Friday, August 26, 2011

The Cat and the Canary (1927) - It Was a Dark and Silent Night

Ok, gang, time to jump into the way-way-back machine and set the dial for 1927, and the American debut of famed German director Paul Leni who has just combined the expressionism movement of his home country with the burgeoning horror-comedy genre of this country to create what may be one of the most influential films of the mid 1920s, The Cat and the Canary.

Now I've made no bones before about my love for the so-called "old dark house" genre of films. I've used the analogy before, but in a lot of ways,  for me sitting down for one of these movies is like tucking into a favorite meal of... oh, go ahead and pick your own comfort food. It's the kind of thing where it doesn't matter how many times you've eaten it, no matter how well you may know the taste of it, that's a large part of the enjoyment of it. You know what I'm talking about, the kind of thing that may bring back special memories, maybe from your childhood, maybe of a particular time with someone special, maybe of a place that you once visited and want to go back to. It's the kind of thing you maybe keep in the back of your mind when you go to a new restaurant, something that even if you're unsure of the menu, you know that you're going to enjoy this particular dish. That's how I feel about old dark house mysteries - they're my fall back comfort food, because even when they're not that great, there's usually some aspect of them that I can enjoy.

But if the old dark house mysteries are comfort food, then watching The Cat and the Canary was, for me, like going back to the place where it all started, finding that little English pub or off the byway place where your favorite dish was created. Or maybe talking to the great grandparent that first came up with the secret family recipe and realising that all along there had been something missing. Like taking that first bite and realising that no matter how many times you' had the dish, how many variations you've tried, there really is nothing quite like the original.

Like I said at the first, the year is 1927. Carl Laemmle, one of the founders of Universal Studios, was reaching back to his home country of Germany to bring in new talent. One of those he invited to come direct movies for him was Paul Leni, who was already beginning to make a name for himself as he explored the boundaries of what was becoming known as the "expressionist" movement in film. Now, expressionism can and has been defined in many different ways, but basically it seeks to combine certain stylized visuals with the narrative structure of the film in a way that tends to affect the viewer not only mentally but emotionally. Sometimes this involves shooting a sequence with an odd camera angle. Sometimes it involves odd, often stylized and overpowering architecture. Sometimes it involves the superimposition of seemingly unrelated objects into the frame. Whatever form it takes, however, the effect is generally one of keeping the audience off-balance, and of trying to bring a more visceral feel to the proceedings. This is the influence that Leni was able to bring with him to Universal and to the beginning of what would be a long line of horror and horror-comedy films, and this influence can be felt from the very opening sequence of the movie.

The film opens with what could have been a fairly standard sequence, as we are given the history of one Cyrus West, a millionaire who is approaching death. West lives alone in a huge mansion with only his caretaker, the ironically-named, ever-frowning Mammy Pleasant for company. However, as news of his impending death spreads, we are told that he is descended upon "like cats around a canary" by his greedy family who attempt to drive him insane. Interspersed with this narrative are scenes of West, flailing about the screen, but instead of being shown how his family is treating him or perhaps seeing him lying on his death bed, he is instead superimposed upon a model of his towering mansion, which instead of providing space and refuge seems instead to imprison and confine the old man. Then as the narrative goes on to tell of the medicines and potions he is taking, the towers of his mansion are slowly echoed and replaced by the bottles containing those potions. And still the old man is trapped, and his growing despair and desperation is made evident. Meanwhile, behind the bottles, we have another superimposition of menacing black cats, towering over both the bottles/mansion and the man. Yes, it is, perhaps a bit too spot-on literal, but there is a power to it, nonetheless.

Finally the old man passes, slumping into his chair, and we see, coming slowly into focus, an envelope, and written on the outside of it is "Last Will and Testament of Cyrus West. To be opened twenty years after my death".  This scene then fades back to show us just the mansion and then a furred, long-clawed hand enters the frame and picks up another envelope reading "This envelope is never to be opened if the terms of my will are carried out." The clawed hand replaces the envelope, the scene fades, and a card tells us "and for twenty years, it was said, the tormented ghost of Cyrus West wandered nightly through the deserted corridors", at which point, we the viewers become the ghost himself, wandering the hallways of the mansion, ever vigilant. Another card appears: "But on the night when the will was to be read, there was something more tangible than a ghost in the house", and though we go back to the same first person perspective, wandering through the hallways, this time our way is illuminated by the beam of a flashlight. It falls upon a safe which is opened by a gloved hand, and we see one of the envelopes being replaced in the safe. It is only after this opening mood setting five minutes that we see the first of the participants in our drama-to-come, and the mayhem, murder, and accusations begin.

Ok, enough of me telling you about it, instead, here's a very short scene which shows not only the exterior of the mansion and the creepy clawed hand I mentioned above menacing our sleeping heroine, but also the sometimes innovative use of even the intertitles. I do think in this version the atmosphere is somewhat undercut by the score, but it was, unfortunately, the best that I could find.

Ok, let's take a look at the skinny for this flick, shall we?

Title: The Cat and the Canary
Release Date: 1927
Running Time: 82 min
Tinted Black and White
Stars: Laura La Plante, Forrest Stanley, Creighton Hale
Directed by:  Paul Leni
Produced by:  Paul Kohner
Distributed by:  Universal Pictures
Adapted from the 1922 play by John Willard

The Cat and the Canary is available to watch for free or as a free legal download here.
It's also available on DVD from Amazon: .

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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