo of low tympani signaling her entrapment.

Interestingly, the musical motif here is very much like what Bernard Herrmann will accomplish twenty-one years hence in PSYCHO, with repeated albeit less staccato birdlike shrieks of stabbing violins as Joyce pulls and pounds on the door, culminating in a deep, declarative downward bass chord – this from a reverberated rumble of timpani versus Herrmann’s deep celli – as she sinks to the floor.

As group comes to investigate, and Joyce discovers the jeweled necklace missing, the music swirls up as Wally investigates the wall and a hidden cord. Cyclonic violin notes summon up a cool panic as he pulls it, a large wall panel next to bed opens, and body of Mr. Crosby tilts out, crashing to floor.

Everyone runs out and retreats to their own bedrooms. Wally comforts Joyce as a rising mysterioso wafts through the room and he determines to return to the body get the envelope containing the name of the second heir out of Crosby’s pocket – whoever the second heir is has undoubtedly opened the envelope prior to Crosby’s arrival and that individual is clearly intent on harming Joyce so that he can claim the inheritance as stipulated in the will. A vibrant horn melody enters in as we see someone hiding behind door, who konks the unsuspecting Willy on the head. We return to Joyce in her room, where rising string figures accentuate her worry. She goes after Wally and finds him passed out on floor, as the violins crumple into a low descent.

The Cast in the Walls

As the film draws into its third act, Nugent’s directing begins intercutting faster between the characters. Toch’s music likewise becomes more continuous, deriving a potent sense of forward movement and livid panic as heroes and heroines alike are confronted by villainy and the mystery of who is behind it is played out.

Somewhere along the line the upstairs gong strikes six… suggesting, Miss Lu points out, that one of the remaining seven is slated to die next. Also, Joyce is reassured to find the pistol in the dresser, but she notices it is empty of bullets; Wally finds some in a cabinet and reloads it. Wally continues to be level headed while supporting Joyce; others of the group choose to argue or accuse. Faint violin figures, echoing the fast paced arpeggios from before, as Wally investigates Joyce’s bedroom, careful not to get konked again. The music sparks pronouncedly as the panel in wall opens… we cut to the drawing room where Joyce waits, and the camera pans to the portrait on wall, where once again eyes are peering out, watching her. As before, Toch punctuates this with a blaring chord of brass and strings and prominent arpeggios from xylophone. A bold brass melody enters in as the false front bookcase opens. Joyce watches it open in mirror and grabs the gun in the dresser drawer. After warning whoever might be in the passageway that she has a gun, she goes in.

Meanwhile Wally calls her from the other room – but she hears his voice coming from within the wall passageway (the two openings are evidently collected), and proceeds ahead. As she does so, a shadowy hand pulls a lever and the bookcase wall eases closed behind her. Panicky clusters of violin flit about as Joyce pounds on wall, unable to open it back up. She is trapped inside the walls. Defiantly, though, pointing the gun ahead of her, she continues onward, prompted by confident statements from brass. The music silences briefly as we see the shadowy Cat figure, his face misshapen and masklike, creeping along the same walled corridor, and then the music is back with Joyce; a myriad of panicky, fast-stroked violin notes grow in force as she moves ahead; a flashlight beam shines around a corner behind her, punctuated by a few scattered xylophone notes; crashing brass chords as camera cuts to The Cat scurrying along. A prominent horn intonation emphasizes a cut-away showing Hendricks, the guard, hiding in the shadows as Joyce passes by him. The Cat comes up and proceeds to follow Joyce, menacingly, but Hendricks suddenly accosts him, and takes what proves to be Joyce’s jeweled necklace (The Cat, Hendrick’s stooge, having stolen it for him from beneath her pillow the night his hand came out of the wall panel). “Scaring people is one thing, but murder is another!” Hendricks tells the madman, preventing him from going after Joyce and holding the stolen treasure tight. But then The Cat stabs Hendricks with a knife. An exuding shriek of brass, descending by chords into deep, and crushing blows converge as the cop sinks to the floor and The Cat takes back the necklace.

Final Confrontation

The Cat and the CanaryToch’s furtive string figures resume as Joyce continues on, unaware of what’s just transpired with Hendricks. The Cat prowls after her. The passageway opens out into the garden via a hidden door in the ground. Joyce emerges, but as she pushes open the heavy door she loses pistol. A descent of muted brass notes accompanies a cut-away showing Ms Lu holding a rifle, watching her. Joyce turns, sees The Cat coming, and runs off towards the mansion. The music grows fiercer, shouts of brass join the fray of ferociously bowing violins, and an eerie vocal sonority resonates as Joyce sees the Cat emerge from the passageway in the ground, like a member of the shrouded, awakened undead. She hides inside a shed and blocks door with a table. Trumpet figures sound solidly as The Cat tries to crash through the door, they blare with a triumphant rage as he breaks in and confronts Joyce with an open switchblade knife. Strings and brass interplay menacingly and with increasing force as Joyce backs away. The Cat bears down on her… then the music gives way to allow us to hear Wally warning, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you… Charlie!”

The Cat is indeed wearing a mask. On hearing his name, he removes it and the shining face of step-brother Charlie emerges, a grimace spoiling his former cheer.
“You robbed me of my inheritance!” he spits out at Joyce. “I was dad’s favorite, I should have been his heir. I am the next heir!” As he threatens them with a knife, the music grows in a sudden forceful panic. Wally picks up a barrel to throw at him, but Charlie throws his knife at Wally, pinning him to the wall. Joyce screams and a surging swirling of strings emphasizes her panic as Charlie comes for her. The music gives way once again, this time for Miss Lu who enters with her rifle and yells for him to “stop!”
“I’ve been waiting ten years for this,” she hisses at Charlie. “You poisoned old man Norman’s mind against me! I’ve always hated you! Now I’ve got you. Don’t come any closer!” Toch’s brass intones resolutely as the Cat continues towards Miss Lu. A shot rings out and he falls. The rest of the group, hearing the shots, arrives to see what has happened, and the scene fades out with Wally pulling the knife out of the wall and freeing himself.

Coda and Credits

Fade in to a bright and cheerful next day. A boat has brought police and reporters to the island in the swamp to sort out the night’s crimes. Joyce and Wally, arm in arm, embark on the boat with a gaggle of reporters and return to the mainland, having given the mansion to Miss Lu, who waves back at them, a warm smile now replacing her former menacing countenance. Toch’s Love Theme swells up as Wally and Joyce embrace, dismissing the reporters’ questions. The lyrical music spills into an End Title, crescendoing in a very theatrical manner, with the Love Theme reprising briefly over a final End Cast card, culminating in a very resolute statement of the Love Theme’s final chords, and we fade to black.

Music really adds a lot to this film, enlivening some of its stagier moments and building a great sense of urgency, panic, romance, and suspense. Everything a Hollywood thriller needs. Ernst Toch is regrettably fairly unremembered in the modern annals of movie music purveyors of the period. But his music here – along with his score for the following year’s DR. CYCLOPS and GHOST BREAKERS (the latter reuniting Hope and Goddard in a very similar storyline) – demonstrates how proficiently he practiced his craft and how memorable these early scores are. His music for THE CAT AND THE CANARY is a first-rate romantic thriller score that develops, through thematic repetition and an array of complicated and energetic action music, into an effective and progressive accompaniment for the film’s visual nuances and its twists and turns of plot.

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