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Subj: Creature Feature 204: The Cat And The Canary (1927)
Posted: Mon May 11, 2020 at 06:42:49 pm EDT (Viewed 99 times)
The Cat And The Canary was a silent 1927 mystery that helped pave the way for the Universal Pictures horror movies of the 1930s. The black comedy was based on the 1922 play of the same name by John Willard, which was part of a string of "old dark house" horror/comedies in the 20s. German filmmaker Paul Leni (Waxworks-1925, The Man Who Laughs-1928) directed and stars included Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley and Tully Marshall.
When millionaire Cyrus West dies, he leaves a will that is not to be read until 20 years later. After the time has passed, his greedy relatives meet at his decaying mansion to see who inherits his fortune. The will states that Cyrus' niece Annabelle will inherit his money, provided she can be proven not crazy. Meanwhile, a prison guard shows up telling of "the Cat", an escaped maniac that has been seen in the area. Strange things happen to Annabelle, making people doubt her sanity but, in the end, she is vindicated and the real villains are revealed.
I've long wanted to see The Cat And The Canary, and have known of the lost Universal 1930 "talkie" version, The Cat Creeps, since I was a teen. While I appreciate how important the movie was to the genre, and I did enjoy the film, it didn't meet my expectations. I think I just had higher hopes for it. Perhaps it's just because the story has been done so many times in so many different situations since the 1920s that I expected more.
It's a good movie, funny and a bit creepy, but, I think, unlike Frankenstein or The Phantom Of The Opera, it doesn't create an atmosphere that separates it from later adaptations. There's not a great deal that happens in it.
The camerawork is very good, with Leni even calling back to The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari with the images of the mansion. Laura La Plante does a fine job as a scream queen, the cutest I've seen in any of these silent movies, and Creighton Hale is humorous as her cousin Paul.
While the movie has the secret passages and creepy hands reaching out from the shadows that one would expect, unfortunately, as a seminal entry in the genre, it doesn't match the over the top creepiness of what it would inspire. There's talk of ghosts and maniacs, but not much to make the viewer actually feel it. These are probably my issues more than a problem with the movie.
The opening credits. The opening stands out from the usual credits of the time with a gloved hand wiping away dust and cobwebs revealing the title of the story. It's an innovative approach leading to the expressionistic image of the mansion and Cyrus West surrounded by images of giant bottles and cats.
The set-up. Creighton Hale is humorous as Paul West without being an outright comedian. The analogies to "a cat and a canary" throughout the movie are a bit too much but not to the point of making you roll your eyes. It's easy to see that the plot was extremely influential.
Paul under the girls' bed. Paul hiding under the bed while the girls undress was risque and funny. The flashlight reflecting in his glasses made for a nicely creepy look.
The creepy hand and the Cat. The claw-like hand reaching from the shadows at an unsuspecting girl and the dark coat and hat on the grotesque creeper have become staples of the genre.
Universal's The Cat Creeps (1930) was a well received remake, but, unfortunately, is a lost film with only two minutes of footage surviving in the 1932 short Boo!. The film was also remade in 1939 by Paramount starring the successful pairing of Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. There is also a British version from 1979.
Other "old dark house" horror/comedies from the 1920s include The Ghost Breaker (1922), a lost film, The Monster (1925) with Lon Chaney, The Bat (1926), which was adapted as The Bat Whispers in 1930 and is said to be an inspiration for Batman, and The Gorilla (1927), which was remade in 1930 and 1939.
You can watch The Cat And The Canary here:
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