In the early part of the 20th century, there was a genre of stage play that was very popular. The genre was called the “Old, dark house” play, and the formula went something like this; a group of estranged, but related people are drawn to an old, decrepit mansion where a will is to be read. For whatever reason, the characters are required to spend the night in this old, creepy place. Through the night, they are tormented by ghouls, ghosts, maniacs, or some other terror until morning, when it is revealed that the torments were the work of one of the characters we met at the beginning of the story - trying to get rid of their rivals to whatever fortune of which the others stand in the way. The perpetrator is hauled away by the authorities and all is well. There were many very popular plays that followed this formula and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood told this type of story. One of the first, and probably still the best, was Paul Leni’s 1927 silent film, THE CAT AND THE CANARY.
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THE CAT AND THE CANARY set in stone the conventions for film versions of the “old, dark house” story from major Hollywood films to Scooby Doo. Though we are familiar with the rhythms and conventions of the ‘old, dark house’ story, when watching THE CAT AND THE CANARY it is almost like watching folkloric history itself being made. I don’t think this is overstating the matter.
On its own merits, THE CAT AND THE CANARY is an excellent film. Played for laughs just as much as for chills, this film has a style and energy all its own. Paul Leni’s direction is moody and light at all the right moments. Laura La Plante is wonderful as Annabelle West, the heroine who is named in the will as the heir to a madman’s fortune - IF she can be judged sane by the time the night is over. Creighton Hale is likeable and funny as Paul Jones, the cowardly comic relief who must find his courage, and Martha Mattox is brilliant as the creepy maid, Mammy Pleasant - clearly the inspiration for Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
THE CAT AND THE CANARY is a fun gem from the silent era that has actually aged better than many of the films from that time. It is a film that deserves a rediscovery from modern audiences.
THE CAT AND THE CANARY fun facts - Creighton Hale’s heavy Irish accent prevented him from finding much work in sound film.
While the sets were designed by director Paul Leni, they were built by Charles D. Hall, who would later design and build the sets for DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. In fact, many of the sets used here were re-dressed for FRANKENSTEIN.
Paul Leni did not speak English well at the time. Writer Robert Hill spoke good German, however, and acted as interpreter for the cast and crew.
Mammy Pleasant - “This is an evil omen. Something terrible will happen here tonight.”
The Guard - “Nobody leaves this house tonight!”
Roger Crosby - (after a clock strikes) “That clock hasn‘t struck in twenty years - since the old man died!”