Friday, March 14, 2014

The Cat and the Canary (1927): Fritz Meets Glitz!

This is my entry in the Movies Silently's SLEUTHATHON. Click here to get your gumshoe on!


I love it when Hollywood gets all continental! After the German Expressionist movement swept the cinematic world by storm in the 1920s, Hollywood just had to have it. Films like THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI, METROPOLIS, M and DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER were impressing the hell out of movie-going world and the moguls of tinsel town wanted in. Highly regarded directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch were hired by Hollywood, where light and shadow met glitz and glamour.
Say What? A scene from Leni's 1924 film, WAXWORKS.
Pickford had Lubitsch, Fox had Murnau and Lang went to MGM. Carl Laemmle of Universal Studios wanted a German, too, and, in 1927, enticed Paul Leni to come work for him. Leni is largely forgotten today. His resume is short, as he died in 1929 of blood poisoning, but he made his mark on Universal. 

Leni's debut American film was 1927's THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Based on a popular and long-running play of the same name, it is essentially an Old Dark House story played for laughs and chills. What makes this film special is the look and atmosphere created by the director.

The creepy West mansion: New York by way of Berlin
The story concerns Cyrus West, a dying millionaire whose money hungry family hangs over his impending corpse like cats around a canary. His home is a Gothic house perfect for haunting and his life is consumed with pills and medicine. Both the home and the medicine nightmare are eerily depicted in fine expressionistic fashion that create a most unsettling vision. His dying edict is that his will, bequeathing his fortune to an unnamed relative, is to be read at the stroke on midnight exactly 20 years after his death. In the 20 years following his death only faithful servant Mammy Pleasant (!) has inhabited his home. As you can see from the photo above, she was not a very conscientious housekeeper.

Morticia & Gomez would approve
Hollywood meets Berlin when the greedy relatives appear. Lawyer Tully Marshall waits for all to gather by midnight, but already knows that the will, presumably locked away in a vault since the old man died, has been tampered with. He is joined by expectant relatives Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley), Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Susan Silby (Flora Finch) and her daughter Cecily (Gertrude Astor). They are all wary of one another and are all dreaming of the millions they could soon have their hands on.
Yikes!!!!
Last to arrive is Annabelle West (the very modern and very pretty Laura La Plante), the designated heiress and our heroine, who must only spend on night in the creepy mansion with her creepy relatives and be declared sane by Dr. Lazar (Lucien Littlefield). Easier said than done. You see, there is a second will naming an alternate beneficiary if Annabelle flunks the sanity clause and, just to add a cherry on the cake, a maniacal criminal called The Cat has escaped and is probably prowling around the mansion as we speak!

The Cat
Bodies fall, creepy hands creep across the screen, shadows loom in ominous shapes and a criminal who looks a lot like Dr Caligari is on the loose and after Annabelle. Yes, it's spooky, but is is also fun. Leni's visual style set the standard for the decades of Universal horror films to come.

Who inherits the loot?
This is one film I would love to see in a theater with an audience. Paul Jones is the bumbling and reluctant sleuth, but the real sleuth in the film is you, the viewer. Who is the Cat? Did you guess his identity? I'll never tell!






22 comments:

Silver Screenings said...

This film looks beautiful and creepy, I'm with you – I'd love to see it with an audience. I bet seeing this on the big screen would be almost life-changing!

Mary Tarpinian said...

Great article Marsha! and I love the new look on the page... I agree, seeing this on a big screen with an audience would be awesome. Probably one of my top 5 silent films.. still works....

Judy said...

This sounds great - I'd love to see it on the big screen, but, since that's unlikely, I will aim to do so on the small one! Really enjoyed your posting and the great choice of illustrations.

said...

This film is so good! I especially love Creighton Hale's comic moments.
A very odd thing is that the copy I saw (about 75 minutes long) didn't have this image of The Cat, only him hiding his face with th cape...
Kisses!

FlickChick said...

Thanks you for stopping by, Silver Screenings. This sure is one film that would benefit from a collective gasp!

FlickChick said...

M.a. - oh thanks so much for noticing the new look. This sure was a fun flick!

FlickChick said...

Judy - thanks so much. I really loved Laura La Plante - and would love to see more of her films.

FlickChick said...

Le - Creighton Hale is so cute in this. The comedy is a little much at times, but that's the Hollywood influence.

Fritzi Kramer said...

This is one of my very favorites. I have not had a chance to see it on the big screen (yet) but it would be amazing. You're absolutely right, we are the detectives. I think it's truly one of the secrets to this film's continued popularity.

Caftan Woman said...

Wowza! This looks like a dandy. So, Paul Leni is the guy I have to thank for all my nightmares. Well done.

girlsdofilm said...

I must admit that I've never seen this the whole way through so I'm yet to 'solve' the mystery. I think I've been holding out for a big screen experience and it's never happened.

FlickChick said...

Fritzi - thanks for hosting - I can't wait to get the ti me a little later this week to explore more posts.

FlickChick said...

CW - Universal certainly had thing for horror. Now we know - blame the Germans!

FlickChick said...

Girls - thanks so much for stopping by. It's great fun either with a crowd or by yourself. Maybe grab a squeamish friend!

The Lady Eve said...

I'd never heard of Paul Leni before but, based on the images you've shared here, I love the look he created for this picture. Sad that in those days a life and career could be quickly cut short by things like appendicitis and blood poisoning.

Great, entertaining piece, Marsha, you always make me smile and I always learn something.

Joe Thompson said...

I enjoyed your post. I have never gotten to see this one, and this makes me anxious to watch it. The housekeeper named Manny Pleasant? There was a pioneering African American woman in San Francisco named Mary Ellen Pleasant who was often called Mammy Pleasant. I wonder if the playwright was thinking of her. Great selection of photos. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

ClassicBecky said...

I am so excited -- this movie is on Netflix streaming! I can't wait to watch it -- I've never seen it and your pictures alone had me salivating. (Your captions had me snorting, I laughed so hard.) I'm going to wait for tonight when it's dark ... Oh that picture of the woman walking down the long corridor -- brilliant!

DorianTB said...

Marsha, this 1927 version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY is a stunning piece of work! I agree that it would be so amazing to see this version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY in a real movie theater as the movie gods intended! I've seen and enjoyed the the Bob Hope version with Paulette Goddard (along with THE GHOST BREAKERS), but this would be great in a vintage movie theater. Also, I got a kick out of your witty comments (especially your comment on Morticia)! This was a great entry for the Sleuthathon! :-D

FlickChick said...

Joe - I saw that when doing some research. Very strange, no?

FlickChick said...

Becky - dod you get a chance to watch? It's a honey.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Dorian. As for Bob Hope & Paulette Goddard - aw shucks - gotta love them!

ClassicBecky said...

Chick, I'm waiting until I get my new TV to watch this -- at the moment, it would be all purple and dark!