CAT AND THE CANARY, THE (director: Paul Leni; screenwriters: from the play by John Willard/Walter Anthony/Alfred A. Cohn/Robert F. Hill; cinematographer: Gilbert Warrenton; editor: Martin G. Cohn; music: Neil Brand, restored version; cast: Laura La Plante (Annabelle West), Creighton Hale (Paul Jones), Forrest Stanley (Charles ‘Charlie’ Wilder), Tully Marshall (Roger Crosby), Gertrude Astor (Cecily Young), Flora Finch (Aunt Susan Sillsby), Arthur Edmund Carew (Harry Blythe), Martha Mattox (Mammy Pleasant), George Siegmann (The guard), Lucien Littlefield (Dr. Ira Lazar); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paul Kohner; Universal; 1927-silent)
“Stylishly well-executed old-fashioned horror-suspense thriller that’s laced with a macabre humor.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s the first film to feature the reading-of-the-will-in-a-haunted-house murder mystery, something that has since become a cliché. John Willard’s popular 1922 play was filmed four times since the original silent in 1927 (as a Spanish talkie that’s now lost in 1930, with Bob Hope in 1939, and with Wendy Hiller in 1979). It’s directed by the German Paul Leni (“Waxworks” 1924/”The Chinese Parrot”1927/”The Man Who Laughs”1928), who came to Hollywood in 1927 to direct The Cat and the Canary for Carl Laemmle at Universal in his first American production. It’s a stylishly well-executed old-fashioned horror-suspense thriller that’s laced with a macabre humor, arty German expressionism, an uncommon architectural style and sets a strong mysterious mood. It was a forerunner of the Universal horror films of the 1930s, which copied many of its eerie effects such as clutching hands, disappearing bodies, a masked killer, secret passageways, and sliding panels. It came at the apex of the silents, when such films as Garbo in Love and De Mille’s The King of Kings also appeared. Critics at the time said it lifted the mystery genre into the realm of art. Though even creaky for that time, Leni plays it more for laughs than scares. I found it thoroughly entertaining and applaud the fabulous restoration work accomplished by Photoplay.
Twenty years after the death of eccentric millionaire Cyrus West, his greedy relatives gather at midnight in the West’s grotesque mansion overlooking the Hudson to hear the reading of the will by the family’s lawyer Mr. Crosby (Tully Marshall). West thought of himself as the canary and his relatives the cat, who nearly drove him crazy trying to get their hands on his fortune. To spite them, he leaves the entire estate to his most distant relative, the innocent Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), but with the condition that all the heirs must stay the night in the mansion and Annabelle must undergo an examination by his chosen physician (Lucien Littlefield) that night to prove she’s sane. If not, the inheritance will go to another relative named in a sealed envelope. It’s also announced by a guard (George Siegmann) from a nearby loony bin that there’s a dangerous lunatic that escaped and is on the grounds of the mansion. The rest of the heirs consist of longtime quarreling cousins Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carew) and Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley), the bossy old biddy Aunt Susan (Flora Finch), the sweet young relative Cecilia (Gertrude Astor), and the nerdy comical figure of Paul Jones (Creighton Hale). Also present is the dour Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), the servant who has resided the last twenty years all alone in the mansion.
Annabelle soon finds her sanity questioned by the sinister looking shrink, the possibility of ghosts, her life threatened by an unknown killer and the inherited diamond necklace stolen as a cat-like clawed hand appears out of a sliding panel and removes it from her while she’s sleeping. Also, Crosby disappears and is later found murdered. With the phones cut, it’s left solely up to the heirs to figure out which one of them is willing to kill to get the inheritance.
The scary antics run of gas by the third act, but not before leaving us with more than a few chills and laughs
REVIEWED ON 6/27/2006 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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