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The Cat and the Canary

The Cat and the Canary
1927 / B&W & tints / 1:33 flat full frame / 85 min. / Street Date February 1, 2004 / 19.99
Starring Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall, Arthur Edmund Carew, Martha Mattox
Cinematography Gilbert Warrenton
Art Direction Charles D. Hall
Film Editor Martin G. Cohn
Original Music Hugo Riesenfeld (new scores by Eric Beheim and Franklin Stover)
Written by Alfred A. Cohn, Robert F. Hill from a play by John Willard
Produced by Paul Kohner
Directed by Paul Leni

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Cat and the Canary is quite an eye-opener, an amazingly adept horror-comedy that uses the full lexicon of expressionist devices to create a stylish mood that greatly influenced the horror films that would follow in the early 30s. Its German director was imported by Carl Laemmle on the basis of his remarkable Waxworks, a stylish fantasy that also used a sense of humor to leaven its creepy visuals. Hugely entertaining and still a crowd-pleaser, The Cat and the Canary is one of those visual marvels that showed how flexible the silent screen could be, before the talkies gave the upper hand to stage directors and dialogue writers.


The relatives of Cyrus West gather at his mansion for the reading of his will twenty years after his death, greeted by stony-faced caretaker Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox). Lawyer Roger Crosby reads the will: young Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) gets the haunted mansion and the fortune (including some priceless diamonds) if she can be judged sane. Amid the general jealousy, Crosby disappears, Annabelle finds her way to the missing diamonds and a guard from a nearby asylum searches for an escaped loony. A creepy creature appears to be prowling through secret passages. Then a ragged claw reaches right over Annabelle's headboard while she sleeps, to snatch the diamonds from her neck!

The Cat and the Canary is a knockout from the very first shots. A creepy hand pushes aside cobwebs to reveal the main titles, and eerie hand-lettered (and sometimes animated) intertitles introduce the haunted mansion of a madman. Its castle-like towers dissolve away to reveal a wheelchair-bound codger surrounded by giant medicine bottles, and then the bottles are surrounded by three black cats representing his greedy relatives waiting for him to die.

Horror anthologists complain that what passed for horror in a typical 1920s movie was usually a creaky stage play where people shiver at the thought of ghosts and curses. But the source of the anxiety almost always boils down to some kind of foolish scam to inherit money or have someone committed to the nuthouse. The supernatural content was always explained away as phony, even if the explanation couldn't account for everything we see. In Benjamin Christiansen's evocatively titled Seven Footprints to Satan playboy Creighton Hale is trapped in a bizarre world of mystery and fantastic settings, until he comes upon the devil himself sitting on an art-deco throne surrounded by enticing demonesses. But we have to enjoy the surreal thrills while they last, because it all turns out to be an elaborate charade to give the jaded hero a "new thrill."

Lon Chaney's lost London After Midnight was another faux-supernatural horror tale that turns out to be a con game. The lame haunted house comedy lasted well into the sound era. The Bat Whispers added a dimension of gangsterism (and 70mm, as well), while Mark of the Vampire presented all manner of fantastic phenomena that its make-believe ending couldn't reconcile. The Cat and the Canary was remade several times. One version with Bob Hope reignited a series of spook-house comedies.

This 1927 original is a visual delight that charms us even as we recognize that its thrills are all synthetic. A half-dozen nervous heirs fret and worry while people disappear and an asylum guard searches for a dangerous lunatic. Because the first thing we see is the safe with the will being tampered with, we know that somebody is just pretending to be a fanged monster with one bulging eye, reaching from hidden panels with a hairy taloned claw. The players are silly caricatures, with Creighton Hale playing a stuttering milquetoast who finds his courage while defending the girl he always admired.

The Cat and the Canary works because of its departures from formula. There's a deserving heroine and some undeserving relatives, but no obvious hero to step forward and be gallant. The witty comedy (Annabelle: "Paul! I haven't seen you since they dropped you on your head as a child!") is more than balanced by an uncanny atmosphere that tops that of many 1930s classics. The camera never stops moving and frequently assumes a subjective role, prowling through sets while representing our point of view. When a portrait falls from its place on the wall in a series of jerking motions, the camera POV of the group watching it does the same thing.

More famous is the push-in and focus-pull on the grotesque face of the mystery murderer, but the most influential images are some dreamy trucking shots down a hallway lined with tall gauzy curtains that billow almost in slow motion. That visual has been repeated to great effect in everything from The Uninvited to Beauty and the Beast, and is the oneiric basis of 1001 Euror horror corridor-wandering scenes: Just add a terrorized Barbara Steele or Dahlia Lavi holding a candleabra, and you're there.

The hatchet-faced housekeeper with the sternly pulled-back hair, I just realized, is the obvious model for Harriet White Medin's nefarious servant in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, forty years later. Even the intertitles get in on the act, with words nervously spelling out one by one, or drifting in hazy clouds of fog. When an old biddy swears at our clumsy hero, the intertitle is a clot of overlapping symbols (&,#,%,@) that must already have been a substitute for profanity back in 1927.

Paul Leni's horror-comedy transcends the silly haunted-house subgenre. Audiences reportedly jumped at every appearance of a hand creeping around a corner, or nearing the pale neck of our innocent heroine. We can appreciate the thrills even when they no longer seem shocking. The creativity in this picture is nothing to sniff at - a great many cinephiles think this was the greatest era in movie art.

Image's DVD of The Cat and the Canary is another superb restoration by David Shephard of a silent masterpiece. The image hasn't been digitally re-invented (a good thing) and there are a few instances of tiny film damage, but nothing that interferes with the masterful visual storytelling. A new score is provided from Franklin Stover and the original James Bradford score from 1927 has been adapted by Eric Beheim. Each is a good accompaniment. Richard Peterson provides liner notes that are more than adequate, and the package is decorated with great original art.

As an added extra, Shepard throws in the 1920 Harold Lloyd haunted house comedy, Haunted Spooks. As W.C. Fields would say, those are the very worst kind. It's in excellent condition. The comedy gets silly in the haunted house and relies a lot on basically harmless racial humor in the form of trembling black servants. The best part is an earlier section where Lloyd is passed over for matrimony and repeatedly tries to kill himself, without any luck.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Cat and the Canary rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 2nd short subject, Haunted Spooks
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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