Audiences today complain about Hollywood’s dearth of creativity, with endless remakes peppering your local multiplex. But it’s ironic to hear this when many classic movies were made by this process of reskinning an old cat. My first foray into the cinematic work of Bob Hope started with 1939’s The Cat and the Canary, a fun horror mystery with shades of Agatha Christie and James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), but this wasn’t the first time audiences had traveled through this story. The 1927 silent original has fantastic sets and expressive acting, despite how it falls in line with other horror films of the period, mired in both German Expressionism and overly obvious intertitles.
Relatives of an eccentric millionaire congregate in his house twenty years after his death to hear the reading of his will. The heir, Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) must stay the night and be judged competent in order to secure her inheritance. If she’s declared insane the money will go to a second, unknown heir. But when spooky things start happening are they real or a means of driving Annabelle mad?
The 1939 interpretation is nearly a direct copy of this one, with the addition of Bob Hope’s zingers. Both focus on a group of disparate relatives ensconced in a creepy house for the night. Each has a beautiful woman – Laura La Plante in ’27, Paulette Goddard in ’39 – inheriting money if she can keep her wits about her, and each has a male paramour interested in them (Creighton Hale and Bob Hope, respectively).
German director Paul Leni’s story doesn’t waste time at barely 90-minutes, but like some silent films I’ve watched the intertitles are annoying in how pointed they are. Now this is part of the intertitles job – to tell audiences dialogue they wouldn’t ordinarily worry about otherwise, but the script tries too hard to tell us what the title means. The escaped mental patient is known as the Cat, which makes sense. But the reptition comes off like the writer recently discovered metaphor with three different intertitles comparing the deceased Cyrus West and, later, Annabelle as canaries surrounded by cats. As if things couldn’t be more obvious, Cyrus’ death is overlaid with cats swiping at him.
Director Paul Leni doesn’t appear to have the largesse of other silent directors. The most innovative technique to my eyes is the use of overlay, doled out as liberally as the cat and canary metaphor. The set design coupled with the actors silent expression enhances the terror, particularly once creepy hands start reaching out for the delicate Annabelle!
Though not as terrifying as other silent features, Leni balances the humor with the fright with the former manifesting in the squinty-eyed visage of Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox). A precursor for another dark-haired, ominous actress, The Wizard of Oz’s (1939) Margaret Hamilton, Mattox pops up unexpectedly and appears to float from room to room. Front-loaded on the film’s first half is a fair bit of misplaced humor, like Annabelle introducing herself to Paul by reminding him of being dropped on his head. A bit rude, Annabelle!
Their names are hard to recall to most film fans, but stars Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale and Forrest Stanley were prolific silent film actors. Like Paulette Goddard after her, Laura La Plante is the perfect prey throughout the movie. She’s beautiful with a highly emotive face that’s mired in pain as she tries to convince everyone she isn’t mad. Creighton Hale looks like Harold Lloyd with the glasses and suit on, but his Paul is the typical bumbling hero that Hope portrayed in the later incarnation. Outside of Mattox, the rest of the supporting players are rather forgettable with the exception of Gertrude Astor and Flora Finch as Cecily and Aunt Susan. The mystery ends up being a wet slap, purely because the rest of the players don’t do much to stand out short of showing concern.
Maybe because I saw it first, but I prefer the 1939 version of the tale. The original Cat and the Canary is a well-shot film for the time with good performances, but the intertitles are too simple and the first half takes a bit to find its footing.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.