“Spooks! Thrills! Shrieks! Laughs!” That was the tagline for the 1927 film The Cat and the Canary. This silent film was an early horror production from Universal the studio responsible for some of the great icons of horror films, movies such as Dracula and Frankenstein. While not as well known as those classics, The Cat and the Canary is still considered by critics to be “the cornerstone of Universal’s school of horror”.
The Cat and the Canary was based on the 1922 stage play of the same name by American playwright John Willard. Carl Laemmle, the German-born president of Universal pictures wanted to capitalize on a then-popular trend in Gothic horror films and thought Willard’s play would be a perfect choice. Willard was at first reluctant because he feared once movie goers saw the film and knew the surprise ending his play would lose any chance as a future moneymaker. Eventually Willard was convinced to allow his play to be turned into a film. Carl Laemmle then brought in German filmmaker Paul Leni to direct The Cat and the Canary. Laemmle had been impressed with Leni’s work in German expressionism films. But he especially liked the way Leni added “humor and playfulness during grotesque scenes”. Laemmle thought Leni would be a perfect choice to turn The Cat and the Canary into “an expressionist film suited to an American audience.” Leni delivered by reducing some of the “excessive stylization” of German expressionism but he kept similar camera effects (a hand wiping away cobwebs, dramatic shadows, billowing curtains) to create a mood of horror. Yet, at the same time, Leni included elements of humor, like those that had originally impressed Laemmle, and successfully balanced the horror with the comedic to turn The Cat and the Canary into “the standard by which all future haunted house comedy-thrillers would be measured”. The Cat and the Canary was a box office hit and critics of the time agreed and proclaimed it “how a story should be told”. Modern critics are a bit more divided with some proclaiming “everything is so exaggerated” and only “mildly scary” while others insist it’s “hugely entertaining” and “had a great effect on the horror genre”.
The Cat and the Canary went on to be filmed five other times. Most famous of these other versions is the 1939 film The Cat and the Canary starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. I actually saw this version for the first time ever just a few months ago. I am a huge fan of the “cowardly hero” type of horror-comedy films (see my reviews of The Gorilla with the Ritz brothers and King of the Zombies starring Mantan Moreland for example) and I loved the Bob Hope version of The Cat and the Canary. Unfortunately, it is NOT in the Public Domain. But then I discovered that the 1927 silent film version was. I was thrilled to discover that the silent film is every bit as good as I had heard it was. There are wonderful visuals. Long, spooky hallways filled with billowing curtains is an absolute classic scene. Clawed hands reach out of hidden compartments to swipe at unsuspecting victims. Bodies fall out of secret passageways. The wide, scared eyes and horrified faces of the unsuspecting house guests. All are great good fun and, at the same time, set a nice shivery mood. Interspersed with the horror are comedic moments. Paul, one of the possible heirs to the house and the hidden jewels, is the film’s “cowardly hero”. He is constantly getting into trouble. An absolute hoot is the scene where he ends up hiding under the bed as two of his female relatives start to get ready to go to sleep. Paul gets stuck and cannot sneak away and, boy!, is Aunt Susan unhappy when she checks under the bed for ghosts. Yes, some of these scenes of horror and comedy might seem like nothing new to modern movie fans but The Cat and the Canary is the reason fans are familiar with similar elements in the first place; The Cat and the Canary did it first, made it popular, and was copied by many, many later films.
The Cat and the Canary is a black and white silent film that runs a little short of an hour and a half. The video has held up very well to the test of time. Much of the film takes place in a darkened spooky old house but the images are surprisingly clear and nowhere near as hard to see as similar scenes in many much younger films. The Internet Archive has two versions of the film available to download or watch online. Version #1 has no audio at all but Version #2 has a sound track added by the uploader. I actually liked the sound track version much better. I thought it added excellent mood but some film fans may enjoy the “real” silent version more. The Cat and the Canary is an excellent way to start off October, our favorite month of chills, thrills, and fun. It has great spooky mood but also lots of laughs and is not too scary for younger movie fans. Enjoy!