“On a lonely pine-clad hill overlooking the Hudson, stood the grotesque mansion of an eccentric millionaire…”
It’s a dark, rainy October evening as I type this. And what could be more fitting, when I’m writing about The Cat and the Canary (1927)? If you’re looking for entertainment to pair with spooky autumn weather, you can’t go wrong with this archetypal “old dark house” movie. Just look at that title card I quoted up there.
Every “old dark house” cliche exists magnificently in this ’20s film: a vast cobweb-bedecked mansion, an appropriately eclectic assortment of relatives gathered for the reading of a will, a gaunt and forbidding housekeeper still loyal to her deceased master, and wall panels that will swing open if you press just the right piece of the ornately-carved trim. Perchance, there is even risk of murder… *thunder clap*
Yes, it’s that very same corny-but-endearing plot we’ve all seen a thousand times: an eccentric millionaire dies and leaves his vast fortune to one lucky heir–provided that the oddball conditions of his will are met. In this particular movie, twenty stinking years must pass before the will can be read and then the heir has to prove he’s insanity-free, since the millionaire had been suspected of mental illness and had been very tiffed about it. Take that, judgmental relatives of twenty years ago!
Corny though the story may be, it’s the film’s all-or-nothing, thrills-and-chills style that turns The Cat and the Canary into a classic. I love the opening shot of a gloved hand brushing aside the thick layer of dust and cobwebs covering the film’s title. The backstory that follows contains enough Gothic atmosphere to satisfy any Halloween fan, with its matte images of the brooding mansion and inspired shot of the ill millionaire being dwarfed by giant medicine bottles and threatening black cats.
We’re told, “for twenty years, the tormented ghost of Cyrus West wandered nightly through the deserted corridors.” A tracking shot moves through deserted hallways, turning our point of view into the ghost’s. Tracking shots add a dash of drama to The Cat and the Canary whenever possible, along with the Expressionist-inspired lighting. You may have come for the familiar story, but will definitely stay for the visuals.
The Cat and the Canary was based on a 1922 stage play, which ran for nearly 150 performances. When I think about it, many of cinema’s haunted house tropes must have originated from the stage. There are similar ones in The Bat (1926), also based on a play. We don’t get the sense that these films are working off of raw inspiration, but do feel that they’re covering some very well-trod ground.
It’s a decent cast, especially the inspired choice of Flora Finch as the gossipy aunt. (Flora, you know, used to be paired with John Bunny in dozens of Vitagraph comedies). The pretty Universal star Laura La Plante is the heiress Annabelle. Annabelle’s sweetheart Paul Jones is played by Creighton Hale, who you might recognize as the comic relief in Orphans of the Storm. If Harold Lloyd made round glasses jaunty and fashionable, Creighton Hale’s the one who made them nerdy. Paul is the cowardly bumbling type at first but he does get to prove his manliness by the end. He also loses the owlish glasses, in a kind of male version of the “nerdy girl loses the glasses and now she’s no longer ugly” stereotype (thanks a lot, says glasses-wearing me).
Fans of Dracula (which is everyone) will be fascinated to see a very familiar shot of a face in darkness with just the eyes illuminated by tiny spotlights. Yes, a few years before Bela Lugosi, none other than round-nerdy-glasses-wearing Creighton Hale got to debut that particular effect for Universal. (As far as I’ve seen, anyways.) It’s well-done, too–I always thought they could’ve adjusted the spotlights on Bela’s face a little better!
I wasn’t blown away by the ending, and I suspect you won’t be, either–but who cares? It’s still a crowd-pleaser with truly great cinematography, and will no doubt become one of your Halloween viewing traditions. The Cat and the Canary is available on YouTube, although not with great soundtracks (and some uploads don’t have music at all), or can be viewed on Fandor. And you can buy the Kino DVD on Amazon, of course.
To see my reviews of horror movies and articles on spooky topics from previous Octobers, check out the list here.