The Cat and the Canary (1927)
“COMING DIRECT to you from B’WAY!”
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley
Synopsis: Relatives of an eccentric millionaire gather in his spooky mansion on the 20th anniversary of his death for the reading of his will.
Do they explain why old Cyrus West leaves it 20 years before he allows the contents of his will to be revealed? I’m not sure. Perhaps it was because they were so money-grabbing when he was alive, a fact illustrated in a surreal early sequence in which we see the old boy imprisoned by giant medicine bottles around which predatory cats prowl. One thing The Cat and the Canary isn’t short of is atmosphere, thanks to the expressionistic background of director Paul Leni, who also directed the classic German horror Waxworks (1924). It’s a shame that Leni died so young (in 1924, of blood poisoning), he would no doubt have gone on to make many great movies had he lived. While The Cat and the Canary isn’t exactly a classic, it’s certainly an influential movie, presaging the golden era of Universal horrors by a handful of years.
The reading of old Cyrus’s will requires that the potential benefactors gather at midnight at his old home, long abandoned after his death apart from faithful housekeeper Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), for the reading by crusty old lawyer Mr Crosby (Tully Marshall). Those gathering at the decrepit and appropriately dimly-lit mansion are pretty young Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), Susan (Flora Finch), also young and pretty but somehow not as sympathetic as sweet Annabelle, Cecily (Gertrude Astor), Susan’s snippy and fearful aunt, warring relatives Charles Wilder (Forrest Stanley) and Harry (Arthur Edmund Carew), and timid, bespectacled Paul Jones (Creighton Hale).
The conditions of the reading of the will are unnecessarily complicated to allow the subsequent shenanigans to take place but, in a nutshell, young Annabelle stands to inherit the lot provided she can spend the night in the house without losing her mind. That would be difficult enough given the Scooby-Doo-ish surroundings, but matters are complicated by the fact that if she does lose her mind a second family member will inherit Cyrus’s fortune. The name of that person is contained in a sealed envelope which, just moments before the reading, Crosby discovers has been stolen by none another than that very person (quite how he knows that I’m not sure — it might have been explained, but the dreary pace of the plot had my attention wandering at times).
This revelation provides the cue for a series of incidents that have since become synonymous with the ‘old dark house’ sub-genre of vintage horror movies, in which hairy, clawed hands emerge from secret panels in the wall, or from behind bookcases that open on hinges. First to go is old Crosby, sucked into the blackness behind one of these bookcases by an aforementioned hand, leaving us to expect that other family members will be picked off one by one until we have a final girl standing. This is 1927, though, and the slasher template had yet to be created, so Crosby is actually the first and the last of the victims as the movie lapses more into comedy following his disappearance.
Much of the comedy is supplied by Creighton Hale, although he’s not particularly funny. Like most of the rest of the cast, his repertoire is confined to over-acted reaction shots whenever something remotely untoward happens. He wears horn-rimmed glasses as if trying to pass himself off as Harold Lloyd, but at the time The Cat and the Canary was released Hale was a major movie star in his own right. The passing of silent movies wouldn’t be kind to him however. Only five years after this movie was released he would be reduced to appearing in tiny, un-credited roles in Hollywood b-movies, where he would remain for the rest of his life. It must have been tough, to fall so far so quickly, but you have to admire the guy for sticking at it. Today he’s mostly remembered for being mis-identified as the male lead in a notorious stag movie in which a man has sex with a goat through a hole in a fence. Only in Hollywood, eh?
(Reviewed 20th August 2013)