Tuesday, January 10, 2023

To Save and Project ’23: The Cat and the Canary (1927)

In the 1920s Broadway was the place for horror. It looks a lot like Scooby-Doo horror to us now, given its old dark houses and masked villains, but it was what they had at the time. John Willard’s 1922 play was the Hamilton of its era. Universal’s initial silent adaptation established their competitive advantage for horror, but their subsequent soundie remake, The Cat Creeps, is sadly considered lost. Even the familiar silent print consisted of the “B takes” edited together for the international market, rather than the “A takes” intended for the American release. (Early Hollywood was stunningly penny-wise, pound-foolish.) Happily, the A-cut has been fully restored and screens at MoMA as part of their annual To Save and Project film restoration series.

Old miserly Cyrus West was first driven insane by his greedy relatives and then driven to his grave by his paranoia. As part of his questionably sound last testament, all his potential heirs are assembled in his creaky old mansion, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, for the final reading of his will.

Only a motley collection of nephews and nieces still survive, including flapperish Annabelle West, the most distant relative. She also seems like the most decent, so it makes sense to viewers that old West leaves his fortune to her. However, there are a few stipulations. She must spend the night in the creepy house and pass a sanity test, because the crazy old codger was pretty defensive on the subject of mental health. Should she fail to uphold these terms, the estate will pass to the alternate heir mentioned in the sealed envelop in the possession of his trusted attorney, Roger Crosby.

Unfortunately, Crosby is murdered before he can warn the heiress whom she should look out for. Presumably, the murder was the escaped lunatic the guard from the asylum has been searching for. However, West should probably only trust her distant cousin Paul Jones. He is not a bad guy either and he clearly adores her, but he is total coward. For context, Bob Hope played in the 1939 Paramount remake, giving a performance that was not stylistically dissimilar from that of nebbish Creighton Hale.

While Hale’s Jones supplies somewhat shticky comic relief, Leni’s gorgeous, German Expressionistic visuals are a joy to behold. Leni’s approach is largely credited with shaping the aesthetic of the subsequent Universal monster movies—and fairly so. His use of perspective is extraordinary. The vanishing point of the mansion’s long, dark corridor is not unlike that of the split-rail fence in
Invaders from Mars.

Almost solely based on Leni’s film, Laura La Plante gained an ironic reputation as a silent “scream queen.” She and Hale gamely run around in a panic, while Tully Marshall and Arthur Edmund Carewe colorfully stand out (in the tinted black-and-white) as Crosby and rival nephew, Harry Blythe. However, the greatest scene-stealer is Lucien Littlefield, as the sanity-certifying Dr. Ira Lazar. He has a real Lon Chaney Sr. vibe going on, which is obviously a cool thing.

The sets and the lighting and camera techniques utilized by cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton are still beautiful, in a darkly gothic kind of way. This
Cat and the Canary influenced decades of haunted house films (like Old Dark House and The Bat), so it is a real gift for film lovers to finally be able to see it at its best. Sure, Hale is a little corny, but the work of Leni and the supporting cast is a ton of fun. Very highly recommended, The Cat and the Canary screens this Thursday (1/12) and Sunday (1/29) at MoMA, as part of To Save and Project.