Written by Raquel at Out of the Past Blog
As soon as we see the mysterious hand wipe away cobwebs and dust to reveal the film title we know instantly that we’re in for a spooky treat. The Cat and the Canary (1927) is an early Universal horror film that influenced many other films in that genre in the coming decades. It’s considered one of the original “old dark house” mysteries. Think Knives Out (2019) but for the Jazz Age.
Directed by Paul Leni and based on the stage play by John Willard, The Cat and the Canary takes place in a creaky, old gothic mansion. The millionaire Cyrus West has been driven mad by greedy relatives. He is the canary in a cage, tormented by money hungry cats. When Cyrus passes away, he leaves behind a will that must not be opened before the 20th anniversary of his demise. On that day, his relatives descend upon the mansion where Cyrus’ lawyer Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) reads the will that Cyrus’ devoted maid Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox) has kept locked up for him. It turns out that Cyrus’ young niece Annabelle (Laura La Plante) will inherit Cyrus’ fortune only if she can prove her sanity. As the rest of the clan wait for the results of Annabelle’s examination, a deranged killer, known as The Cat, has escaped from an asylum and made his way to the mansion. His first victim is Crosby. Is Annabelle next?
German born director Paul Leni had extensive experience as an art director and costume designer before he became a film director. The Cat and the Canary is a great example of German expressionism from a highly visual director that was custom fit to suit the tastes of an American audience. For all of its spooks, there are plenty of laughs. Creighton Hale, who plays Annabelle’s cousin Paul Jones, provides comic relief with his naive blunders and Harold Lloyd-like appearance. If you are able to look past the kissing cousins storyline, Hale and La Plante play well off one another. Both actors were established silent film stars at the height of their fame. Unfortunately, they would both suffer from a decline in their careers with the advent of talking pictures.
The Cat and the Canary will appeal to anyone who is in the mood for a good gothic horror comedy or gravitate towards films that explore greed and eccentricity. When the film was released in 1927, it was a huge success with both critics and audiences. Universal would soon establish itself as the leading studio for all things horror. The Cat and the Canary was remade numerous times for film and television; the most notable being Paramount’s 1939 adaptation directed by Elliott Nugent in 1939 and starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The horror tropes the original production established would be used in countless films to come.
Cat and the Canary (1927) is featured in The Film Detective's 31 Days of Horror, Sunday October 18 at 10PM ET and can be streamed on The Film Detective app - Watch here >