German director Paul Leni’s Hollywood debut was a test case for grafting his homeland’s Ufa Studios Expressionism directly onto American cinematic mores. It was also the signal hit that gave real momentum to producer Carl Laemmle’s and Universal Studio’s epochal run of horror films, reaching its apex few years later with Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein. But The Cat and the Canary was also a transcription of John Willard’s popular Broadway play, one of a run of similar successes that mocked the clichés of the gothic chiller and precluded the seriousness of the German genre: the horror film would only truly have its day in Hollywood after Black Tuesday shattered the ebullience of the Jazz Age. Leni, whose storied Waxworks (1923) had made his name, tackled the project with gusto nonetheless, and The Cat and the Canary’s good-natured mockery is infused, especially at the outset, with Leni’s expert, semi-experimental cinematic wit.
Particularly bewitching is the prelude, a nearly avant-garde artefact in which the film’s core legend, the fate of aged crank Cyrus West in his colossal gabled mansion. His torment by ailments and relatives eager to inherit his great fortune is essayed through succeeding transformations, the house turning into the many bottles of medicine that dominated West’ life, and then into gigantic clawing cats, to which West is the victimised canary, terrorised into his deathbed by the corrosive greed of his family. Such a visualisation charges the story with all sorts of morbid echoes, as well as laying down the theme of West’s riches being a self-consuming curse. This overture gives way to first-person camerawork, roaming hungrily through the corridors of West’s mansion, with its wind-billowed curtains and moonlit passageways, evoking an interloping presence, as a mysterious clawed intruder tries to penetrate West’s safe, anticipating the lexicon of Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter a half-century later for suggesting dread presences.
Leni subsequently tries not to let the plot’s staid, satiric dynamics spoil his fun. West’s artful revenge on his family is to have made them wait twenty years for his will’s reading, when, on a gusty night, lawyer Crosby (Tully Marshall) comes to the remote mansion. The creaky estate is still tended by funereal-faced housekeeper Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), whose motto is “I don’t need the living!” Crosby’s arrival precedes a gathering of the potential beneficiaries for the fateful reading. Comely young Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) is the chosen heir, but she faces an uphill battle in surviving the night. An escaped lunatic is supposedly on the loose, forcing them all to remain encamped in the house. Crosby vanishes and Annabelle is robbed of a valuable necklace by the phantom-like intruder, who utilises secret passages and hidden doors tucked throughout the house, leaving everyone else thinking that the distraught Annabelle must be cuckoo. Annabelle’s only steadfast (yet dubiously helpful) supporter is Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), a scaredy-cat in Harold Lloyd glasses who flees at the faintest sign of menace.
The Cat and the Canary resolves, after an inventive and stylish first act, into a familiar and efficient, if still entertaining comedy-thriller, not as flagrant in its perverse drollery as Whale’s riposte, The Old Dark House (1932). Leni’s definitive approach offers, nonetheless, the model for most successful cross-genre pieces that would follow, in rendering the gothic elements full-bodied and free from mockery, whilst allowing the heroes’ inadequacy in the face of danger to provide the humor, echoing through to the likes of The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Ghostbusters (1984). Some of the humor is very broad indeed, as when Paul hides under a bed and can’t extricate himself at the expense of revealing his cowardice to two more female relatives (Gertrude Astor and Flora Finch), only for them to start stripping down for the night before his guilty but still watchful eye. But the hysterical mood cranks successfully in part because of the outsized reactions. Leni plays the Cat and his predations straight, particularly in the still-disorienting shock moment of the discovery of Crosby’s secreted corpse. This approach has an urgency that distantly anticipates the showier gamesmanship of Halloween (1978) and all its contemporary progeny.
Brilliant little fillips dot the film, pocked with shadows and dusty, cobweb-shrouded mystery. Leni evokes sound effects and unseen wheels of fate through inspired use of superimpositions, some wittily animated title cards, and restlessly clever framing. Hidden panels open and close with teasing menace in the background of shots, and disembodied hands reach into view, whether the misshapen gauntlet of the cat or those of people performing such innocent tasks as ringing bells and offering greetings, actions laden with potential hazard. One extraordinary shot depicts the inner workings of a grandfather clock that hasn’t chimed since West’s death. As the gathering sits down for the reading, the long-quiescent machinery of the clock – and of West’s contorted mind – stutter to mutual, ominous life. A droll homage late in the film proffers a Caligari look-alike in the form of the visiting doctor (Lucien Littlefield) who examines Annabelle for signs of madness, all stringy hair, pebble glasses, and unctuous manners as he insists on holding Annabelle’s eyelids wide to check her pupils. Paul’s penetration of the hidden labyrinths, manning up just in time to take on the Cat in the breathless last reel, is rendered as pure, if brief, Grand Guignol. The Cat is first properly glimpsed in entirety, Leni cutting from a high shot of Paul’s stunned reaction to a close-up of the Cat’s bizarre, misshapen face, before man and monster collide in a brawling tussle. Even if the whole film suggests Leni’s talent is on a tether, it’s still great fun.
Roderick Heath is a writer and film critic who lives in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, Australia. He’s loved having the daylights scared out of him since he had to hide behind a cinema chair during Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at age six.