Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
This month, we’ll be celebrating Classic Monster Month with a lesser-known cornerstone of Universal Horror, The Cat and the Canary (1927).
By the mid-1920s, a new film movement had taken the world by storm. German expressionism was an overarching art movement that emerged in Germany after the devastation of World War I. Through dance, music, visual art, and filmmaking, German artists explored post-war psychological themes of madness and heightened emotions through anti-realism. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), with its surreal visuals and looming, fantastical sets is perhaps the most quintessential example of German expressionist films, along with classics such as Nosfertau (1921) and Faust (1926).
Before long, Hollywood began to take notice of the innovative new filmmaking movement and wanted in. But the relentlessly macabre and nihilistic themes of true German expressionism weren’t palatable to most American audiences. In 1925, Universal Pictures President Carl Laemmle saw Waxworks (1924), a film by German expressionist set designer turned director Paul Leni. Waxworks was a fantasy horror anthology film, and Laemmle was impressed by the humor and playfulness that Leni brought to the proceedings, a fun that he felt was sorely lacking in other works of German expressionism. Laemmle invited Leni to come to Hollywood and make a gothic but fun picture for Universal.
“[…] something entirely new was born that would deeply influence the signature look and feel of Universal Horror.”
For source material, Laemmle wanted to adapt The Cat and the Canary, a hit Broadway play of the “Old Dark House” genre. Old Dark House plays and films were some of the earliest examples of horror comedies, and they were Hollywood and Great Britain’s primary form of horror entertainment before Dracula (1931) made true horror a Hollywood sensation. Old Dark House stories always featured the eponymous spooky house, a cast of colorful characters brought together on a dark and stormy night, a possibly supernatural mystery, and a logical “Scooby-Doo” reminiscent explanation at the end. Old Dark House plays and films may have been mostly of the 20s and 30s, but their influence can be seen in countless modern classics, including Clue (1985) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
What sets The Cat And The Canary apart from its contemporaries is the endlessly creative and creepily atmospheric visual style that Leni infused into every frame. When the macabre creativity of German expressionism met the wonderfully entertaining story of the play, something entirely new was born that would deeply influence the signature look and feel of Universal Horror.
“Golly, What a Creepy House!“
The Cat and the Canary tells the story of a group of distant relatives of the deceased millionaire Cyrus West, who have gathered at his crumbling mansion twenty years after his death. West, a rumored madman, devised a strangely specific way his will should be read and his inheritance divided out. He knew his relations had been circling his money “like cats around a canary.” Therefore he specified that his will be locked away for twenty years when at midnight on the anniversary of his death, his relatives would finally gather for its reading and discover which of them would walk away from the evening a millionaire.
Gathered that night are West’s lawyer, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), estranged cousins Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), and Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley), gossipy Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) and her niece Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor), nervous and nerdy Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), and young Annabelle West (Laura LaPlante), the most distant of Cyrus West’s relatives. Welcoming them all is the creepy and ironically named Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), caretaker of the mansion and a quintessential gothic housekeeper, candelabra and all.
The evening is complicated by the suspicious and competitive relatives, the mysterious discovery of a live moth in a safe that was supposedly sealed for twenty years, and a clawed hand emerging from hidden passageways, causing priceless jewels — and people — to vanish. On top of that, a guard from a nearby insane asylum drops in to inform everyone that a murderous madman known as The Cat escaped and is probably hiding somewhere on the property.
Thrills, Chills, and Style
It’s a story full of dark comedy and unexpected twists, with an incredible cast who each embody their roles perfectly. But it’s Leni’s direction that catapults The Cat and the Canary into classic status. From the title screen, revealed as a hand wipes cobwebs away from a surface, we know we are in for a feast of endless visual creativity. The back story is introduced with a shot of the expressionist towers of West Mansion looming over the scraggly forest of the Hudson River Valley. The towers transform into medicine bottles through one of the films many effective superimposition tricks. The bottles that aide the dying Cyrus West begin to surround him like the bars of a birdcage, which in turn has been surrounded by snarling cats — as the metaphor of the title comes to life.
The title cards frequently go beyond a simple way to deliver dialogue and play a key role in the visuals of the film, with stylized fonts and playful animation. The house itself is shot with moody lighting, atmospheric set design, and expressionist angles. It makes the setting feel both fantastically creepy and extremely tangible. Watching the film, you can practically feel the drafty halls and smell the dust of the mansion yourself. The effect is that while the characters always counter the horror with comedy, the atmosphere gives everything such an effective aura of creepiness that The Cat and the Canary never loses sight of its gothic horror soul.
A Memorable Gathering
The actors populate the mansion with a colorful group that will make fans of Clue and other quirky mysteries feel right at home. Aunt Susan and Cecily offer an entertaining blend of nervousness and shallow cattiness. Creighton Hale as Paul is especially refreshing as a rare comic hero. He’s the love interest for our heroine and destined to the final showdown with the monstrous Cat. But unlike the bland heroes of many contemporary films, Paul is a charming but hapless nerd in the comic tradition of Harold Lloyd. It makes him a far more enjoyable hero to a modern audience.
Hale delivers effective physical and situational comedy that suggests great potential in the genre. He was previously an actor in dramatic films of the 20s and despite his knack for comedy demonstrated in The Cat and the Canary, he was among many of Hollywood’s casualties of the talkie era. Our heroine, Annable West, is played with a perfect balance of innocence and spunk by Laura LaPlante. While Annabelle is primarily relegated to something of a damsel in distress by the conventions of the genre, LaPlante emphasizes the determination and integrity that drives her as events close in around her. LaPlante was a top star at Universal during the silent era. But despite her seamless transition to talkies she was overshadowed by the flood of new stars in the era and never regained her star status.
Setting the Stage
The Cat and the Canary holds probably a greater influence over Universal Horror as we know it today than the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) or The Phantom of the Opera (1925) — the first two installments in the Universal Horror films. While those first two Lon Chaney led historical epics were adaptations of classic literature, The Cat and the Canary’s unique, German expressionist aesthetic and visual creativity would define the future of Universal’s Classic Monster films. Even the Cat himself, with his bulging eyes, snaggle teeth, and clawed hands, is a monster worthy of a place in the pantheon alongside Frankenstein and Dracula — if not for his limited screen time, then for the dread he inspires.
Leni’s direction is nothing short of revelatory. The Cat and the Canary ran the risk of looking like a static, filmed stage play, with wooden blocking and unimaginative settings. On the contrary, Leni gives even the most straightforward scenes a haunting eeriness with striking camera angles and expressionist lighting.
“One frame of the shadowy, cobwebbed beauty and you’ll know you’ve found Halloween heaven.”
The Cat and the Canary was a financial and critical hit, and today it is hailed as a classic. The film was one of the first to nail the difficult genre of horror/comedy. The characters are compelling and the laughs work, but Leni’s artistic vision keeps us in a state of suspense even as events get increasingly unbelievable. The film successfully balances an identity as both a horror parody and a genuinely spooky horror movie. That’s a feat that is rarely pulled off today, so it’s refreshing to see a successful iteration out of 1927.
The Cat and the Canary is available to watch for free on Amazon Prime and various other platforms, but I implore you to shell out a few bucks to rent the Kino restoration. The free print is in terrible condition and does not do justice to this visually stunning film. One frame of the shadowy, cobwebbed beauty and you’ll know you’ve found Halloween heaven. So curl under a blanket with some hot cider to keep the shivers at bay, and celebrate the season with the creepy comedy of The Cat and the Canary.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams! Share your thoughts on The Cat and the Canary with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!