“It was a cold, dark, rainy night…” but you may have seen it here first or rather, in my case, with Bob Hope in the 1939 remake. As a child I loved that film with its secret passageways and comedy-horror - all that was missing was a cowardly hippy and a talking dog. But Paul Leni’s silent version is all-together darker and the humour works primarily as counter-balancing relief to the tension as the gathered ensemble are driven hysterical by shadowy threats in the dreamy dark spaces of an old gothic pile.
|House, bottles, canary and... cats|
The scene is thus economically set and we know we’re in for a knowingly-hair-rising treat. The story came from John Willard’s 1923 stage play and, whether or not the conventions of creepy who-dunnits were already well set, this is surely one of the first films to perfect the genre: Bob Hope may have thought he knew but this mob were in on the joke earlier.
A torchlight cuts through the darkness and a figure finds and opens the safe placing a new document inside… we were right, something’s afoot.
|Martha Mattox and Tully Marshall|
Opening the safe he finds a moth and knows someone has forewarned themselves of the contents… but no one else has been in the house only Mammy and her un-living companion who stares down with intent from his portrait.
|Arthur Edmund Carewe and Forrest Stanley|
There’s Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe) who’s already dark eyes take on additional edginess and who almost snarls as his estranged cousin Charles "Charlie" Wilder (Forrest Stanley) arrives. Charles has more regular features but nervousness around the eyes and a mouth that suggests weakness and desperation.
|Gertrude Astor and Flora Finch|
Cue the comedy. Paul Jones (Creighton Hale) arrives in a miss-firing motor car, breaking to avoid crossing the path of a black cat and then running into the house convinced his engine’s back-fire was an assassin’s bullet. He’s no Bob Hope but he’s funny alright.
|Creighton Hale sees things|
The camera takes in every consideration as the family sit around the table waiting for Crosby to reveal the “winner”… almost every face a torture of hope and, bitter entitlement with two exceptions: Paul makes a joke of things and Annabelle just seems happy to go lucky…
|Laura La Plante|
From this point on Annabelle becomes the Canary and the trick is to work out who the Cat(s) might be with pretty much everyone looking as guilty as can be… Now the mysterious deaths begin to happen, sliding panels start to reveal clawed hands and an escaped lunatic is revealed to be on the loose. What’s more, Annabelle must be proven sane in order to qualify for her prize or else her inheritance will go to another… perhaps the one who broke into the safe and knew of the deal before hand?
Who’ll it be? And will anyone from this strange family emerge as the unlikely hero to protect the true heir? There’s the usual miss-direction and emotional disturbance of the humour but it’s still a fun watch: golden rule of all whodunits… make ‘em all look guilty and then gradually provide them with alibis/good character.
|Annabelle menaced by the Cat's hand|
It’s also worth mentioning the inter-titles from Walter Anthony which add much humorous variety… there’s no “Zoiks Scoob!” but a superbly animated “GHOSTS!!”.
I watched the 2004 David Shepard restoration which uses James Bradford's original score as adapted and performed by Eric Beheim and The Cyrus West Players as well as new music composed by Franklin Stover and performed by the Mont Alto Orchestra - all suitably spooky… Tales of the Expected perhaps but done with style. It's available from Amazon as is the Kino Brownlow Photoplay Restoration... which just has to be worth investigation!