Based on the hit 1922 black comedy play “The Cat Creeps” by John Willard, Universal imported German Expressionism director Paul Leni (Waxworks / Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) to handle the atmospheric chores of this tongue-in-cheek mystery / whodunnit / haunted house thriller, with a fine roster of character actors supporting the studio’s young starlet Laura La Plante.
Leni’s film is unusually zippy, wasting no time in plowing into the story and keeping things moving at a no-nonsense pace. Whether the editing was Leni’s design or Universal’s own stylistic imprint, Cat and the Canary moves well, feeling quite contemporary in spite of the now clichéd mannerisms where a group of bickering relatives are assembled for a will reading with rather mortal results.
Willard’s story is pretty simple – pawed by his greedy, feline relatives, Cyril West dies leaving a will where everyone must wait a full 20 years before the beneficiary of his estate can be dolled out, plus one unique caveat: should a doctor find the heir bonkers, the riches should go to a second nominee, as outlined in another sealed envelope.
Naturally, the secured identity of that person’s been violated, and the goal is to drive heir #1, pretty Annabelle West (La Plante) mad from fright. Is an escape maniac really to blame for a murder in the house? Will Annabelle survive the night unscathed?
The humour still holds up because it’s been appropriated so many times in other campy, tongue-in-cheek variations (Clue easily comes to mind), but what’s surprising are some unique elements and cinematic moments which have appeared in several genre classics. Perhaps the most striking is the early hallway tracking shot where Leni’s camera moves down a lengthy hallway while a breeze blows the sheer drapes forward – a shot appropriated by James Whale in his own haunted house opus, The Old Dark House [M] (1932), and later appropriated by Dario Argento (plus generous Maria Bava-styled lighting) in Suspiria (1977). Argento’s version still retains some architectural semblance to the tall, thin windows in Cat, and the billowing sheets are a recurring element whenever his camera tracks down a hallway where pretty ballerinas are lodged and likely to die soon.
Cyril West’s death decree also mandated the employment of a maid / caretaker, and the chilly, humorless woman in charge of the massive mansion feels a little familiar… perhaps because Mel Brooks borrowed her persona for Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein (1974).
Restored in 2004 by Photoplay Productions – the same group behind Phantom of the Opera (1925) restoration – this version was mastered from a decent surviving nitrate print with good details (especially in Leni’s massive close-ups when a demented psychologist ‘assesses’ poor Annabelle), and features a newly commissioned score by Neil Brand. (Its largely orchestral design + Theremin is a perfect fit.)
Willard’s play was adapted again for a more broadly comedic 1939 version starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, and more interestingly in an ornate 1978 British production directed by Radley Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet [M]). Willard himself contributed script material to Black Waters (1929), and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).
Like Dracula (1930), Universal reportedly filmed a Spanish cast version of Cat and the Canary, directed by Enrique Tovar Avalos and George Medford. The story was also used for a 1959 U.S. and a 1961 German TV production.
Leni would make four films for Universal – The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Chinese Parrot (1927), The Man Who Laughs (1928), and The Last Warning (1929) with Laura La Plante - before dying at 44 from blood poisoning in 1929.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan