Cast & Crew
Laura La Plante
At the hour of midnight, exactly 20 years after the death of Cyrus West, an eccentric and wealthy recluse, his relatives meet in his mansion to hear the reading of the will. The nearest kin are dismayed to learn they have all been disinherited because they considered Cyrus crazy, and that his most distant living relative, Annabelle West, will inherit the estate provided that she is proved to be sane; otherwise a contingent heir will be named. But the lawyer mysteriously disappears, and various unexplained occurences cause the family to doubt Annabelle's sanity. Her cousin, Paul, imprisoned in the walls, is attacked by the "monster," who is ultimately captured by the police and proves to be Charles Wilder, the secondary heir.
Laura La Plante
Arthur Edmund Carewe
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The largest motion picture studio in the world was not located in Hollywood, but in Berlin.
The Ufa Studio (Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft) was founded in 1917 (with government support) and steadily grew into a massive, brilliantly-organized film factory. Ufa had enormous stages at Neubabelsberg and Tempelhof where the most extravagant epics could be staged -- staged inexpensively due to the post-WWI collapse of Germany's economy. But their films were not merely big, they were often visionary. Producer Erich Pommer challenged the filmmakers on the Ufa payroll to devise films that were not only successful, but stunning. The results included F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Joe May's Asphalt (1929) and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930).
Unfortunately for Ufa, the devalued papiermark and later the Reichsmark, were weak in comparison with the American dollar, and ambitious Hollywood producers recruited virtually all of the German film industry's most important figures. They didn't merely buy star directors such as Murnau and Lang, but cinematographers such as Karl Freund, actors Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich and Conrad Veidt, and production designers including Edgar G. Ulmer and Paul Leni.
Born in Stuttgart in 1885, Leni studied at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, where he became a graphic artist and set designer. Aside from his design work, Leni had made several experimental short films and features. However, one particular film captured the attention of filmmakers around the world: Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). Waxworks, as it would be known in America, was an anthology film detailing the horrors of history's greatest fiends. The Harun al Raschid sequence inspired Douglas Fairbanks to quickly make The Thief of Bagdad (1924), while Conrad Veidt's performance as Ivan the Terrible would greatly influence Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible films (1944, 1958).
Leni, like several other Ufa veterans, found an American patron in Carl Laemmle. Born in Laupheim, Germany in 1867, Laemmle was the head of Universal Studios and frequently brought in new talent from his homeland. When Leni was put under contract at Universal, his career as an art director ended. He was, from that point on, a high-profile director. His first film in America was The Cat and the Canary (1927), adapted from the 1922 play by John Willard.
On a dark and stormy night, a group of people are summoned to the decaying mansion of Cyrus West, who died exactly twenty years earlier. To spite his greedy relatives, West has willed his fortune to a distant relative, mild-mannered Annabelle West (Laura La Plante)...under one condition. Annabelle must be legally declared sane before the inheritance is final. The embittered relatives bed down for the night in the spooky manor and the plot is allowed to thicken. Sliding panels seem to devour the unfortunate guests and Annabelle seems particularly vulnerable to the house's paranormal phenomena. Further complicating a simple legal matter, the caretaker of a local asylum (himself rather demented) arrives to warn the guests that a maniac has escaped from the hospital: a bug-eyed, snaggletoothed fiend known as "the Cat." As the night wears on, the drama no longer seems to concern Annabelle's sanity, but her very survival.
The Cat and the Canary is one of the finest examples of the "old dark house" film, a forerunner to the modern horror movie. In films of this subgenre, a group of people are menaced by one or more shadowy figures within the confines of a gloomy mansion. Unrelenting horror was not fashionable, and the mounting suspense is occasionally spritzed with comic relief, to calm the nerves of the more delicate viewers. As chilling as they often are, the films ultimately bow to convention and negate the supernatural premises that made them so fascinating. In what might be termed the "Scooby-Doo Device," these silent thrillers almost always revealed -- in the final moments -- that the monstrous stalker is not a supernatural being at all, but a man-made hoax. Tod Browning's London After Midnight (1927) and Roland West's The Bat (1926) are two of the best-known examples.
The supernatural barrier would be broken by Browning's Dracula in 1931. Derived from a stage play (as most "old dark house" films were), Dracula followed the formula of the innocent maiden being menaced by an otherworldly ghoul, but refused to rip the mask off the villain in the final reel. This horror film was revolutionized but, as an unfortunate consequence, the more traditional "old dark house" films were rendered quaint and old-fashioned.
Regardless of its formulaic structure, The Cat and the Canary remains a powerful viewing experience. Leni's expressionist roots reveal themselves in a breathtaking prologue, in which old man West's circumstances are depicted in visual metaphors. West is held prisoner by medicine bottles that tower above his wheelchair, while the greedy relatives are represented by hissing cats that claw at his cowering form. A scene of the stern Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) walking through the mansion's desolate hallways -- candelabra in hand, tattered curtains billowing in the nocturnal wind -- would flavor haunted house films for decades to come.
Along with Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary, Leni's most prominent work is the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, starring Conrad Veidt, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Like The Cat and the Canary, Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932), it was a Germanic thriller produced at Universal Studios, where the "old dark house" picture evolved into the modern horror film.
Although a supreme cinematic stylist, Leni's role in helping shape the horror genre is often overlooked. One reason is that he died prematurely, of blood poisoning, at age 44, just two years after making The Cat and the Canary, and before being able to fulfill his extraordinary promise.
Leading lady Laura La Plante was a juvenile actor who appeared in her first film at age fifteen (The Great Gamble ). While working her way up to more prominent roles, she received a career boost when she was named a WAMPAS "Baby Star" of 1923. An acronym for the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers, WAMPAS each year (from 1922 to 1934) unveiled a baker's dozen of actresses destined for Hollywood stardom. Contrary to their moniker, the Baby Stars were not infants but full-grown women. Though not every chosen one ascended to the cinematic firmament, a surprising number of Baby Stars did achieve some degree of fame: Clara Bow (1924), Joan Crawford (1926), Janet Gaynor (1926), and Ginger Rogers (1932). Two years after appearing in The Cat and the Canary, La Plante reunited with director Leni in The Last Warning (1929), in which the "old dark house" formula was re-situated in a gloomy stage theater. That same year, she appeared in James Whale's Show Boat and The Love Trap, directed by William Wyler, who was another of Laemmle's German imports.
Director: Paul Leni
Producer: Paul Kohner (uncredited)
Screenplay: Alfred A. Cohn and Robert F. Hill, based on the play by John Willard
Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Production Design: Charles D. Hall
Cast: Laura La Plante (Annabelle West), Creighton Hale (Paul Jones), Flora Finch (Aunt Susan Sillsby), Tully Marshall (Roger Crosby), Forrest Stanley (Charles Wilder), Arthur Edmund Carewe (Harry Blythe).
by Bret Wood
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The plot now feels like a checklist of standard spooky-thriller elements: old millionaire Cyrus West passes away, leaving a fortune to be distributed by his attorney during a will-reading at his remote estate. On a dark and stormy night, the various relatives - most of them greedy vultures - are gathered to hear the news, with fortune smiling upon the most innocent of the bunch, Annabelle (Laura La Plante), who's unnerved to learn that the inheritance will be distributed to a different heir if she fails to make it through the night or is found to be insane. To make matters worse, a passing doctor informs the group that a maniac known as the Cat has escaped from a nearby asylum and is lurking somewhere in the night; of course, as we soon learn, he's already inside the house and sharpening his claws for the kill.
A veteran art director and costume designer, Paul Leni contributed his visual skills to a wide number of films including the striking 1924 anthology, Waxworks. The Cat and the Canary proved to be his big calling card in Hollywood and was an immediate hit, with audiences gleefully shuddering and leaping at its succession of perfectly executed thrills. Unfortunately Leni only directed three more films - 1927's The Chinese Parrot (presumed lost), the 1928 gothic masterpiece The Man Who Laughs, and 1929's eerie The Last Warning - before dying suddenly of blood poisoning the year his last picture was released. One can only imagine how he could have contributed to film during the sound era, as his innovative work still manages to impress after decades of technological advances. The breathtaking mobile camerawork, clever superimpositions and transitions, and snappy editing easily smother any threat of the film bogging down from its theatrical origins, and the cast clearly has fun with the fast-paced, witty banter (delivered in title cards, but it hardly matters). Filled with clutching hands, billowing curtains, monstrous faces in the dark, sinister housekeepers, and a host of suspicious characters, this remains late night viewing of the first order.
Not surprisingly, Leni's film inspired a host of remakes (most notably as the now-lost The Cat Creeps in 1930, a comedic version with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in 1939, and an all-star 1979 version directed by Radley Metzger), not to mention other animal-oriented old dark house yarns like The Bat Whispers, a play likewise filmed in various incarnations over the years. Leni's original has always been readily available on the repertory circuit and on home video through various public domain outfits, though elements tend to be on the shoddy side; it's a testament to the film's strength that even a substandard presentation can't diminish its entertainment value.
Fortunately that's not something to worry about with the second Image rendition on DVD, eclipsing an earlier 1998 pressing from David Shephard. The upgraded elements here look cleaner and sharper than before, with corrected tinting that emphasizes the gold-lit interior scenes with lamplit and the blue-tinged scenes illuminated only by the moon. No extra digital noise reduction was employed, so a few blemishes pop up here and there - but that also means no weird digital softness or blurred motion, so it proves to be the right choice. On the audio end you get two scores: the 1927 original by James Bradford in a newer performance by Eric Beheim, and a newly commissioned and very effective score by Franklin Stover. The disc also includes liner notes by Richard Peterson and a bonus short, the 1920 Harold Lloyd silent ghost laugher, Haunted Spooks, an above-average take-off of the haunted house formula with Lloyd in fine comedic form as usual.
For more information about The Cat and the Canary, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Cat and the Canary, go to TCM Shopping.
by Nathaniel Thompson
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The play opened in New York on 7 February 1922.
For information on other films based on John Willard's play The Cat and the Canary, please consult the entry for the 1935 Paramount production of the same name, directed by Elliott Nugent and starring Bob Hope (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40).