Having been adapted no less then three times previously, John Willard’s stage play, The Cat and the Canary, was picked up by Paramount as a starring vehicle for their young comic on the rise, Bob Hope. Joining Bob and decked out in Edith Head costumes is the photogenic, Paulette Goddard.

It’s a classic “reading of the will” thriller that delivers some genuine scares despite the participation of one of cinema’s greatest comedians in Hope. Deep in a Louisiana bayou, six possible heirs are assembled in an old mansion to see just who is to inherit a fortune in both land and a long lost jewel encrusted necklace. Presiding over the legalities as the family lawyer is a man familiar to haunted houses and horror movies, George Zucco, who is accompanied by the housekeeper, Gale Sondergaard in welcoming the possible heirs. Zucco and Sondergaard? Truly a pair of suspects in any wrong doing from the get go. Or perhaps red herrings?

Filling out the list of heirs beyond Hope and Miss Goddard are John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Elizabeth Patterson and Nydia Westman. Let’s not forget there’s a black cat roaming the house at will either for good measure.

Once the relatives arrive in the spooky surroundings of gator infested swamps by boat the clock strikes midnight prompting Zucco to read the will. It’s very simple. Miss Goddard is the sole heir but should she die within the first thirty days of ownership there is a second envelope naming the new heir by default. Sure sounds as if Paulette’s life is in peril.

From the outset Bob is cracking one liners which suits his character both on screen and off. He’s playing a radio voice actor/comedian and is convinced that someone will be out to do away with the girl of his dreams now that he’s seen her all grown up for the first time in years.

“Say, when did you grow up and get pretty?” he asks his leading lady.

With Bob referencing radio murder mysteries and an apparent crazed killer on the loose from a local asylum, nerves are on high alert and are only compounded by the disappearance of Zucco who has been eliminated from the possible wrong doers when he’s strangled by a mysterious hand protruding from a secret passageway.

Now about that necklace. Bob and Paulette find a riddle as to it’s whereabouts but the pair are under the watchful eyes of a painting which leads to more thrills and chills when that creepy looking hand is back reaching out for the gorgeous Goddard as she fades off to sleep with Bob on guard duty outside her door.

At a running time of just 74 minutes, this packs as many chills, thrills and laughs as it can into the allotted screen time under Elliott Nugent’s direction. It’s a fast pace that keeps you guessing as to who has murder on their mind up until the final showdown when Hope has to play hero to rescue the fair damsel from a very sharp knife.

And hey! There’s that cranky guy as a reporter at the fadeout who appeared in close to 400 movies and TV shows. Usually as a nasty crank. I am of course referring to Mr. Charles Lane.

And yeah, you know it going in that Bob’s gonna get the gal. Especially as this is 1939 and prior to his partnership with Bing Crosby. I loved it when Bing would crash the party and whisk away the likes of Virginia Mayo right out from under Bob’s “ski nose” in films released following the success of the Road pictures which began in 1940 with Road to Singapore.

For Hope enthusiasts it should be noted that he was just on the cusp of being a noted coward in his comedies. Here he hasn’t quite settled in on being a professional coward on screen though he is trembling and throwing out the odd self-deprecating remark. Still, he would hang in there to play the hero no matter the cost for years to come.

Paulette was on a great run of titles having just costarred with the legendary cast of The Women before joining Hope here and in another hilariously spooky effort, The Ghost Breakers. From there it was off to immortality with her then hubby, Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. She’d rejoin Hope for the trifecta in 1941 costarring with him in Nothing But the Truth. A solid run at the box-office between 1939 and ’41 for the New York born actress who passed away in 1990 at the age of eighty.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Cat and the Canary is beautifully photographed by cinematographer, Charles Lane. The craftsman was nominated for a total of 18 Academy Awards on titles including The Uninvited, Sudden Fear, Sabrina, Some Like it Hot and One-Eyed Jacks. His lone win was for 1934’s A Farewell to Arms.

If one wasn’t watching the opening credits with the Paramount logo or knowing it was released in ’39, this would fit right in with the Universal cycle of horror films released in the 1940’s. As a matter of fact if Hope hadn’t amounted to anything one could switch the logo on a bootleg edition and pair it with any number of Universal thrillers of the 1940’s like 41’s The Black Cat making it a Gale Sondergaard double feature or 42’s Night Monster.

As for this old chestnut from writer Willard, Cat and the Canary would be resurrected as late as 1978 when Radley Metzger filmed it as a straight up thriller starring Wilfrid Hyde-White and Honor Blackman among others.

Looking for a copy of the ’39 edition? It shouldn’t be too hard to locate on home video including a robust Bob Hope collection that features all three of the Hope/Goddard pairings.