In 1927 Universal Studios chose their new emigree star director Paul Leni to turn John Willard’s hit stage play, The Cat and the Canary, into a work of German Expressionist art. Carl Laemmle was clearly envious of the types of films being produced in Europe and Leni had proven himself with the critical success of Waxworks (1924).
The Cat and the Canary is a compact (not a shot is wasted) standout in the “old dark house” genre. Who needs dialogue when the visual story telling is so richly expressed? Leni’s style certainly was a profound influence on both the Universal films to follow, and on James Whale in particular, whose Old Dark House (1932) virtually lifted Leni’s shots of shrouded corridors and expansive, ominous windows. Whale may have learned how to frame a composition by absorbing Leni. Leni’s lighting, camera angles and set design mirror the emotional state of the actors to remarkably vivid effect.
Cyrus West is likened to the canary (think Tweety Bird) and his greedy relatives are the circling cats (think Sylvester), hungering for his fortune. So incensed is the dying Cyrus that he dictates that his will be read twenty years after his death. When it comes to money, relatives can wait. They all show up on the twentieth anniversary of Cyrus’ passing.
To contemporary viewers, the relatives are a gang of archetypes: the bitchy, greedy matriarch Aunt Susan (Flora Finch), the sexy cousin Cecily (Gertrude Astor), the Harold Lloyd-like Paul (Creighton Hale), a seemingly insane, red-herring psychiatrist (Lucien Littlefield), death-warmed-over in the form of Mr. Crosby (Tully Marshall), and the virginal Annabel (Laura La Plante, who Whale later used in 1929’s Show Boat). The gang is ushered in to the reading by a mysterious, somber servant named Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox). The actors are a hoot, one and all, and superbly directed. Of course, there is a romance, but it is subtle and, in a rare example of silent cinema, not embarrassing to watch.
Dead bodies emerging from hidden panels, disappearing bodies, a lycanthropic hand snatching diamonds from the virgin’s neck, a cowering geek hiding under the bed and taking a peek at Cecily’s legs, a conniving aunt, and a villain (with a fake eye and saber tooth) who seems the role model for every Scooby Doo cartoon ever made all add up to something we have seen copied to death (pun intended) countless times since. Leni’s imaginative style, however, takes precedence here. Leni even has a good time playing with an intertitle (the film impressively keeps intertitles to a bare minimum). The “Gosh, what a spooky house!” text shakes and shimmers as if it too is scared from being stuck in such a scary place!
The Cat and The Canary is played for laughs and it’s not surprising that Hollywood re-made it twice, first starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in 1939 and, again in 1978 (the latter had an interesting all-star, if eccentric, cast directed by cult nasty fave Radly Metzger). Both remakes are pleasant enough diversions, but Willard’s play becomes something unique and influential only in the hands of this German Expressionist artist. Leni’s original is finally getting its due and is part of Kino’s valuable American Silent Horror Collection (buy).