Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Canterville Ghost


Here’s a short story by Oscar Wilde that has been filmed no less than 11 times and, from what I can see about the versions that have a plot summary, never very close to the original story. It seems that all the producers wanted was the idea of a ghost in a castle, then worked endless variations on it. Oh, well. This is the first version, and it’s very good. Charles Laughton is the ghost. In the 1600s he is fleeing an act of cowardice, and hides in a small room in his father’s castle. The man whose honor he insulted knows he’s in there, the father denies it, and the man says, Well, if he’s not in there you won’t mind if we seal off that room with bricks. Have at it, Dad says. When the last bricks are about to be put in place, the son calls out to his father. The father says, I heard nothing. The son is sealed into the room. It’s a fairly harrowing scene, for a comedy. The son becomes a ghost, and can’t be freed until another Canterville performs an heroic act in his name. Trouble is, the Cantervilles down the centuries are cowards to a man. That’s the set-up for a lot of comic horseplay featuring Laughton and a bunch of American ranger commandos staying in the castle before a raid. Laughton is a cowardly ghost who’s only gotten by all these years because people are just afraid of haunts. The Americans quickly get the better of him. Robert Young turns out to be the man who can redeem him … if he’s not another coward, like all the other Cantervilles. Except for Margaret O’Brien, the current Lady Canterville, who is six. She shows more spunk than anyone, and I thought it was a bit of a shame that she couldn’t be the one who did the heroic thing. That would have been a nice twist.

Margaret O’Brien is still alive and looking very fine at 75. She was a good child actress, better than Shirley Temple, in my opinion, except for the singing and dancing part. She was a big star in the ‘40s, but was one of so many who couldn’t make the transition to adult parts. Happily, though, she wasn’t one who was cheated out of all her money. She was given a special Oscar for Outstanding Juvenile Performer for Meet Me in St. Louis, but it was stolen and she didn’t see it again for 50 years, when some antique dealers found it and returned it to her. Don’t you love stories like that? From this performance I would have thought she was British—she had the upper-class accent down pat—but she was born and raised in San Diego. There is an incredible quote from her, at age six: “When I cry, do you want the tears to run all the way or shall I stop halfway down?” Now there’s an actress in control of her craft! Tears made to order!