On a stag hunt Sir Valentine Williams (Donald Stuart) accidently stabs Anthony de Canterville (Peter Lawford who is hiding in the bushes. In there with him is Eleanor (Frances Raeburn). Eleanor happens to be engaged to Sir Valentine. When confronted, Anthony reveals that he and Eleanor were married the day before in secret. Sir Valentine is outraged at having his betrothed stolen from under his nose and challenges Anthony to a duel. Since Anthony is wounded he enlists his brother Simon de Canterville (Charles Laughton) to be his stead. Sir Simon, being much larger than Sir Valentine, and a bit of a braggart, agrees to the duel. He chooses as the weapons the lance making the duel basically a joust. When Sir Valentine baulks at the change of dueler, Sir Simon replies that a kinsman is a kinsman. When the time for the duel arrives Sir Valentine shows up and says he is hurt, showing a small cut on his baby finger. He brings in his stead Bold Sir Guy (Tor Johnson). Seeing the size of Sir Guy, Sir Simon tries to get out of the duel. Throwing Sir Simon’s words in his face Sir Valentine replies a kinsman is a kinsman. The duel begins and Sir Simon flees.
At home Sir Simon is hiding in an alcove. His father, Lord Canterville (Reginald Owen) takes family honor and bravery seriously. When challenged by Sir Valentine to brick up the alcove Lord Canterville complies believing Sir Simon is not there. When he is aware that his son really is cowering in the alcove he has the masons finish bricking up the alcove. He then curses his son for being a coward and disgracing the Canterville name. His curse dooms his son to wandering the halls of the castle with no rest until a kinsman does what he didn’t do. Perform an act of bravery in his name wearing his signet ring.
Three hundred years later, Canterville Castle is used to billet American soldiers during WWII. Among them is Cuffy Williams (Robert Young). The lady of the castle is six year old Jessica de Canterville (Margaret O’Brien). She greets the men and tells them the story of the Canterville Ghost.
That night the ghost appears but instead of getting scared they turn the tables and scare Sir Simon. Cuffy shows Jessica that the ghost is someone she needn’t be afraid of. Jessica learns from Sir Simon about the curse and how only a kinsman can break it. Jessica then finds out that Cuffy is a Canterville and is a descendent of Simon’s brother Anthony. Sir Simon is finally hopeful that perhaps there is a Canterville with courage that can break the curse and bring him peace.
“The Canterville Ghost” was released in 1944 and was directed by Jules Dassin and Norman Z. McLeod. With a story by Oscar Wilde and stars like Charles Laughton, Robert Young and Margaret O’Brien how can you go wrong? Rhetorical question, you can’t. Margaret O’Brien is adorable, Robert Young is charming and Charles Laughton is as hammy as a royal ghost could be. His soliloquy in the hall of his ancestors reminded me of the cowardly lion’s courage speech in “The Wizard of OZ” 1939.
The movie is basically a comedy/fantasy. It is a charming story. Although based on Oscar Wilde’s story It’s been, shall we say, updated to 1944. A lot of other liberties were taken with the story to the point where the only thing that is the same is the ghost. None of that takes away from the movie. It’s still a wonderful fantasy story done delightfully. It’s a family film with some classic actors and a typical forties moral at the end. Unlike Wilde’s dry humor this tale is light and uplifting.
There have been other versions of the story done but this is the only theatrical release film. All the others were made for TV movies.