Welcome to the second part of my new special column series, IT’S ALIVE! The Universal Monsters Saga, in which I talk about each of the classic Universal Monsters films from the 1920s—1950s. Today we look at the masterful The Cat and the Canary (1927), directed by Paul Leni. If you wish to have a look at past articles, please click here. Enjoy!
Universal Pictures’ The Cat and the Canary is altogether something different from their earlier silent efforts. First of all, it goes deeper and farther into the classic gothic, utilising the German expressionist background of it’s director, Paul Leni. Secondly, it adds a dash of comedy to the proceedings. Whereas The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) were mostly serious affairs, The Cat and the Canary is easily as funny as it is spooky and creepy. And finally, it flirts with the idea of the supernatural, something new to Universal’s range of horror films. As such, the film has an entirely unique flavour among the earlier Universal horror films, despite the enormous influence it would hold over the horror genre and, specifically, “the old dark house” films that would become a regular feature of horror cinema. Take my hand as we explore the dusty, cobwebbed rooms and draughty hallways of the West mansion.
THE MAKING OF THE CAT AND THE CANARY
Carl Laemmle took note of director Paul Leni’s magnificent talent when he saw his film Waxworks (1924). He was particularly impressed by the balance of both horror and comedy. In the United States there had been a flowering trend of successful horror / comedy films based on Broadway plays, including The Ghost Breaker (1922), Puritan Passions (1923), The Monster (1925), The Bat (1926), and The Gorilla (1927), and Laemmle felt it would be common sense for Universal to do their own take on this growing list of films. Laemmle invited Paul Leni over to Universal Pictures to become an in-house director there, beginning with an adaptation of the popular play The Cat and the Canary (1922) by John Willard. A screenplay was completed by Alfred A. Cohn and Robert F. Hill. Leni accepted, and by doing so brought a very important ingredient to America that would prove massively important in the future success of Universal’s horror films – German expressionism.
German expressionism was a cinematic movement in the late 1910s to early 1930s that focused on psychologically complex, dark stories. The supernatural was not entirely uncommon in these films, and they braved much more sadistic and supernatural stories that American cinema only flirted with at the time. The visuals of these films were entirely unlike anything else in cinema, with distorted camera work and dark gothic imagery. The pre-eminent works of the movement included The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Paul Leni’s own Waxworks (1925), and Metropolis (1927). Many critics place the genre as a fallout of the economic disparity that befell Germany following World War I. It would make Germany easily the most important country for filmmaking in the era, although German expressionism practically ended when the Nazis rose to power in 1933.
Laura La Plante was cast in the lead part of Annabelle West, with Creighton Hale cast as the bumbling comedic hero of the film Paul Jones. Arthur Edmund Carewe, who had appeared in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) as Inspector Ledoux, returned for a small but memorable role as Harry, Annabelle’s cousin.
Leni turned the comedic and suspenseful original play into a masterful film of expressionist vision. He did, however, tone down the German expressionist qualities quite a bit – had he not American audiences might have completely rejected the film, as it was so unlike anything in mainstream silent Hollywood cinema. However, the fundamental aspects of German expressionism remain; dark, gothic sets, lots and lots of inky dark shadow, chiaroscuro, and superb stylization. The film also has a startlingly surreal opening, something audiences would’ve been unfamiliar with, of the moody mansion superimposed with medicine bottles trapping the soon to be deceased Cyrus West. Cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton went on record saying that, to achieve more authentic acting from the cast, Paul Leni used a gong to shock the actors in moments of horror. Leni would also design the sets which were built by Charles D. Hall, who also designed sets for Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Leni made these sets to be extremely radicalized and stylized. He wrote:
It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving than what we see through everyday eyes.
Cyrus West, a rich old man who claims to have been driven mad by his greedy heirs, dies in his old mansion overlooking the Hudson. His will dictates that it can only be read twenty years later. His heirs gather for the reading of the will, and are surprised to find out the whole lot of his fortune is going to Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), the most distant of his relatives. However, she must first be proved sane by a visiting psychiatrist, otherwise all the money goes to a second heir in a sealed envelope.
Soon, a guard (George Siegmann) arrives saying that that an escaped lunatic is prowling the grounds of the mansion – and that he’ll kill anyone he sees. Crosby (Tully Marshall), the lawyer thinks that, due to the fact he discovered the sealed envelope opened, that one of the heirs is planning harm to come to Annabelle. Just as he is about to warn her, a secret passage is opened and a clawed hand pulls him inside. The heirs all think she is clearly insane.
As Annabelle is sleeping, a clawed hand appears from the wall and takes the diamonds she is wearing. She calls everyone in – they all think her insane – but she and her cousin Harry (Arthur Edmund Carewe) discover a secret passage way. Inside is the dead body of Crosby the lawyer, who falls down stark dead. Everyone runs in hysterics. When Paul Jones (Creighton Hale) and Annabelle return to search the body for the missing envelope, they find that it is gone. Paul goes inside the passage and is lost instantly. Paul finds a disfigured, cloaked figure – the escaped lunatic? – and does battle with him. Paul is knocked out, but he comes around and saves Annabelle from being killed by the figure. The police arrive and arrest the lunatic, only to discover it is Annabelle’s cousin Charlie (Forrest Stanley), with the guard an accomplice. They aimed to drive Annabelle insane so they could get the inheritance. Paul and Annabelle snuggle on the sofa and decide to live together in the house and share the inheritance.
I had heard of The Cat and the Canary many, many times in my life in conjunction with the early days of Universal horror. As I understood it, the film was only a relatively minor work in the Universal canon of horror, but was I mistaken! Finally having seen it, it’s easily one of the best silent horror films I’ve seen, as well as one of the funniest. Whilst never genuinely scary, like The Phantom of the Opera it is a film full of foreboding atmosphere and creepy camera work.
By all rights the film shouldn’t be as good as it is, being part of a string of largely forgettable comedy / horror silent films. But Paul Leni’s direction elevates the film to something else; as such, it’s easily the best of these silent horror comedies. His brilliant use of lighting and the wonderful sets he designed add so much atmosphere and creeping horror to the proceedings. Adding a dash of comedy, particularly in the character of Paul Jones, only serves to accentuate the definite atmosphere and the entrancing mood of the film.
Also notable is just how the film transcends it’s theatrical roots. Whilst other films of the era, and indeed other Universal horror films, would struggle to adapt their respective plays to film (making them appear rather stagey), The Cat and the Canary does away with its stage origins and fully utilises and explores the wonderfully gothic environments of the house it takes place in.
Interestingly, it’s the first Universal horror film that disregards Europe as a setting. Both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera are set in France, whereas The Cat and the Canary is set in New York or New Jersey. Whilst Universal is beginning to experiment with bringing horror to the United States here, it cannot confidently escape the European roots of the genre; this can be seen in Universal (wisely) placing it’s faith in Paul Leni’s direction, which adds a suitably Germanic experience to the film, even if toned down from the true experiences of German expressionism. It’s the first step in creating a genuine American horror, although this true geographical genre wouldn’t really find it’s footing until the late 1950s.
It’s worth noting that the film very briefly flirts with the supernatural – that the ghost of Cyrus West haunts the house, setting the mood nicely. Whilst Universal wouldn’t go fully supernatural until Dracula (1931), you can see the studio testing the waters, even if it doesn’t have the full confidence to jump in the deep end.
The film is also remarkably well paced, efficient in both plot and action, moving things quickly. In brief moments, it does slow down a bit, but only for added atmosphere. These moments are always startlingly brilliant, particularly in the beginning when the camera will pan over the various sets. It’s part of the reason why it’s a better film than The Hunchback of Notre Dame; it moves with a pace, vitality, and sure-footedness that Hunchback lacks.
The acting in the film is also absolutely top-notch. Laura La Plante is wonderful in the lead role of Annabelle, effectively portraying a character that is here out of respect to her father, and not out of interest for money as with so many of the other characters. Creighton Hale is honest, sweet, and over-all clumsy in his portrayal of Paul Jones, providing comedic relief that sweetens the deal. Arthur Edmund Carewe lends the gravitas that he brought to Ledoux in Phantom to the role of Harry, adding a sinister dash to the proceedings. And no one will soon forget Martha Mattox as the creepy Mammy Pleasant. Gertrude Astor and Flora Finch also make the hilarious duo of Cecily and Susan. Lucian Littlefield is startlingly Caligari-esque as Dr. Ira Lazar. Forrest Stanley does a good job skulking around on screen as the villain, but ultimately his makeup isn’t too scary or memorable – any creepiness in the film is provided by the brilliant cinematography, sets, and direction.
The Cat and the Canary is marvellously creepy and atmospheric. It’s a film to get lost in on a hazy afternoon. Whilst it can’t possibly match the epic scope of The Phantom of the Opera, it can match it in artistry and ambition. I cannot recommend this film highly enough to both lovers of silent and horror cinema.
Next time on IT’S ALIVE! The Universal Monsters Saga, Paul Leni will be returning to direct an acclaimed adaptation of a classic French novel. The visage of the main character would go down not only in cinematic history but in pop culture at large – it inspired one of the greatest villains ever created. And the film would also introduce a man behind the scenes that would become integral to the success of the studio’s horror films, ingraining them forever in the history of cinema – Jack Pierce.