Originally published August 13th, 2013
Pint-sized actress Margaret O’Brien’s movies aren’t always winners (Tenth Avenue Angel), but her exuberance and maturity, all while remaining innocent and precious, elevates the work everytime. The Canterville Ghost was a film I’ve been dying to see, especially as it was released the same year as her indelible performance as Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Her and Robert Young give heartwarming performances in a film that’s all about the war seen through the tale of a cowardly ghost seeking redemption. I’ve heard it’s completely opposite from author Oscar Wilde’s original text, but with O’Brien in the lead it turns into a delightful supernatural comedy with good intentions.
Sir Simon of Canterville (Charles Laughton) is cursed by his father after fleeing from a duel and is bound to walk the Earth until “a kinsmen” performs a brave deed as punishment. Through the years all attempts to lift the curse have failed, until the arrival of a platoon of American soldiers arrives at Canterville castle. Cuffy Williams, (Young) a grunt who discovers he’s a descendant of the Canterville line, who. along with fellow Canterville heiress Lady Jessica (O’Brien), will work together to free Sir Simon’s soul.
O’Brien was a spritely seven-year-old when she made this and Meet Me in St. Louis, and both characters have similar sensibilities. The latterhas Tootie reveling in the macabre, but it’s all kept light due to her youthful nature. She doesn’t understand death, but is aware of its inevitability. In The Canterville Ghost, that same element is played up for laughs, particularly as she recounts the gruesome history of the house’s inhabitants, becoming graver in her details only to end it with a big smile! Lady Jessica fears the apparitions and darkness within the castle, yet enjoys it because it makes life interesting. Quite the little comedienne, O’Brien rules the visiting soldiers with her stories, at odds with the camera which defies audience expectations by emphasizing how small the little girl is in a room full of tall men. Yet the men are captivated by her (when they discover the “lady” is a little girl they all look down at her in a creative comedic moment). O’Brien’s adroit comedic skills make up for the total lack of British accent she has (a skill which would improve in 1949’s The Secret Garden). It provides its own comedy as Lady Jessica asks about the visiting American soldiers while sounding as American as they come.
The Canterville Ghost makes a perfect pairing with I Married a Witch (1942), and not because they star two of my favorite leading ladies. Both films create a supernatural comedy through the utilization of a historical curse, each one dealing with a curse upon their family. In Canterville, Sir Simon’s father curses him for ruining the family honor, while Veronica Lake’s Jennifer curses the Wooley clan for burning her at the stake. The plots of each also involve a series of failures throughout history on the part of the men; instead of several Frederic March’s throughout time we have one Robert Young. I easily mix up Robert Young with Robert Taylor and Robert Montgomery. All that aside, I enjoyed Taylor immensely. He’s the all-American man with a father-like chemistry with O’Brien. They’re darling together in a way reminiscent of Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen, planning each other’s moves in advance.
Young provides a comforting presence for O’Brien. The look of terror on her face is enough to instill tears in the audiences’ eyes, but Young helps O’Brien conquer her fears. It’s a cute relationship despite the head-scratching final moment. The final seconds have Lady Jessica telling Cuffy she’ll turn seven next year that had me thinking of those “I’ll be 18” moments in other films. Did the movie just imply there could be a relationship in the future between Lady Jessica and Cuffy? I’m assuming it was meant as the little girl’s admiration towards a person she sees as a protector, but Cuffy doesn’t say anything back. They just hug and the movie ends. I was also surprised the movie never explicitly foretells of a male Canterville being the one to break the curse (unless you’re taking “kinsmen” literally), ignoring Jessica as the last of the Canterville line. By the end, she openly sacrifices herself, making for a tighter ending having her be the one to redeem Sir Simon. The film leaves it up to Cuffy and Jessica being a team in order to mutually save the day. The narrative implications are perfect for 1944, with the war coming to a close. The Canterville Ghost may be a British tale, but the movie turns into a quasi-“America kicks ass” piece of propaganda…albeit entertaining propaganda. Obviously, the relationship between the American soldier saving the life of an English blue-blood highlights the international cooperation between the Americans and the British during this time period, as well as acknowledging American intervention as the turning point for the war itself.
You may be wondering why I haven’t touched on the titled ghost of the film, Charles Laughton. Always a delight Laughton’s perfect as the anxious ghost desperately wanting to go to sleep, permanently. The opening alerts the audience to the deep roots of the Canterville ghost legend using a book entitled “Famous Ghosts of England,” literally setting up the “once upon a time.” The exposition unfolds as a grisly tale of horror, shifting into a forbidden romance à la an Errol Flynn movie (the actor portraying Sir Simon’s brother is particularly Flynn-like). The comedy comes from believing the young, strapping man would be the title character, only he defers the duel to the portly Sir Simon. Cowardice runs in the family apparently, and it’s Sir Simon punished for all eternity. When Sir Simon’s father curses him, you sympathize with Laughton. Everyone actually sympathizes with Sir Simon, even the foe who originally started the duel, telling Sir Simon’s father “It is thy son!” The ghostly special effects are remarkable for 1944. The only ill-used one is when Sir Simon puts his head back on his shoulders which is obviously a dummy.
The Canterville Ghost is a wonderful movie with another enchanting performance from Margaret O’Brien. Robert Young and Charles Laughton also delight in a smooth family film that adeptly blends Gothic horror with a spoonful of heart and humor.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.