Film and Television Features

The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927)

Based on John Willard’s “comedy-thriller” stage play of the same name, The Cat and the Canary (1927) is the first American film adaptation by German Expressionist director Paul Leni and screenwriters Alfred Cohn and Robert Hill.  Its assorted cast holed up in a supposedly haunted mansion has long been influential in the horror and whodunit/mystery genres, directly inspiring such films as James Whale’s Old Dark House (1932) and William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959).  While The Cat and the Canary isn’t shy when it comes to the eponymous imagery (a plethora of real or imagined black cats, various people designating victims as “canaries,” an escaped lunatic known as “The Cat,” and a single discouraging nod towards being “catty”), the outright references play into the film’s amusing overtones.  Neil Brand’s new score for the most recent color-tinted Photoplay restoration/Kino release is often excellent and complementary, offering an ominous fleet of woodwinds and strings that occasionally give way to high-pitched pulsating electronics typically associated with silly sci-fi B movies. (Ed Wood, anyone?)

The film’s scenario is introduced through millionaire Cyrus West’s final days in his tenebrous mansion that overlooks the Hudson River.  Before he dies, his descent into madness is inventively captured by Leni.  Instead of a full dictation of Cyrus’ backstory with text, as was common in the silent era, he is shown at a long shot in diminished size amidst proportionally huge medicine bottles and equally immense and hissing black cats superimposed on either side of him.  Jenn Dlugos of Classic Horror is right to praise the impressive visual imagination of its time, particularly this scene.  As Dlugos also mentions, the director understands the “importance of the audience’s subconscious investment, which is proven by the use of subtle psychotropic images.”  A floating skull flashes in the right-hand corner of the screen when death is mentioned, a stark split-second visual trick.  Further, Walter Anthony’s animated intertitles that shiver and scroll up the screen in the opening act take a certain command over audiences that even traditional gestures may have muddled or overdramatized.

In intriguing form, it is soon revealed that Cyrus has left two letters behind- one a last living will and testament, and the other a complete mystery- but neither are to be opened for twenty years.  After this time requirement has been met, a group of Cyrus’ relatives assemble in the house, which is still being tended by the cold and ironically named Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox).  Cyrus’ lawyer, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) welcomes nephews Harry Blythe and Charlie Wilder (Arthur Edmund Carew and Forrest Stanley), the overly paranoid Aunt Susan and her niece Cecily (Flora Finch and Gertrude Astor), and the two stars of the film, the charmingly oafish Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), and the only one of the lot to seemingly bear Cyrus’ surname of West, innocent Annabelle (Laura La Plante).  At the stroke of midnight, Crosby reveals that the money is bequeathed to Annabelle, the most distant of his relations, to everyone else’s dismay besides the humbly charitable Paul.  However, Cyrus stipulates that a physician (who looks eerily like Dr. Caligari- surely an intentional reference) must evaluate the recipient of the money and prove their sanity.  Otherwise it will be rewarded to the unknown beneficiary in Cyrus’ other envelope.  It’s a retaliatory measure to the accusations of his own relatives that declared him insane.  Aunt Susan is the quickest to retreat to this excuse (that someone is “crazy”), especially considering the extraordinary events that only seem to be happening to Annabelle when no one is looking.

Several disappearances, a murder, a hidden passage, and an ensnaring mutant hand later, the film’s final act reveals its shortcomings despite a strong visual personality and blend of horror and slapstick comedy (notably involving Paul hiding in Susan and Cecily’s boudoir).  The exposure of the villain lacks the sort of gripping suspense one would hope, which is accredited to the film’s staging, not its sensibility.  As the film was once a play, it is treated procedurally with a static unmasking, a near anti-climax.  The satisfaction comes not from this wrap-up that would come to epitomize the television Scooby-Doo but the film’s other seventy dynamic minutes.  With a shorter running time and a rather large cast, The Cat and the Canary doesn’t always allow the cast to interact in the most meaningful ways.  While Paul and Annabelle are lastly introduced, their chemistry and antics clearly come to dominate the screen; characters like Harry and Charlie simply feel like inessential placeholders in the story.  But the heights of the film are well-documented; neither clinging to relentless doom nor pursuing an entirely lighthearted and exaggerated affair of the era’s heyday, The Cat and the Canary is an engaging escape some eighty-five years later.