Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The way out Wests... The Cat and the Canary (1927)

“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
It’s expressionism by numbers but the director of Waxworks and collaborator with Lubitsch, May, Dupont and a host of European film-makers, knew what he was doing… The opening section shows mad old Cyrus West’s spires cross fade into milk bottles which imprison him, wheelchair bound, as viscous black cats encircle: his greedy relatives waiting to get their share of his fortune… A clawed hand moves across and reveals the contents of his will… to be unveiled twenty years after his death.

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.

The action moves to the interior of the West mansion and Leni treats us to the works, wonderfully lit settings with Gilbert Warrenton’s camera swooping round corners with alarming grace then careering down blustery corridors as drapes and curtains fly wildly in the wind. This is a place full of bad humour and menace.

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
There’s a knock on the old door and West’s faithfully grim retainer, Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox) – not very motherly and… yep, a bit unpleasant – opens the door which is almost held back by sheer weight of cobwebs. Enter Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) West’s lawyer, here on the dot, two decades after his death to reveal the contents of the will.

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 are superb shots of Mammy and Crosby, sharp, awkward, angles, back-lit and deep in thought: they’re gothic constructs as much as the house itself. Then the guests arrive and Leni gives us portraits of people with something to hide – eyes darting, greed nervously bubbling just under the surface and desperation enough to make anyone of them suspicious.

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
Their more senior cousin Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch) arrives with her niece Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor)  both clinging on to the hope that there will be a windfall to compensate for the many obvious disappointments that have etched themselves on their faces: Susan old with bitterness and Cecily just on the cusp as youth fades.

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 entourage is completed by the arrival of Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) – youngest of the group and seemingly as sane as sixpence. La Plante takes top billing on the film and was a major star as the silent era neared its fateful collision with the systems of sound.

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
As she is revealed as the sole beneficiary, the others crowd around secretly seething to various degrees and none more so than Aunt Susan whose head is shown warped by the news.

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
Leni directs with style from start to finish and you can understand why the film was so successful. For me, Creighton Hale is perhaps a little too much but he does have his moments. Tully Marshal and Martha Mattox are respectively masterfully grouchy and zealously sinister whilst you can see why La Plant was such a success with her strong, expressive features.

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!


  1. I've just come across your blog recently, it's great! I look forward to following along and backreading on stormy nights. :)
    Nice review of The Cat and the Canary, too - it's really a lot of fun.

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words! I like Silents, Please! as well!

      The Cat and the Canary is just pure fun and has been so often imitated - never bettered!