Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Cat and the Canary

First we get a nifty title sequence where a mass of cobwebs is cleared way by a pair of gloved hands to reveal the title “The Cat and the Canary.”

Following the credits comes this mouth watering intertitle: “On a lonely, pine-clad hill overlooking the Hudson stood the grotesque mansion of an eccentric millionaire.”

Barely two minutes into the movie, and the narrative hadn’t even begun, but I was already hooked and stayed that way for the next 80 minutes.

Produced in 1927 and based on a very successful play by John Willard, “The Cat and the Canary” is an amusing mix of comedy and suspense that still plays well today.

It’s a silent movie, but thanks to the skill of the great stylist Paul Leni, director of the classic “The Man Who Laughs” (1928), we feel every ominous footstep, every creaking door and every tolling chime of the clock in that deserted mansion.

For 20 years that mansion has stood abandoned, but it now plays host to a will reading – the will of the aforementioned eccentric millionaire, Cyrus West. West’s will decreed that its contents would only be revealed 20 years after his death.

Among the attending relatives are Annabelle West (Laura LaPlante, very winning) and Paul Jones (Creighton Hale). Hale is a goofy-looking type, and hardly leading man material, but it must be stressed “The Cat and the Canary” is not just a thriller but a comedy as well

When the film was remade, very successfully in 1939, Bob Hope took over the role, so it’s not a typical square-jawed hero role. I didn’t like Hale at first, but by the end he won me over. Plus, he has the good taste to be ga ga over his (hopefully far removed) cousin Annabelle.

The will is read (at midnight, naturally) by West’s lawyer (Tully Marshall) and Annabelle receives the full share of the estate. Naturally some relatives are disappointed in not getting what they feel they deserve. Still everyone congratulates her and retires for the night.

Before retiring however, the West relatives learn a madman has escaped from the local asylum and is likely on the estate’s grounds. An intertitle says the lunatic thinks he’s a cat who tears his victims apart like canaries.

By the time morning comes around, disappearances, murder and mysterious hands emerging from the most unlikely places have occurred.

Who is behind all this mayhem? Is it the escaped Cat, or one of the relatives out to bump off Annabelle? In addition to the estate, Annabelle is now owner of the West diamonds, worth a small fortune.

Leni’s style is magnificent here, as the camera prowls through the mansion’s hallway like a voyeur. You never know what’s around the corner.

Often the title cards play as much a part of the action as the actors, shivering back and forth or moving backwards in giant letter in exaggerated fashion to portray a character’s fear.

When the clock strikes midnight, we see the interior workings of the clock as the mechanics strike 12 times, superimposed over the West relatives gathering around the table for the reading of the will. Great stuff, and a good antidote to anyone who thinks silent movies are boring. The whole movie is full of little touches like that.

Like I said, “The Cat and the Canary” was re-made in 1939 and it’s a terrific film. It made Bob Hope a star and cemented Paulette Goddard’s rise from starlet to leading lady. (Being Mrs. Charlie Chaplin didn’t hurt either). Even better is a team-up of Hope and Goddard one year later in another spook comedy, “The Ghost Breakers.”

Will many of today’s comedies – the Judd Apatow crapfests – be as fondly remembered in 60 years? I doubt it.

For anyone interested in dipping their toes in the silent movie pool, “The Cat and the Canary” is a great place to start. Oh, and I bet it will continue to entertain people for another 80 years.

Rating for “The Cat and the Canary”: Three stars.

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