Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Robert Meets a Ghost

When the ancestral home of the de Canterville's is sequestered for use by the U.S. Army, the heiress, Lady Jessica de Canterville (Margaret O'Brien) meets an American decendent of the family Cuffy Williams (Robert Young). They also meet the resident ghost, Sir Simon de Canterville (Charles Laughton) who was condemned to walk the halls of the house until a descendant performs an act of bravery. Could Cuffy be the one to free The Canterville Ghost (1944)?

As part of the 10th Anniversary celebration for the Classic Movie Blog Association, we're featuring film-related anniversaries. Now 75 years old, The Canterville Ghost is also part of the memorials for the Second World War and D-Day (it was released in August, just two months after the invasion).

Let's begin by mentioning that the screenplay, adapted from an Oscar Wilde short story of the same name, has only marginal similarity to its inspiration. This is very much a World War II tale - there is no need for a descendant to perform an act of bravery for Sir Simon in Wilde's version. For one thing, Sir Simon's crime in Wilde's story is far more deserving of his horrible fate - in an unjustified fit of jealousy, he murders his innocent wife. In the film version, Sir Simon runs away from an opponent in a duel - even Sir Simon's adversary thinks his punishment horrific. Because the victim of his crime in the Wilde novella was a woman, Sir Simon must be saved by a woman: "you must weep for me for my sins, because I have no tears, and pray with me for my soul, because I have no faith, and then, if you have always been sweet, and good, and gentle, the Angel of Death will have mercy on me." (The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde). The idea of courage under fire was deemed more meaningful in the midst of the war.
As we saw in Journey for Margaret (1942), the chemistry between Margaret O'Brien and Robert Young is outstanding. He's also faced with the unenviable task of playing a coward as his country (and the viewers of the film) face an horrific war. It cannot have been easy to play a man who begins the film running from danger, but Mr. Young takes on the task. He makes Cuffy even more the hero, because the audience is aware that he is truly afraid. (Mr. Young remained in Hollywood during World War II. He participated in war bond rallies and worked with the local civil defense.)

Equally enjoyable are the scenes between Charles Laughton and Ms. O'Brien. He was "enchanted" by Ms. O'Brien (TCM article) and their affection shows. It's been said that Mr. Laughton wanted children, however his wife, Elsa Lanchester, was either not willing or unable to have children (she admitted to at least two abortions). Mr. Laughton was allegedly quite receptive to interactions with youngsters - in fact, his only work as a director, The Night of the Hunter (1955), focused on two children. 

We were especially takien with the dancing sequence in which a young soldier asks Lady Jessica to dance. As the child is unfamiliar with swing dancing,  the soldier does all the steps for her. Ms. O'Brien really gets into the routine - even when she is unable to do something, she turns control over to her partner. It's a lot of fun to watch.

The film also demonstrates the skills of a number of excellent character performers: Una O'Connor (Mrs. Umney) is good as Lady Jessica's nanny. William Gargan (Sargent Benson) has just the right amount of military demeanor for a man who has literally just seen a ghost. Peter Lawford (Anthony de Canterville) dons a blonde wig that we suspect he stole from June Allyson to play Sir Simon's brother. Reginald Owen (Lord Canterville) is autocratic as a man who values courage over the life of his son.

The film was originally to be directed by Norman McLeod, but Charles Laughton was concerned with Mr. McLeod prior experiences with broad comedy (he was the director on two Marx Brothers and one W.C. Fields films), and requested that he be replaced. Jules Dassin stepped in, and he and Mr. Laughton got on swimmingly. As this was one of Mr. Dassin's earliest feature films, Mr. Laughton provided advice in private, which the director found helpful.

There have been numerous adaptions of  The Canterville Ghost. An early television broadcast (September 1949) starred Wendy Barrie and Edward Ashley. The following year, Robert Montgomery Presents Your Lucky Strike Theatre (November 1950) had a version with Cecil Parker and Margaret O'Brien. In April of 1951, the Du Mont network aired a show with Lois Hall and Reginald Sheffield. May 1953 saw  Ziv TV show the story with John Qualen and Connie Marshall. It was made into a musical in November of 1966 - again on television - with  Michael Redgrave, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Peter Noone (of Herman's Hermits fame), John Gielgud and Andrea Marcovicci were in a 1986 television film, and Patrick Steward and Neve Campbell tackled the parts in 1996. (AFI catalog). A Film Comment article from 2018 calls this version "the strangest one of all," but we agree with them that it is "definitely charming." Here's a trailer:

This post is part of The Anniversary Blogathon hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association - celebrating it's 10th Year. Happy anniversary, fellow members! Please visit the website to read the other posts that are part of this celebration.


  1. Love the backstory of a film I enjoy immensely. I can't get enough of Laughton. Terrific choice for the blogathon and an informative read.

    Once Upon a Screen

  2. Charles Laughton is always magnificent. He's wonderful in this film (though my favorite of his has to be "Ruggles of Red Gap" - with "Hobson's Choice" running a close second!

  3. Definitely a story with legs! I have always enjoyed the 1944 movie, laughing out loud as a child and thinking about Cuffy's dilemma as an adult. You reminded me of all of the joys to be found in this delight.

  4. Oh dear, this is one of those "I really need to see" films. Somehow it has escaped me, but your delightful and informative post bumps it to the top of that list.

  5. I'm another one who hasn't yet seen this film, and why is that! I know I'll love it, so thank you for the recommendation in advance. :)


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