Grade: B+
Not rated (would be PG)

If your family enjoyed Knives Out, you also might be entertained by an early entry in the self-conscious light mystery genre.

In The Cat and the Canary (1939)—based on a 1921 stage play by the same name—comedian Bob Hope plays it mostly straight, an actor without the ham in this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a dash of horror. A year later, hitting the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope would develop his famous persona as a bumbling coward of a second banana to Crosby’s straight man, but in this one he’s less goofy and more believable as a love interest for Paulette Goddard. Hope is a considerably more suave and in control than later characters he’ll play, and as a result viewers find themselves focused more on the atmosphere and plot.

The Cat and the Canary was so popular that Hope and Goddard would team up for a second haunted house picture in 1940—The Ghost Breakers, which isn’t recommended for family viewing because of offensive outdated cultural stereotypes. The sets and gimmicks from both films would provide the inspiration for Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

There are revolving bookcases, secret panels, and a Louisiana bayou mansion that wasn’t exactly prime real estate even before it fell into decrepit disrepair. Why would anyone visit now, especially when you have to be paddled there by various canoeists? As it turns out, all are relatives and named parties to attend the ceremonial reading of the will, according to instructions left by a reclusive millionaire who died 10 years ago. The deceased specified that his will must be read exactly at midnight, of course. One more thing: worried that insanity might run in the family, the eccentric recluse specified that the one bearing his surname (Norman) will inherit everything. But there’s a catch. If the named heir, Joyce Norman (Goddard), goes crazy before 30 days have passed, then a second replacement heir will be read from a second sealed envelope.

Kind of makes you want to run the other direction, right? Except that the canoe paddlers don’t operate late at night (they must have a strong union). But how else can you ensure that everyone has to spend the night in this spooky place?

Gale Sondergaard is delightfully creepy as the rich man’s housekeeper, and those summoned include two eccentric little old ladies (Nydia Westman, Elizabeth Patterson), two gentlemanly would-be suitors (John Beal, Douglass Montgomery), and a wisecracking actor (Hope) who shares a brief high-school past with Joyce.

It’s all very campy, and as Hope’s character reminds everyone throughout the film it features all the tropes of a theatrical or radio mystery, including a big black cat, an alligator-infested bayou that functions as a moat, hidden doors, flickering lights, secret passageways, hinged bookcases, a graveyard, a creepy hand that reaches out, paintings with eyes that move, and an escaped homicidal inmate from the local insane asylum. But I can tell you right now that the butler didn’t do it . . . because there is no butler.

It all adds up to some unexpected fun, and I say unexpected because this film came out in 1939, when the closest thing to family viewing was The Wizard of Oz. But if you’ve been to Disney World and the kids can tolerate old black-and-white films, this one makes for a pretty good evening’s entertainment. And don’t worry about jump scares. Compared to today’s horror-slasher films, this one is pretty tame.

Kind of like Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

Entire family: Maybe (though it might not hold the attention of really young ones)
Run time: 75 min. (Black and white)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Bonus features: C
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some frightening situations)

Language: 0/10—The old movies are refreshingly clean-cut

Sex: 0/10—I don’t count a couple of innocent pecks on the lips

Violence: 2/10—The most serious thing a stabbing in the back, but it’s not graphically shown; apart from that, one person is found dead

Adult situations: Nothing really noticeable except for Hope’s character briefly lighting a cigar but then tossing it into the bayou (and an alligator’s mouth)—presumably the whole point of the joke

Takeaway: Keep your arms and legs inside the attraction at all times. And enjoy the ride.