Made near the end of the silent film area and directed by German Expressionist Paul Leni (Waxworks), The Cat & the Canary employs some creative visual methods that distinguish it from most silent films I’ve seen. This is notable in the opening shot when a hand wipes dust and dirt off the glass to reveal the titles. Later, some of the intertitles are “animated,” with words scrolling up the screen or appearing and disappearing in unique ways.
The biggest visual treat happens after the opening titles. A representation of “the grotesque mansion of an eccentric millionaire,” with its long, slender towers, fades into an image of bottles of various sizes representing the medicines that are unable to save Cyrus West. At the bottom center of the screen, he sits in front of them as “giant” cats stare down at him. Intertitles tell us that “greedy relatives gathered around the dying man like cats around a canary.”
Twenty years later, the relatives return to the mansion for the reading of his will. It seems the doors haven’t been opened during that time; they’re caked with thick cobwebs. One gloved hand must sweep them away to even use the knocker on the front door. Someone, though, has opened the safe and placed additional envelopes inside. The housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox) tells Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), the man who’s come to read the will, that no one has been in the house “but me and the ghost.”
She refers to “the tormented ghost of Cyrus West” rumored to walk the halls of the mansion, which lies in disrepair with broken windows along a great hall with curtains blowing inward on a stormy night. We’re told that “on the night the will was to be read, something more tangible than a ghost was in the house.” The mystery of who accessed the safe becomes negligible as the more pressing question surrounds the identity of who is trying to drive Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) crazy so he/she can steal her inheritance.
The cast of eccentric characters offers no shortage of suspects: family members Harry (Arthur Edmund Carew), his cousin, Charles Wilder (Forrest Stanley), Aunt Susan (Flora Finch), her niece, Cecily (Gertrude Astor) and Paul Jones (Creighton Hale). There’s also The Guard (George Siegmann) who arrives to announce that there’s an escaped lunatic at large, a “maniac who thinks he’s a cat and shreds his victims to shreds. Nobody leaves this house tonight!”
Influential in the “old dark house” genre that would become popular in the 1930s-50s, The Cat & the Canary features secret passages, evil omens, hidden diamonds and, of course, murder. As if we can’t figure it out, Cecily exclaims, “Gosh what a spooky house!” The movie also features a heavy does of humor, particularly with the skittish Paul who, at one point, finds himself under Aunt Nancy’s bed where he witnesses a knee-down view of the two undressing.
It’s based on a 1922 play by John Willard, but with a variety of locations within the mansion, it doesn’t seem like it. Dracula, released two years later, seems more like it was filmed from the stage. The Cat & the Canary is fast-moving and fun, with moments of true suspense, particularly during scenes that a hairy, claw-like hand reaches slowly toward potential victims from behind. I haven’t seen any of the remakes; however, it’s hard to imagine any of them improved upon this classic.
Written by Alfred A. Cohn
Directed by Paul Leni
Starring Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall
US Release Sept. 9, 1927
RT 80 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber Films