Rich old Cyrus West's relatives are waiting for him to die so they can inherit. But he stipulates that his will be read 20 years after his death. On the appointed day his expectant heirs arrive at his brooding mansion. The will is read and it turns out that Annabelle West, the only heir with his name left, inherits, if she is deemed sane. If she isn't, the money and some diamonds go to someone else, whose name is in a sealed envelope. Before he can reveal the identity of her successor to Annabelle, Mr. Crosby, the lawyer, disappears. The first in a series of mysterious events, some of which point to Annabelle in fact being unstable.
Laura La Plante ... Annabelle West
Creighton Hale ... Paul Jones
Forrest Stanley ... Charles 'Charlie' Wilder
Tully Marshall ... Roger Crosby
Gertrude Astor ... Cecily Young
Flora Finch ... Aunt Susan Sillsby
Arthur Edmund Carewe ... Harry Blythe (as Arthur Edmund Carew)
Martha Mattox ... Mammy Pleasant
George Siegmann ... The guard
Lucien Littlefield ... Dr. Ira Lazar
This late silent movie shows off the considerable talents of its director, Paul Leni, as the camera prowls the environs of an old dark house with the gracefulness of a cat, while the actors bob around like canaries, forming uneasy alliances and plotting against one another. The cast is well chosen. Laura La Plante makes a lovely heroine, while bespectacled Creighton Hale makes an agreeable, somewhat Harold Lloyd-like hero. Tully Marshall and Martha Mattox represent, none too flatteringly, the older generation; the former has the face of a drawn, white prune, while the latter makes a perfect battle-axe as the ironically named Mammy Pleasant. By today's standards the movie isn't too scary, though its mood of foreboding is still effective. Its qualities are pictorial more than dramatic, and the print I saw was badly in need of restoration.
The Cat and the Canary is a key film of the silent era, and was hugely influential in kicking off the old dark house genre that continued into the early talkie period. When sound came in the wisecracks proliferated, which tended to lighten the mood and detract from the suspense. In this one the humor is visual, and the tone is more consistent. There have been dozens remakes and imitations over the years, but the dark, Gothic beauty of the original has never been surpassed.
The 1922 play THE CAT AND THE CANARY was so popular that it made the fortune of author John Willard, who lived to see it filmed no fewer than three times before his death in 1942. Even today the story remains a classic of its kind, inspiring a host of films that mix comedy, mystery, and horror--not to mention still more that focus on suspicious doings in old, dark houses. When questioned by author Gavin Lambert, director James Whale very specifically indicated that the 1927 film version, along with the 1928 THE LAST WARNING, influenced his own work in such films as FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE.
Both THE CAT AND THE CANARY and THE LAST WARNING were created for Universal by director Paul Leni. But while THE LAST WARNING is not presently available to the home market, THE CAT AND THE CANARY most certainly is, and even some eighty years later is possible to see what all the fuss was about. In term of cinematography, CAT is a remarkably imaginative film, using a series of over-lapping images, close-ups, and dissolves to astonishing effect. In a visual sense it is easily one of the most stylish films of the silent era.
The plot is a classic of its kind. Like the original Willard play, the film's story mixes a host of already-clichéd ideas with several then-new ones. Today, of course, it can be a bit difficult to them apart! But even so it remains a fair amount of fun. An eccentric millionaire has been hounded to death by his greedy relatives--and when he dies he leaves behind a will that imposes a twenty year waiting period between his death and delivery of his estate to his heir. But who will the heir be? The candidates assemble to hear the will at midnight... and no sooner is the heir named than strange doings are afoot.
The characters are archetypes: the nice girl (Laura La Plante), the mild-mannered boy (Creighton Hale), the fashion princess (Gertrude Astor), the battle ax matron (Flora Finch), and so on. Perhaps most memorable is the housekeeper (Martha Mattox), an exceedingly dour woman most ironically named Mammy Pleasant! Add in an exasperated lawyer, a creepy doctor, secret passages, hairy hands with needle-like finger nails, stolen diamonds, and as many dashes of comedy as you can get away with, mix well, and you have the inspiration for a seemingly endless list of classic films.
Although they may seem overly broad by modern standards, the cast plays at the level of what was considered comic-realistic in the late silent era, the production values are first rate, and the plot is quirky enough in a silly sort of way to make the whole thing fun. But it is really the direction and the look of the thing that scores; in its best moments, THE CAT AND THE CANARY is plenty good indeed.
The film is available in several DVD releases. You should avoid the Alpha release; although the picture is passable, the score is so dire that it completely undermines the film. Although it clearly needs further restoration, the Image release is superior and offers your choice of scores, both of which work with the film rather than against it. Recommended for silent fans and those interested in the development of the classic horror film!
"The Cat and The Canary" is one of those films that is often spoken about as being one of the classic horror films of the silent era, and after watching this film it is easy to see why.
From the opening sequence, of a hand brushing away dust and cobwebs to reveal the films title, to the closing shot, the film is very spooky. Yes, I will say that at times the film is almost too spooky, and that some of the acting is overdone.
The plot of the film is simple: 20 years after a wealthy and thought to be insane man has died, his family gathers to read the contents of his will.
Those who see this film will see all types of cliches in the horror movie genre, hidden panels, hands reaching out from behind walls, creepy shadows, but the interesting thing to note is that this film was among the first to use these effects, in other words you are seeing these things occur before they became commonplace.
This was an early horror film made by Universal Pictures, fresh on the success of other classic Universal horror films like Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The director of this film, Paul Leni, was German, and the film directly relates that. This film is a classic example of how German filmmaking influenced American films. If you like this film, and especially the camera style, stylish sets, and the general modd and feel of the film, take a look at other German silent films, and you will love them as well.
This film is now Public Domain, and is available on DVD and VHS from several companies. IMDB lists its length in the 80 minute range, however the version I saw, with a new score is 101 minutes long. I highly reccomend this film.