The Cat and the Canary (1927)

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*. It’s fun to compare this film with the versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher” that came out at the same time (Jean Epstein’s and the one by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber). For starters, they are all haunted house stories set in weird “grotesque” mansions (each of which prominently features a long hallway with curtains blowing into it for effect).

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*. The Usher films are based on Poe’s classic tale while The Cat and the Canary comes from John Willard’s 1922 stage play of that name. Those different sources give an indication of where the similarities end. Both Usher movies are thick with atmosphere, the spirit of experiment, and a sense of unexplained dread. They are also lyrically silent, with sound effects (rendered visually) but no dialogue. The Cat and the Canary, on the other hand, is one of the talkiest silent films you’ll ever see.
*. I’ve heard people who have seen this movie express surprise when it’s described as a silent film. They remember it as being so full of chatter. Which, of course, it is. And it’s the kind of chatter that’s normally cut from a silent film: often repetitive verbal sparring without any direct bearing on the plot.

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*. Paul Leni is usually tagged with the label of an expressionist filmmaker, but he really dialed that back for this one. Despite all the opportunity for exaggerated and distorted visuals (our heroine is, after all, on the edge of being driven mad) it turns out there’s a perfectly good explanation for what’s going on, and all of the strange happenings are shown to be the result of ingenious but practical contraptions. A very American film, in that way.
*. Film historian Bernard F. Dick says that the style of this film was seen as a popular vulgarization of expressionism, but that this was necessary for the film to appeal to a mass American audience. Caligari didn’t play in Peoria.
*. It was a transition film for Universal: from the days of silent horror films produced by Carl Laemmle, often starring Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera), to the early sound classics produced by his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., like Dracula and Frankenstein.

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*. It was the qualities associated with subsequent Universal films that we notice more today, in particular the way it mixes humour in with the thrills and displays a more German sensibility in the direction and design. The comic touches make us think of what James Whale would later do with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, and the settings (designed by Leni and made by Charles D. Hall, who also did the sets for Dracula and Frankenstein) soon became familiar to followers of the genre.
*. This, and the fact that Willard’s play was often revisited (the most notable other version being released in 1939 and starring Bob Hope), combine to give it a contemporary feel. We recognize the fast wisecracking script even reading title cards, and the bit of voyeurism as Paul watches the ladies undress from under the bed would go on to have a long future in horror films.

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*. Noting all this, it’s also interesting to observe the subtle differences with all that came after. The police coming to the rescue as motorized cavalry are remarkable not because of the odd way Susan is carried in front of the officer on his bike (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that done before), but because of the fact that they actually arrive in time to do something. We are used to hearing the sound of sirens in the distance after all of the main action of a thriller is over. Perhaps the police were just more efficient in the 1920s, or moviemakers today are too rigid in conforming to a creaky convention.
*. Another subtle difference is the way the proto-nerd Paul actually proves himself to be a somewhat capable hero at the end. Annabelle is almost a proto-“last girl,” but she’s not ready yet to go it alone. She still needs a man, and she gets one.

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*. I really like the shot when, after the family has begun to turn on her, we see Annabelle isolated in a room that now seems so much bigger and emptier. What happened to all the furniture? The dark spot on the wall where the portrait had fallen down from earlier underlines that same sense of abandonment.
*. Despite its place in film history, and the fact that it’s still quite an enjoyable entertainment, this is a movie that is not very well known today. Perhaps it’s just another case of countless imitations having overwhelmed the impact of the original. If so, it’s time for another visit to the old dark house. I think it stands up pretty well.

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