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The Cat and The Canary

A new Bob Hope box set from Universal packages the long unavailable 1939 version of “The Cat and the Canary,” directed by Elliott Nugent, along with two other early Hope comedies not previously released on DVD: George Archainbaud’s 1938 “Thanks for the Memory,” a follow-up to Hope’s star-making turn in Mitchell Leisen’s “Big Broadcast of 1938” that reunites him with Shirley Ross, and Nugent’s “Nothing But the Truth” (1941), which pairs Hope with Paulette Goddard for the third and final time.

The set, titled the “Thanks for the Memories Collection,” includes three re-issues: George Marshall’s 1940 sort-of-sequel to the hugely successful “Cat,” “The Ghost Breakers” (it’s the same old transfer, unfortunately, for a film that could have used a new one); David Butler’s “The Road to Morocco” (1942), probably the best sustained of the often bumpy “Road” pictures; and Norman Z. McLeod’s “The Paleface” (1948), a western burlesque that occasionally reveals the hand of co-screenwriter Frank Tashlin (who would direct the far superior sequel, “Son of Paleface,” in 1951).

Hope doesn’t get much love these days, perhaps because his removed, wisecracking style — he’s always slightly distanced from the material, and even from the characters he’s supposed to be playing — has been so widely influential that it’s difficult to appreciate his originality. But the man was a star for 50 years — in a career that parallels John Wayne’s, in its length and evolutionary stages — and there must have been a reason for that. Further thoughts here in the New York Times.

169 comments to The Cat and The Canary

  • Dave —

    The Korean film industry these days is operating mostly in slow gear. Even established directors typically (have to) work at a rather slow pace. The production money just is not plentiful enough.

    Japan, on the other hand, still sustains a much more vigorous film business — and some high quality “commercial” directors can work at a pretty steady (and fairly rapid) pace. The problem in Japan is limited exhibition opportunities — apparently many more films are made than can get even moderately wide releases. The West sees only a fraction of Japan’s current output (and many quite good films get overlooked).

  • Gregg Rickman

    Mike, you and I both would be “very interested in … personal observations and picks of good directors in the lower depths of post-1968 commercial film and TV” but I have seen too little television to even begin to judge, beyond random observations: Hunter’s work is consistently good, I felt Ernest Dickerson directed the one so-so episode of TREME to date, and so on. Dave, I admire the effort you, Dan Sallitt (whose website I keep up on) and others devote to sifting the dreck for the gold of possible creativity in increasingly adverse conditions. A friend of mine recommends James Wong (who’s done a couple of the FINAL DESTINATION films) as highly talented as well. Thanks for the tip about David Twohy – any relation to Ellsworth Tooey, the evil architecture critic of THE FOUNTAINHEAD?

  • jbryant

    Twohy’s BELOW is a super little genre item. It’s a fair ghost story, a good character drama and an often brilliant submarine action tale. I don’t know if it will have the staying power of Val Lewton’s stuff, but I have no problem mentioning them in the same breath.

    Re GUN CRAZY: I’m too lazy to get up and check my DVD, but haven’t the opening credits been revised to give Trumbo his due?

  • Thanks for the elucidation on Japan and Korea, Michael. Are there any names or titles we should be looking out for from Japan? The New York Asian Film Festival is coming up here beginning June 25, and their programmers seem to be very good at ferreting out the most interesting commercial work from that part of the world. This year’s schedule is online here; any recommendations or comments you might have would be most welcome.

  • Alex Hicks

    Yeah, Mike, the great transparent narratives (FALCON, ETERNITY) of film art though their style be too transparent to evoke “style” and those styles’ subserviance to material too pure to reflect much personal expressiveness besides affinity for the material selected.

    The director of the great transparent narrative –ableit an adaptation– as artist too.

    Film authorship as the selection and orchestration of materials as well as the development of each element–all the better if for authorship if the director can be producer and/or writer as well — Serge Diaghilev and/or Stravinsky– as well as Fokine.

    Film quality as a function of film elements as well as of their orchestration –of Toland and Mankiewisz as well as Welles, of Rennehan and Cameron Menzies and Dudley Nichols as well as Wood.

  • Dave —

    I wrote a lengthy response to your query above — but it got trashed by a computer glitch. I’ll try again (writing it offline — and then cutting and pasting it into a response here) — but probably not tonight.

    As to NYAFF, though, I recommend Miwa Nishikawa’s “Dear Doctor” (which I was able to see on DVD). I don’t think I’ve seen anything else on the schedule.

  • Brian Dauth

    The problem with dismissing attempts at reclamation is that to do so can end up ignoring shifts in cultural/aesthetic consciousness that occur over time. First by accident and then by design, I became a champion of the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. I did not see what I was doing as engaging in an act of reclamation – for me it was bringing queer and other new critical approaches to a director who now appears as an important transitional figure in cinema – an artist in command of modernist techniques who also explores the range of film’s postmodern possibilities. JLM could evoke Hollywood spectacle and at the same time warn his audience against its pitfalls. Far from being less than meets the eye, Mankiewicz’s work is a feast for modernist/queer/postmodern eyes (and ears) that simultaneously celebrate and deconstruct sound and image (hence JLM’s importance for Godard and Fassbinder).

    As for Sarris’ canon: I knew of it, but before I read it, I had been reading him the Village Voice for years. I remember one column where he commented that he had been asked how often he reviewed his earlier judgments, and he stated that he did so all the time. So when I finally read The American Cinema, I engaged it as a canon-in-formation, important for what it said about cinephilia in 1968, but in need of continuous recalibration as time passed.

    There will be no more auteurs in the mode of Hawks, Ford, or Cukor. The production conditions under which they produced their work no longer exist. With the passing of these conditions into history, we now create auteurs in a new way. In fact, directors now seek to be directors in the mode of an auteur, an approach that would not have occurred to the earlier generation. Following Dave K., the work of filmmakers from Asia comes closest to me as being in the idiom of the originary auteurs. There is also Eastwood, Almodovar, Van Sant, and a few others who seem to be able to work with enough frequency to qualify as old school auteurs, and maintain a through-line in the their work. But I think the days of a director making two, even three movies a year are gone, and with them the ability for directors to work on/refine their craft and their “vision” on a regular basis. I find that these caesurae in directors’ careers, often leads to their films taking on the often ponderous status of objets d’art: thought about, worked over for so many years, that by the time these labors of love are made and see the light of day, they are overloaded with ornateness. Kubrick may be one of the few directors who found this pace of production conducive, but I think it deforms not only the careers, but also the talents of a great many film artists. Just like those of an athlete, the skills of an artist get rusty when not regularly exercised. How can personal expression exist in an art work, if artists are not given the chance to develop both it and the ability to communicate it?

    As for the NYAFF, I cannot wait to see ACTRESSES by E. J-Yong referred to as Korea’s Cukor. How could I resist?

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Japan, on the other hand, still sustains a much more vigorous film business — and some high quality “commercial” directors can work at a pretty steady (and fairly rapid) pace. The problem in Japan is limited exhibition opportunities — apparently many more films are made than can get even moderately wide releases.’

    That is true about release problem. From last fiscal year there is decline of distribution because distribution companies have made bad investment in DVD production. Some companies failed. But also not so many movies made this year as last year (for fiscal period.)

    Korean film industry has different finance system from American movie, more like Japan.

    There is foreign investment in Korean film industry from Japan, France, Australia and New Zealnd.

    There is market for Korean movie in Japan, also Korean TV soap opera especially popular in Japan and throughout East Asia. Korean TV production is strong for soap opera and historical drama. Korean movie directors making TV episode, so some are working in that medium.

    I think equal this year between Japanese and Korean production.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Throw in Charles Vidor as someone worthy of reevaluation, as least in the initial stages of his career.

    I just rewatched The Arizonian, his 1935 RKO western early in his career, from a Dudley Moore script.

    The film is full of visual delights – some terrific tracking shots, many involving a long bar a decade or more before My Darling Clementine and The Gunfighter. But what really excited me was the last 20 minutes, involving action in which Willie Best is shot down being heroic, Edna McDaniel (Hattie’s sister) provides the coup de grace, and the climactic shootout done in a smoky haze where the good guys and bad guys can’t see each other (or we see what is going on until it’s over).

    Several of Vidor’s films in the next few years also seem to be solid – Blind Alley, The Lady in Question, Ladies in Retirement, The Tuttles of Tahiti, The Desperadoes – before he “elevated” into Columbia costume musicals (which I need to resee). Gilda, for some reason, is less credited to him than Casablanca to Curtiz, but it more than ever doesn’t seem to exist in a vacuum.

    I have access to most of his films (the missing ones are of course his late 30s Paramount period), and am going to check a bunch of them out in the next couple weeks.

  • Blake Lucas

    This is an addition to the above post by Tom, though I know Charles Vidor has come up before.

    First, I support Tom’s evocation of THE ARIZONIAN, as stylish and interesting as he says and one of the best 30s Westerns before STAGECOACH–IMO on a par with several good films in the genre by his namesake King Vidor, made during that decade, specifically BILLY THE KID and THE TEXAS RANGERS.

    It cannot be stressed enough that he made one of the masterpieces of American cinema in the 40s–GILDA–and one of the masterpieces of American cinema in the 50s–LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME. And though plainly products of different periods they have a lot in common in treating adult relationships with some depth and tough-mindedness and without cliche but are not depressing and do work as melodramas, even though the later one is biography based. I watched LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME again very recently and that’s probably why I’m posting this. It does have style, never showy but always effective, as well as being good dramatically (I wouldn’t really separate these things–staging, camera distances and durations, orchestration of movement within the frame and emotional gradations are all in the province of mise-en-scene) so there is nothing for which Vidor is responsible that he didn’t do well, and that’s certainly allowing he was given a way better than average script to begin with (as with GILDA). No one could complain about the superb performances of both Doris Day and James Cagney under his direction–or their chemistry in creating the central relationship.

    He missed Sarris’ book, though those two films are in the listings in the back, not as high as I would put either of them. I think sometime people will realize that the cinema is big enough for two Vidors.

  • J.R. Jones

    Tom: Dudley Nichols, not Dudley Moore. (Although I’m having fun imagining that one.)

  • We’ve talked about Charles Vidor before, but why not again? There is much of value in his early work particularly, beginning with his 1929 avant-garde short “The Bridge” (which can be found on the epic “Unseen Cinema” dvd collection), his variation on the Monogram cruise ship melodrama, “The Sensation Hunters” (1933), a decent old dark house thriller (“Double Door,” 1933) and, probably my favorite, “Muss ’em Up,” a 1936 comedy thriller with Preston Foster as a rakish private eye. He seems to lose his energy and taste for visual invention as he gets older (probably as a result of working so many years for Harry Cohn, whom, according to the IMDB, he unsuccessfully sued for verbal abuse in 1946), though “Cover Girl” (with its Donen and Kelly choreography), “Gilda” and “Love Me or Leave Me” are more than adequate compensation for duds like “The Swan” and “A Farewell to Arms.”

  • Junko —

    It seems that Korean TV (live action) series production is about as vigorous as Japan’s — but I do believe feature movie production in Korea is quite a bit lower (at least last time I checked it seemed that way). ;~}

    Dave —

    Maybe I can try again tonight at re-doing my list (and comments) of good current Japanese directors who are more or less “commercial”. Though Junko probably has a more current degree of knowledge than I do.

    On another topic, C. Vidor’s Cover Girl may well be my favorite “Gene Kelly movie”. Kelly, Hayworth and Silvers make a great team in this.

  • It would be great to see your list, Michael, if you find time to redo it. I know how frustrating it is to lose a post before it’s finished. I find it saves a lot of emotional wear-and-tear to type things up in Word and then cut-and-paste into the comment box.

  • Alex Hicks

    Gilda, Love Me or Leave Me, and Cover Girl are certainly very satisfying entertainments. And now comes word fron Dave. K. (and Tom B.) of the ’35 Arizonian and and a number of interesting 1929-1933 films. This latter revelation is certainly a boon to the film viewer, but what would be the stylsitic (or thematic) case for Charles Vidor as auteur? Tracking perhaps, As Tom B.’s reference to tracking in the Arizonian might suggest.

  • Barry re: LOVE AND PAIN AND THE WHOLE DAMN THING – it received a DVD release just last fall, I know because I rented it. Yes, you can certainly see the fall out of SUMMER of ’42 (and HAROLD AND MAUDE, with a LOVE STORY chaser). Thought it was OK but I’ll stick with Pakula’s hard boiled conspiracy films (save for ROLLOVER, which plot wise is actually kind of fitting for current times).

  • Barry Putterman

    Thanks for the heads up Skelly. I think that your post constitutes the main prong in the publicity campaign for this release. My distant memory of the film was not so much of the rather maudlin romance but rather a recurring structural motif that I believe literally had to do with bells and whistles. I’ve always been semi-interested in taking another look at it to confirm or deny my reaction as a 21 year old.

    Not to belabor the point, but after the Watergate movie Pakula’s output really does loose interest for me in a great big hurry. Not so much ROLLOVER as play dead.

  • I’ve looked in A Film By’s Files section for the articles by Robert Keser and Dan Sallitt and can’t find them. Are they still there? If so, and I still can’t see them, could someone email them to me?

  • Thanks for the wave Dave, I appreciate it. I just haven’t had time to follow your blog lately. Now I’m back.

    I’ve enjoyed this debate about auteurs, especially since my thesis is partly about that question. So when it’s ready hopefully everything will be crystal clear and no more discussion about the concept will be needed…

    Auteurs on TV adds an additional twist. Hasn’t it traditionally been the writers sometimes also being the more abstract “creator” who has gotten the main credit. People such as Steven Bochco, Aaron Sorkin, Michael Mann. Perhaps the only reasonable approach to it, as in all facets of life and art, is to have a case-by-case-approach.