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The opening of "The Cat and the Canary" is amazing. A layer of dust and
cobwebs are wiped away to reveal the opening credits. The mansion is
first seen as a tall, distorted silhouette, a series of shadowed spires
emerging out of the darkness. The towers of the mansion fade away to a
series of glass bottles. Mr. Cyrus West, the ill millionaire watched
over by his greedy family, the metaphorical canary, appears in the
bottles while cats leer hungrily at him. We cut to a POV shot of
someone walking through the shadowy halls of manor, the huge white
curtains billowing in the wind. As far as classic Gothic horror imagery
goes, this is a buffet.
This wasn't the first 'old dark house' movie. D.W. Griffin's "One Exciting Night" predates it and the genre existed on the stage first. If you're looking for a compilation of clichés, this one provides. We've got greedy relatives gathering in a spooky mansion, awaiting the reading of a will. Some are trust-worthy, while others are duplicitous. The mansion has secret doorways, including one in a bookcase. There's an escaped homicidal maniac. Someone tries to discredit the sole female benefactor with old fashion gas-lighting. A dead body falls out of a secret compartment. The villain even wears a fedora. This is clichés 101 and how you feel about that depends on how you feel about classic horror in general.
Another hallmark of the 'old dark house' genre is incorporating laughs with thrills. The leading man, Paul (Creighton Hale), hides under beds, gets vexed by giant bed springs, runs around hallways, gets spooked by the creepy maid, and bounces around. It's not hilarious. Another problem is the large cast. The main characters are developed to basic ideas while the supporting cast doesn't even get that much. Laura La Plante as the main heroine does nothing but gets threatened. She's the dullest of the damsel in distress type. The movie ships these two cousins without question which is a little weird. Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) reminded me of Una O'Conner in "Bride of Frankenstein." It's as funny in '27 as it was in '35. The movie drags in its latter half. Since the supporting cast is so thinly devised, you can't guess, nor care, who the killer is.
The film isn't without merit. Beyond the amazing opening, there's a cool shot of Paul hiding under bed, lights reflecting in his glasses. The shot of a hand appearing out of the wall, over La Plante's sleeping face, is great. An appearance by a sinister doctor doesn't add to the story but is a weird, off-putting moment. The Cat, the villain, is actually pretty cool looking. One of the fun things about the movie is how it plays with the silent movie titles. Words like 'Ghosts!' and "Help!' are presented in wiggling or growing text, while a series of swears are presented by comic book exclamation.
"The Cat and the Canary" isn't a great movie but it was, no doubt, influential. Universal made two sound remakes in 1930, one in English, one in Spanish, both of which are lost now. Paramount remade it as a farce starring Bob Hope in '39, probably the most famous version. A British version was produced in the 1960s, somehow by a studio other then Hammer. This isn't discussing all the films that took its clichés and ran with it. Despite all of this, the movie isn't discussed too much today, probably do to the lack of an iconic presence like a Chaney or a Karloff. Some bits are brilliant, even if the overall film doesn't really come together.
This film set the pace for all of the "old dark house" thrillers to come. It's all here: a rainy night, creepy housekeeper, dusty sheet covered furniture, the reading of a will, secret panels, a madman on the loose, etc. Director Paul Leni keeps it all interesting by pulling out all the stops, photographically. The camera strolls down the windy hallways, peeks through furniture, etc. Leni even adds the silent equivalent of a scary sound--at one point a character is startled and yells. As they yell, a huge skull with blazing eyes appears next to them in the frame for just a moment snapping it's jaw. Probably caused quite a start when first shown on the big screen.
Enjoyed this film from the very beginning to the very end and loved the great acting of all the actors along with plenty of laughs. This was a rather spooky film with secret panels, hands with long pointed fingers grasping at your neck and people running around in an old mansion. In this film various people have been summoned to this haunted house by a lawyer who is going to read the Last Will & Testament of a rich Cyrus West who wanted his will read twenty years after his death. Cyrus West knew that his relatives were like Cats and a Canary looking for him to die in order to obtain his great wealth. Laura La Plante,(Annabelle West) and Creighton Hale, (Paul Jones) gave great performances, don't miss this great film Classic from 1927.
Any "old dark house" story should have lots of creepy atmosphere and
THE CAT AND THE CANARY is no exception. I grew up on the Bob
Hope/Paulette Goddard version made in '39 which had all the familiar
ingredients we expect in this horror genre, as well as a comedy suited
to the talents of Hope and Goddard. And, of course, to make it even
more credible, it had Gale Sondergaard as the sinister housekeeper and
George Zucco as Mr. Crosby, the lawyer. Unfortunately, like the stage
play, it never did have a plausible or really satisfactory solution to
the mystery. That weakness is also evident here in the silent version.
LAURA LA PLANTE is the distant cousin Annabelle West about to inherit a fortune if she can spend one night in the mansion after the reading of the will by lawyer TULLY MARSHALL, and CREIGHTON HALE (with the spectacles looking a bit like Harold Lloyd) is Paul, the role that Bob Hope played in the later version, a bumbling man in love with the heroine.
TCM is showing the silent version with a busy Theramin background score and sepia-tone photography in a restored Photoplay version.
The main drawback is that none of the characters are fleshed out and the murderer's character is never fully established at all. But the photography is amazing considering when the film was made and altogether it makes for a pleasurable viewing experience.
Highly recommend that anyone who likes this sort of thing ought to check out the Hope/Goddard version to see how the sound version compares to the original. Both versions opt for comedy over horror.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's marvelous how closely the 1939 Bob Hope version follows this one.
I'd assumed that Hope's antics were written into the script, but in
point of fact that particular character is if anything even more of a
slapstick comic here. He is forever backing into furniture or finding
himself in a risqué situation under a bed or wrestling with stray
objects like falling books or enormous bed-springs.
Of course, he redeems himself in the final reel by rescuing the fair heroine. Just like Hope! True, Creighton Hale doesn't develop the character nearly as fully as Hope, although he spends just about as much time on screen. He isn't as funny nor as engaging. Not that it matters so much here, for this "Cat and the Canary" is primarily a director's movie.
Bobbed, fair-haired Laura La Plante makes a winningly sympathetic heroine. She receives excellent support from Tully Marshall's lawyer, Martha Mattox's sinister housekeeper and Lucien Littlefield's weirdly menacing doctor. A young Forrest Stanley and attractive Gertrude Astor also impress.
Although the story-line is now familiar to us since the Hope movie follows it so slavishly director Paul Leni has joined forces with Universal's legendary art director Charles D. Hall and cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton to make it doubly exciting.
In fact some of the effects are so bizarre, and the weird atmosphere is so masterfully created, that even a 2017 audience responded with such enthusiasm to a television showing, the station was forced to re-broadcast it twice within the next few months.
Here's a rare classic that can entertain, startle and be seen as innovative and highly imaginative, nearly 80 years after it originally thrilled audiences. Leni's "Cat and the Canary" fully deserves its cult reputation.
Available in a worn but quite watchable DVD from Alpha.
"The Cat and the Canary" is a favourite of mine. Combining elements of
Horror with Comedy, this film has many excellent moments.
The sets that represent the house in question, are outstanding. I can believe that someone or something is roaming about along those long, dark corridors.
The direction by German director, Paul Leni is excellent as he makes full use of the cameras and the lighting.
The acting is pretty good on the whole.
I rate "The Cat and the Canary" as being on a par with the best from "Universal's" horror period.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The fortune of a man is left behind to his relative (Cousin West), on
the condition she is proved by a doctor to be perfectly sane. If she
fails the condition, the will passes to another. Set in a large
mansion, rumoured to be haunted, at midnight (for when else would you
do such a thing?), with a creepy house maid, shadowy lighting, and
lunatic on the loose, various personnel who come for the will reading
are snatched away from a hand that appears out of moving walls, while
the rest are plunged into fear. As the disappearances happen with only
Cousin West as witness, the others start to believe she is crazy, and
we wonder who is behind it all?
It is all done with a large wink, very hammy, and with brief moments of humour inserted throughout, showing not even the scriptwriters could take it seriously. Perhaps it was meant more for the comedy genre than the suspense, as if the very act of working in this genre was funny, but in that case I would say Keaton ("Electric House", "The Haunted House" and "The Navigator") got far cleverer laughs from similar themes, as did Lloyd, who the style of humour often reminded me. To it's credit though, it does create enough mystery to avoid being a bore, and the knowing silliness makes it more fun than it might have been if made with a completely straight face.
The version I watched on Amazon was the one issued by Kino with the music score intact. This was quite both a scary and funny movie with Creighton Hale a hoot as the comic hero. This must have been one of the early movies in which a group stays at a haunted house after a reading of a will and the one who stands to inherit it all is the one who gets almost scared of his/her wits. This is the kind of plot I used to regularly watch on "Scooby Doo" cartoons on Saturday mornings when a kid during the '70s. Anyway, I quite enjoyed this silent version of something I watched a talkie version of years back-the one with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard from 1939. So yeah, that's a recommendation of this version of The Cat and the Canary.
As silent films go, this one is probably more entertaining than most
for modern viewers. The B&W visuals are interesting, even if
predictably drab and bleak. Most of the plot takes place inside a
"mansion", ironic given how dilapidated the place looks. Immensely high
ceilings lend a touch of the Gothic. And light and shadow are played
for all they're worth.
The story is cliché-ridden but kinda fun. A wealthy old man has left his fortune to one of six people, all of whom gather at midnight in the spooky old house to hear the will read. After a promising first Act, the middle Act treads water as characters scurry around in a state of semi-fright, scared of the mansion's "ghosts".
A ghastly looking hand with long fingernails reaches out to steal a necklace from a fair maiden's neck, in one sequence. And, in another, one person is found dead. The film's ending is less disappointing than I had initially feared. But still, a lot is left unexplained. The plot inserts humor at various points throughout, which helps, given the lengthy runtime. The Aunt Susan character is a hoot.
Bleak production design is typical for films of that era. Ditto those drab glad rags that pass for costumes. I have yet to watch a 1920s film wherein the visuals did not look like precursors to the 1930s Great Depression.
Acting is predictably melodramatic and hammy, maybe deliberately so. Exaggerated facial expressions, bug-eyed responses, and lots of animation in general emphasize that this film is mostly visual.
Nothing is to be taken seriously here. "The Cat And The Canary" is an early example of a whodunit mystery, set in a spooky old house, played as semi-comedy. As such, except for the lagging middle Act, the film is reasonably entertaining.
Cat and the Canary, The (1927)
*** (out of 4)
Classic "old dark house" film has an old man dying and then twenty-years later his relatives arrive at his creepy mansion for the will reading. The estate goes to Annabelle (Laura La Plante) as long as she is proved to be sane but throughout the night various visions of demons appear to her. Is she losing her mind or is someone just trying to scare her? One needs to remember that all the cliché moments in this film weren't cliché when this was originally released. So many films have since ripped this one off that one might forget how original this movie was when it was originally released. What really stood out after eighty-years is how brilliantly this thing looks on a technical level. The cinematography ranks as some of the greatest I've ever seen and there are countless moments that you could point to as being ground breaking. Even the opening title credits are downright breathtaking with the creepy hand moving the dust and spider webs away. The set design by Charles D. Hall is just as wonderfully done and adds to the overall atmosphere, which is very thick from start to finish. Not only does the film deliver many creepy moments but there's a nice mixture of laughs thrown in as well. I've read reviews that said there were too many laughs but I'd have to disagree with that as the laughs are kept rather low-key and never take away from the actual story. The middle section of the film moves a bit too slowly but all of that picks up towards the end. The characters really aren't well-written but that doesn't matter too much as the real entertainment comes from the visuals and the creepy atmosphere.
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