These days, when old-movie buffs think of Charles Laughton, they probably think of "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933), "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939), "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957), something like that. Not I. I think of "The Canterville Ghost" (1944) because that's how I remember Laughton from my childhood watching TV in the 1950's. The film would show up every now and then on the tube, and I'd try to watch it whenever I could. As with so many old movies I receive for review, though, it was one I hadn't seen in decades, and I wondered how it would hold up. Well, it's not quite so remarkable as I remembered, I'm afraid, but it's still worth watching.
Jules Dassin directed the MGM movie from a short story by Oscar Wilde, although the filmmakers updated the tale to the Second World War. Dassin would go on, incidentally, to make two of the best heist capers ever in "Riffifi" (1954) and "Topkapi" (1964) and the ever-popular "Never on Sunday" (1960), in addition to a couple of fine, straight-ahead crime thrillers, "Brute Force" (1947) and "The Naked City" (1948), so in 1944 his best work lay ahead of him. Still, one can see his blithe, clever, lighthearted touch here in "The Canterville Ghost."
Here's the setup: Sir Simon de Canterville (Laughton) lived in the seventeenth century but died a coward when he refused to participate in a dual with a fellow knight who had wronged his brother. For his cowardice, his father walled him up in the family castle, where he died; he's been haunting it ever since. For reasons the story never makes clear, it seems poor old Sir Simon cannot depart to the Great Beyond until a kinsman performs a brave deed in his name. The trouble is, the Canterville family has a reputation for cowardice, and no descendent has ever done anything even remotely heroic.
Step forward about three hundred years to 1943. A platoon of American soldiers now occupies the English castle, the guests of the present-day Canterville family. The heiress of the Cantervilles is young Lady Jessica (Margaret O'Brien), about seven years old. A handsome, charming soldier in the platoon is Cuffy Williams (Robert Young), who turns out, quite coincidentally, to be a long-lost Canterville. You can see the plot unfolding before your eyes in the first few minutes of the picture.
Among the other soldiers are some well-known character actors: The gruff William Gargan as the platoon sergeant; an ever-exasperated Frank Faylen as the lieutenant; tough-guy Mike Mazurki as a private; and familiar face "Rags" Ragland for comic relief. (Not that the filmmakers didn't intend the entire movie for laughs, but Ragland's laughs are more obvious.) Among the other cast are Reginald Owen as Lord Canterville, Sir Simon's father; Peter Lawford as Anthony de Canterville, Sir Simon's brother; and Una O'Connor as the castle's current housekeeper.
The plot is rather simple, silly, and contrived, but when Laughton and O'Brien are on screen, which is most of the time, they steal every scene and make us forget the story line. Laughton chews up the scenery, flying pillar to post and back again, literally; and O'Brien is cute as a bug's ear with her darling little pigtails, Hollywood hoping she would replace Shirley Temple and Judy Garland from the previous decade.
Needless to say, the ghost isn't very scary, himself a coward despite his history of frightening people in the castle for centuries, and with Cuffy's help, Jessica befriends him. And, needless to say, Cuffy's own reluctance to carry out the Canterville legacy of a heroic deed flies in the face of his otherwise outward bravado. But in these comedic affairs, we can't have a calm before we get a storm.
I rather enjoyed the views of the castle and surrounding landscapes, filmed in Busch Gardens, Pasadena, California. Not sure about the castle, but the grounds are quite lovely and give the film a much-needed authenticity. The interiors of the castle are convincing, too, and well up to MGM's usual high standards of production design.
"The Canterville Ghost" is a pleasant little fantasy, as well as a lighthearted bit of World War II propaganda. In fact, it's so lightweight, it might be airier than the ghost.
Even though one notices some minor age deterioration--white specks, black flecks, and such--in the 1.33:1 ratio transfer, they are so small the eye forgets about them once the movie gets under way. Because there are no major problems with the print, there are no serious distractions. The black-and-white contrasts are reasonably strong, which does not negate the fact that black levels could be deeper. Moreover, definition is fairly sharp for so old a film, making the picture quality more than acceptable.
Warners engineers have processed the monaural soundtrack using Dolby Digital, which produces a smooth and agreeable midrange but not much else. There isn't a lot in the way of bass response, high treble, dynamic range, or impact. Still, the movie is mostly all dialogue, so the midrange does the job.
The disc copy comes with practically no extras. There is a trailer, though, and it's in good shape. Otherwise, there is only English as a spoken language, with no subtitles and no chapter selections. However, you can navigate through the movie using the "Skip" function on your remote to move at ten-minute intervals.
After we watched "The Canterville Ghost," the Wife-O-Meter turned to me and said, "It was very cute, in a cheesy sort of way." That pretty much sums up the film. It is cute, but expect a certain degree of corniness along the way. It's wholesome entertainment from a bygone era, and as such it continues to hold up well for family entertainment today, albeit it with a certain amount of cheese.
The folks at Warner Bros. make the DVD of "The Canterville Ghost" available for sale on disc or for download at their Web site, WarnerArchive.com.