Old Dark House Valuation

These are my programme notes from Hippfest’s screening of Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY ~

John Willard’s 1922 comedy-thriller play The Cat and the Canary has been filmed four times: probably the 1939 version with Bob Hope is the most-screened; the second version, The Cat Creeps, from 1930, sadly seems to be lost, apart from a few fragments; the 1978 remake, a rare fully-clothed outing from soft-porn specialist Radley Metzger, is an oddity. But it’s this 1927 production from the German émigré director Paul Leni, that really tickles the ribs and sends shivers up the spine at the same time: a cinematic workout for the whole skeleton.

All the surviving footage from the 1930 version.

It’s also a highly cinematic spectacle, with a mobile camera that looms and lurches (at one point even taking the point-of-view of a painting as it falls from a wall), expressionistic sets, eccentric title cards and artful superimpositions – the invalid Cyrus West, encased in the medicine bottles that give him life, is attacked by giant black cats, embodiments of his greedy relatives: a startling image! And that’s just the opening sequence.

Leni had directed Waxworks in Germany, likewise a riot of visual ideas, but he had a playful side too: he seems to be the only man ever to adapt a crossword puzzle into a film. Sadly, he died too soon, but not before giving us a trio of superbly atmospheric, macabre movies, rounded out by The Last Warning (another horror-comedy) and The Man Who Laughs (indescribable: a Victor Hugo period drama which inspired Batman’s ever-grinning foe, the Joker). Another hit, the Charlie Chan thriller The Chinese Parrot, is sadly lost.

An eerie mansion; a bickering throng of relatives; a will to be read at midnight; an escaped lunatic; sliding panels and hidden passages; a vanishing corpse – the story offers a dizzying array of melodramatic clichés, sent up with gusto and presented with all the shadowy spookshow atmospherics Hollywood could muster. While Lon Chaney’s freaky revenge thrillers were certainly a major influence on the horror cycle of the thirties (Dracula, Frankenstein et al), this macabre caper provided a lot of the inspiration too. The sepulchral sets were designed by Englishman Charles D. Hall, who had come to the States to work for Chaplin and would go on to create the creaky castles for most of the later Universal Studios monster movies.

It’s very much an international affair, reminding us how Hollywood has always sucked into its orbit the top filmmaking and acting talent of the world: Irishman Creighton Hale is the timorous hero, the kind of role he would reprise several times: he’s one of the Hippodrome’s favourite actors, having previously been screened in Annie Laurie and last year’s hit Seven Footprints to Satan. Hale had played staunch leading man types in movie serials of the teens (e.g. The Exploits of Elaine) before donning Harold Lloyd specs here to embody a comic milquetoast. The glamorous Laura La Plante, former bathing beauty, a big star of the silent and early talkie era, is top-billed, but it’s the grotesque supporting players who really bring out the goose-pimply fun…

The cadaverous Tully Marshall, resembling a kind of silly-putty skeleton, makes a lugubrious lawyer; Martha Mattox as the housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant, manages to make any shot she appears in startling, then unsettling; Flora Finch flutters as daffy Aunt Susan, and even the small role of a passing milkman becomes an exercise in grotesquerie, thanks to the chinless Joe Murphy, who was best-known for embodying yokel Andy Gump, a newspaper cartoon character.

And that’s what this is, in many ways, a live-action cartoon, with animated intertitles and a painted mansion to add to the funny-pages feel. Everything, from the actors to the sets to the exciting, swooping camerawork is designed to add to a heightened sense of macabre hilarity: Leni proves that German expressionism isn’t just there for the nasty things in life, it can be good for a laugh, too.

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4 Responses to “Old Dark House Valuation”

  1. Offshoot: Hope and Goddard starred in a follow-up, “Ghost Breakers”, which was remade as “Scared Stiff” with Martin and Lewis. It wasn’t a sequel, but new characters in a new haunted house locating a new inheritance. The haunted house only figures at the end; the story travels from New York to a Caribbean island via an ocean liner full of suspicious characters.

    The 1978 C&TC is drab tax-shelter stuff, with a pair of lesbians for G-rated titillation and traces of sadism that are merely off-putting instead of scary. Too many daylight scenes, and dully real settings. One clever idea: the deceased filmed his will, so we have Wilfred Hyde-White holding forth from a screen at the end of the dining table, as if seated there. While serving the heirs, the housekeeper walks behind the screen — and appears on it at the same moment.

    In “Ghost Breakers” there’s a big thunderstorm and Hope quips, “Basil Rathbone must be giving a party!” A reference to Rathbone’s genre pictures or a more inside joke about Mrs. Rathbone’s lavish entertaining?

  2. One thing I really like in the ’78 Radley Metzger oddity is Edward Fox, who invents a style of expressionist acting — adopting a frozen expression, then letting his face slowly relax, then taking up another — which may actually derive from some of the stylised performances in the silent. It’s really something.

    Also like the fact that he appears, coming through the window, “hunting an escaped lunatic,” with a pistol in each hand. Suave.

  3. Noble Johnson’s zombie in a suit of armour in Ghost Breakers is one of the most indefinably haunting images of my childhood.

  4. Yeah, I thought that one had some good spooky moments.

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