Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Director: Paul Leni                                          Writers: Robert F. Hill & Alfred A. Cohn
Film Score: Hugo Riesenfeld                           Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Starring: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley and Tully Marshall

The opening of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary is a treat for Universal horror film buffs, as it is the same opening used for Son of Dracula sixteen years later, a hand wiping away dust and cobwebs to reveal the main titles of the picture. It is sufficiently eerie and is the real beginning of the great horror film history at Universal. I say this because, at the time, the Chaney films were never considered horror films and so this film, even with the non-supernatural reveal at the end, is much more of an influence on Dracula and Frankenstein four years later than Chaney had been. Director Paul Leni had emerged directly out of the German school of Expressionist cinema having filmed Waxworks for Ufa and then coming to Hollywood for this film as well as The Man Who Laughs for Universal. Unfortunately Leni would not go on to work in the sound era as he unexpectedly died in 1929, but his influence on Universal’s horror films would be felt for the next twenty years.

This film has a wonderful opening montage. After the credits we are told that the wealthy millionaire Cyrus West is dying and that medicine can no longer help him. The visual of a man in a wheelchair surrounded by gigantic bottles is terrific. Then we are told the relatives are waiting like cats around a canary, and then we see giant cats around the bottles and West dying. Two envelopes are left behind after his death, the first is a will that is not to be opened for twenty years, the second only to be opened if the instructions of the will are not followed out. Based on the hit play by John Willard, this is the first of a group of films that would come to constitute their own sub-genre: the old dark house mystery. These are gothic tales in which relatives are gather at an old, usually rumored to be haunted, mansion and told to spend any number of nights there in order to earn the right to inherit the money they have been left.

Martha Mattox is the old crone who has been the caretaker of the house for the last twenty years and Tully Marshall is the lawyer who has come to read the will. But he’s disturbed because someone has recently been in the safe and opened the envelopes. Arthur Edmund Carewe and Forrest Stanley are the first of the heirs to arrive at the house, followed by Flora Finch and Gertrude Astor. Then Creighton Hale shows up as the comedy relief, looking a bit like Harold Lloyd. The last to arrive is Laura La Plante who winds up inheriting the estate. But there’s a condition on the will that the heir be declared sane. And before she can be examined by a psychiatrist there is plenty of time for one or more people to try and drive her mad in the old house so that they can inherit instead. To put even more fear into the guests a guard comes into the house claiming that a lunatic has escaped and is on the property, followed of course by creepy hands coming out of nowhere and disappearing bodies.

In terms of influence, the story itself has been copied over the years with numerous variations. Leni’s gothic sensibilities, however, are what make their way into the horror films of the thirties almost intact. The camera angles, many times shooting up from the floor, are brilliant, and the moving camera work is astounding. When Marshall takes the letters from the safe at the beginning of the film and whisks them over to the table the camera not only follows him, but the way it simultaneously zooms in on the letters is breathtaking. The lighting is terrific, with lots of shadow-play, and he also makes good use of superimposition. Even the titles, in the German tradition, are animated on occasion for effect. The acting, however, is decidedly second rate. There are no real stars here, and many of the comedic moments from Hale and Finch wear thin before too long. Nevertheless, The Cat and the Canary is a great film from a directorial viewpoint and, while interesting for fans of silent films, is essential for students of Universal’s horror legacy.

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