Released 10 November 1939, The Cat and the Canary was the third screen adaptation of John Willard’s popular 1922 play. Unlike its two predecessors (one of which is lost), the 1939 version is mostly comedic.
The film opens as lawyer Mr. Crosby is taken by canoe to an old dark house on the Louisiana bayou. We soon find out he’s there for the reading of Cyrus Norman’s will at midnight. As in all old dark house films, the gathered parties must stay in the creepy house all night.
Crosby asks the Creole maid, Miss Lu, if she ever gets lonely living there alone these past ten years, and she says she’s got friends—ghosts. This bears out what the canoeist said about spirits living around the mansion.
We then meet three other people on their way to the reading of the will, Fred Blythe, Cicily Young, and Susan Tilbury. They’re not exactly pleased about being forced to come out there, but it’ll be worth it if the will reveals one of them is Norman’s heir.
Crosby discovers the envelopes of both parts of the will have been tampered with when he opens the safe, but Miss Lu insists that’s impossible. Only they know how to open the safe, and both swear they didn’t do it. Luckily, Crosby made a duplicate of the will and put it in a trust company.
Next to arrive are Charlie Wilder, comedic actor Wally Campbell (a brand-new character created just for Bob Hope), and sketch artist Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard). Predictably, all three of the men are competing for Joyce’s attentions.
Norman’s relatives are spooked almost from the moment Crosby starts reading the will, and Miss Lu’s belief in ghosts doesn’t help matters. Miss Lu also says someone there will die by morning.
Joyce, the only one with the surname Norman, is declared the heir, and Crosby says there’s no need to open the second envelope to discover whom the backup heir is. However, since madness runs in the family, Joyce must remain sane for the next 30 days. There’s lots of incentive for the other relatives to kill her or drive her insane.
Miss Lu gives Joyce another envelope, for her eyes only. This increases the vendetta against her.
Terror breaks out when a guard arrives and says a murderer named The Cat has escaped from nearby loonybin Fairview.
Joyce finds a message on the envelope, directing her to sleep in Norman’s old room and open the letter there. Shortly thereafter, Crosby appears and tries to warn her about something, but while Joyce’s back is turned, Crosby is strangled and pulled through a revolving bookshelf door. No one but Wally believes her story about Crosby’s mysterious disappearance.
The stage is now set for a night of frights, suspicions, dangers, and mystery, served with a generous side serving of comedy and romance. The more the night wears on, the more terrifying the situation becomes, and the more everyone but Wally believes Joyce is a madwoman.
What really happened to Crosby, and will The Cat be captured? Most importantly, will Joyce make it out of that house alive and with her sanity intact?