(1927) Directed by: Paul Leni; Adapted from the stage play by Robert F. Hill and Alfred A. Cohn; Based on the stage play by John Willard; Starring: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall and Martha Mattox; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming
“You are just like your uncle – in a cage surrounded by cats.” – Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall)
If you think The Cat and the Canary looks more than a little familiar, you’re right. The spooky old house mystery was a staple in the silent era. In Roy Kinnard’s book Horror in Silent Films, there are 15 separate entries listed under The Haunted House alone. Although movies with this subject matter were clearly a dime a dozen, director Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, adapted from a John Willard stage play, proves appearances are only skin deep. It manages to rise above the rest, thanks to generous comedic touches and oodles of atmosphere.
The film opens with the death of eccentric millionaire Cyrus West, who’s stalked by greedy relatives, “like cats around a canary.” The story skips 20 years later, as his heirs assemble in West’s mansion (rumored to be haunted by its former owner) to hear the reading of his will at the stroke of midnight. Much to the chagrin of her relations, Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) is named sole recipient of his estate. There’s just one stipulation, however. She must be evaluated by a physician for her sanity. In the event that she’s proven insane, the inheritance would go to another family member to be named in a second document. Sensing that her safety and newly acquired fortune is in jeopardy, the executor of the will, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), attempts to inform her she’s a prime target for evildoing. Before he can warn her about the back-up heir, he’s dispatched. To make matters worse, a homicidal maniac is wandering the premises.
The Cat and the Canary’s distinctive look can be credited to Paul Leni’s eye for visuals and experience as an art director in his native Germany. This film marked his feature film debut in America, a career that would be cut tragically short two years later due to blood poisoning. Along with cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton, Leni took a fresh approach to the time-worn material. The house becomes another character, with long foreboding corridors that take on an almost organic appearance, hidden cobweb-filled passages and dusty rooms obscured in shadow. Many of the scenes are shot as if the viewer were an observer in the house. In one shot, viewed through the slats of a chair, Annabelle appears to be locked in a cage.
La Plante is complimented by some amusing supporting performances. Martha Mattox is the standout, perfect as the surly housekeeper Mammy Pleasant, sole caretaker of the crumbling West mansion for the past 20 years, and spiritual predecessor for Lurch in The Addams Family. When Crosby comments that she must have been lonely, she replies “I don’t need the living ones.” Mattox plays the ironically named Pleasant as if it would create intense physical discomfort to smile. Creighton Hale is suitably goofy as Annabelle’s, scaredy-cat cousin, Paul Jones (I couldn’t stop thinking the role would have been ideal for Rick Moranis in a remake), ready to jump at his own shadow. Unlike the rest of her relatives, Paul is a likeable enough guy, but a wee bit obtuse (“Don’t interrupt me. I think I’m thinking.”). His intentions to protect Annabelle often exceed his abilities, as he frequently tempers his affection for Annabelle with his fear for suffering bodily harm.
(SPOILER ALERT) It’s disappointing that the supernatural occurrences depicted in the film are revealed to be a cheat. True to form of many similar-themed stories of the time, there’s a prosaic explanation behind the ghostly hijinks. Even though it’s hard not to feel let down by the conclusion, it’s impossible to deny the film’s influential role. The Cat and the Canary helped inspire James Whale’s gothic comedy The Old Dark House, and likely formed the template for virtually every Scooby Doo cartoon ever made. And if the basic concept was nothing new, then Leni’s novel approach kept things from getting stale. It’s what lies beyond the surface that counts. The Cat and the Canary is full of visual treats that will make you shiver and smile.