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Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror – THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)



Once again, we return to early versions of clichés we’ve know for ages. Based on a popular stage play of the era, The Cat and the Canary is a comedic haunted house thriller based around the now-familiar motif: the reading of the rich relative’s will to his horde of greedy relatives. Other familiar elements include: secret passages, an escaped lunatic, a cut telephone line, a creepy claw that reaches out of walls, a body that tumbles out of a closet and one more cliché that I’ll discuss later. The only thing missing: the painting of the late Cyrus West is lacking a pair of eyeholes that allow an unseen spy to watch the proceeding of the room. Still, there are other haunted house movies to come, perhaps we’ll get to that one later. Clichés they may be, but as I stated in my entry on The Raven, there’s a lot of fun to be had in seeing them in some of their earliest realizations.

As is usually the case when you inherit a fortune from someone who owns a spooky house, you must spend the night in said house. In this instance, however, that is not a stipulation of the will, this time Annabelle, the chosen recipient of the fortune, and the other relatives must stay the night because of the danger of the aforementioned escaped lunatic. As the reluctant inhabitants of the house begin to disappear and strange occurrences seem to center only around Annabelle when she’s alone, her sanity begins to come into question, and by the conditions of the will, she must be certified sane by a physician or the money will pass to another specified heir

I’M GOING TO DISCUSS A REVEALING PLOT POINT HERE, SO YOU MAY WANT TO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM. As you may have guessed, every thing is eventually explained as the machinations of the heir who the fortune will fall to if Annabelle is declared insane, and that’s the final cliché I want to discuss: what I’ve come to call the Scooby-Doo villain. Anyone who’s watched cartoons since the late sixties is familiar with the idea of the miscreant who dresses up as a monster as a means to achieve his goal, usually preying on local superstitions or, as in this case, trying to drive someone mad. It’s amusing to see this idea dates back long before such villains could be foiled by a gang of teenagers and their dog. There’s even a very Scooby-esque unmasking of the culprit. I wonder if there have been many real-life criminals who have used this technique.

The film has a great cast that includes the lovely Laura LaPlante and Gertrude Astor, Creighton Hale as the nebbish hero, Flora Finch as a doddering aunt who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jean Stapleton, and Martha Mattox as a creepy maid called Mammy Pleasant who could give lessons to Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers. But the real star is the director: Paul Leni. This was my introduction to Leni, a German expressionist who made his American debut with this film. Though it’s often very funny, Leni never lets go of the thriller aspects of the film with its dark moving shadows, slow tracking shots down darkly lit halls and long curtains that blow eerily in the wind. He also makes some dramatic use of superimposed shots. The film opens with a shot of the huge and imposing mansion with a distraught Cyrus West superimposed over it. As we are told of his greedy relatives waiting for him to die, the mansion is replaced by empty medicine bottles and menacing cats pawing at poor Cyrus. Later a scary skull looms over a character’s head when he blanches at the word “death”. Leni even extends his touch to the dialogue cards as the words become large and animated when a character is frightened. This also may be the earliest example I’ve seen of stylized credits: the first visual in the film is that of a gloved hand reaching past cobwebs to wipe away a thick layer of dust to reveal the film’s title.

It makes me look forward to Leni’s other film on my list, The Man Who Laughs. It’s sad that he died in 1929 at the age of 44. I would love to have seen what he might have done with sound and color.

This week’s supporting features:

Bugs Bunny and Witch Hazel in Bewitched Bunny (1954)

The Our Gang short Boxing Gloves (1929), the first short in the series to feature Jackie Cooper, who passed away earlier this month.

I’m not sure when I’ll get to the next film. Probably May 27th at the latest, so I’ll leave the schedule open for the next couple of weeks. The film in question will be:

The Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff and Zita Johann

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