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The Cat and the Canary: The Photoplay Restoration (as part of the “American Silent Horror Collection”) (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

November 22, 2010 by  



A wonderful blend of German Expressionism and comedy, “The Cat and the Canary” is a wonderful silent horror classic courtesy of filmmaker Paul Leni and a wonderful performance by Laura La Plante.  A wonderful inclusion for the “American Silent Horror Collection” DVD box set.

Images courtesy of © 2004 Photoplay Productions, LTD.  2007 Kino Intl. Corp. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Cat and the Canary: The Photoplay Restoration (as part of the “American Silent Horror Collection”)

YEAR OF FILM: 1927

DURATION: 80 minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Color tinted, Music by Neil Brand, performed by the members of The City of Prague Philharmonic, conducted by Timothy Brock

RATED: Not Rated

COMPANY: KINO International

Released Dated: October 9, 2007

Based on the play “The Cat and the Canary” by John Willard

Directed by Paul Leni

Titles by Walter Anthony

Adaptation and Screenplay by Alfred A. Cohn

Adaptation by Robert F. Hill

Music by Hugo Riesenfeld

Cinematography by Gilbert Warrenton

Edited by Martin G. Cohn

Art Direction by Charles D. Hall

Starring:

Laura La Plante as Annabelle West

Creighton Hale as Paul Jones

Forrest Stanley as Charles “Charlie” Wilder

Tully Marshall as Roger Crosby

Gertrude Astor as Cecily Young

Flora Finch as Aunt Susan Sillsby

Arthur Edmund Carewe as Harry Blythe

Martha Mattox as Mammy Pleasant

George Siegmann as The Guard

Lucien Littlefield as Dr. Ira Lazar

A decaying mansion and a stormy night are the archetypal setting for mystery and chaos when a pack of greedy relatives gather for the reading of a twenty-year-old will. But before the West fortune can be handed down, the family must endure a night in the cavernous manor, unnerved by the news that an escaped lunatic is at large.

So clever and stylish that it would appear to be the wellspring of all �old dark house� mysteries, THE CAT AND THE CANARY was in 1927 already a theatrical chestnut among similar popular melodramas. Even so, THE CAT is a milestone of the American horror film, thanks to the ingenuity of its director, Paul Leni. One of the first film artists imported from Germany by Hollywood, Leni invigorated this stage-bound genre with expressionist flair, transforming conventional material into a visual feast.

When it comes to silent films, it’s one thing to tell people you love silent comedies or silent dramas but the mere mention of silent horror films may make some chuckle.  Afterall, many people are not familiar with silent films and their images of silents are of the comedy kings Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, the innocent Mary Pickford or the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks.  But the truth is, there are a good number of horror films created back in the silent era not just in the United States but from other countries as well.

Fortunately, KINO International has given people a chance to sample classic American silent horror films through their DVD box set release titled “American Silent Horror Collection” featuring “The Man Who Laughs” (1928), “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (1920), “The Cat and the Canary” (1927), “The Penalty” (1920) and the documentary “Kingdom of Shadows”.

One of the films I was definitely looking forward to seeing is the Paul Leni silent comedy horror classic “The Cat and the Canary” which was an adaptation of the  popular stage play by John Willard (and would go on to have three more film adaptations in 1930, 1930 and 1979).  “The Cat and the Canary” would feature German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni in the first of four films he would create for Universal Studio films in the late 1920’s until his death from blood poisoning caused by an ulcerated tooth in 1929.

“The Cat and the Canary” would still include Leni’s German Expressionist style by incorporating psychological horror with the use of scary and dark set design, camera angles and lighting but for this film, it would utilize comedy in a way that would tone down the darkness of the film by adding a dose of humor which the American audience would enjoy.  Sure enough, the film was a box office success and received positive critical reviews back in 1927

“The Cat and Canary” begins with an introduction about an old millionaire named Cyrus West who lived in a spooky mansion overlooking the Hudson River.  He is close to death but because his family members are greedy and descended upon him like cats around a canary, Cyrus West has made a request that his last will and testament must be locked up in a safe and will not be read until the 20th anniversary of his death.  When the lawyer, Roger Crosby (played by Tully Marshall)  comes to check on the will, he finds a live moth inside the safe.   He asks the West mansion caretaker Mammy Pleasant (played by Martha Mattox) who opened the safe and she tells him that it was the ghost of Cyrus West. Of course, Crosby doesn’t buy that and knows someone had opened the safe and read the letter.  Who is responsible?

So, hours before the 20th anniversary, several family members arrive.  First the nephews Harry Blythe (played by Arthur Edmund Carewe) and a cousin he doesn’t get along with Charles “Charlie” Wilder (played by Forrest Stanley).  The comes the clumsy and talkative Paul Jones (played by Creighton Hale) followed by Susan Sillsby (played by Flora Finch) and her daughter Cecily Yong (played by Gertrude Astor) and then finally, the latest West’s niece Annabelle West (played by Laura La Plante).

When the clock strikes to midnight, the will is opened and the fortune of Cyrus West would be given to his niece Annabelle.  But there is a stipulation.  In order to inherit the fortune, she must be judged as “sane” by Dr. Ira Lazar (played by Lucien Littlefield).  If she is insane, the fortune will be passed onto the second name on the will.

Meanwhile, the mansion guard (played by George Siegmann) tells them than an escaped convict known as “The Cat” has escaped and he is on the grounds of the mansion and he is maniac who thinks he is a cat and tears his victims like they were canaries.  Worried that someone may be up to their tricks in getting the fortune left by Cyrus, Crosby wants an immediate talk with Annabelle.

While the lawyer Crosby and Annabelle sit to discuss the will, he tells her that because someone had tampered with the will, that person named as the second person may try to do prevent her from getting the fortune.  And while she sits and listens to the lawyer, we see a big monster like hand come out a revolving shelf and captures Crosby and yanks him in behind-the-wall.

When Annabelle hears the faint scream, she turns around but he is already gone and she begins to scream.  She tells everyone that Crosby is gone but yet, everyone starts to think “maybe she will go insane” or “maybe she is crazy”.

Meanwhile, as Annabelle stays in her room, she quickly opens the letter left to her by Cyrus West.  The letter tells her that stuffed behind the fireplace, there is a button which will reveal where he had stashed jewelry.  She eventually finds it and puts it on herself.  When she goes to sleep, we see the monster hand coming out of the wall and steals the diamonds from her neck which makes Anabelle scream and waking up her other family members.

As everyone rushes in, she tells them what happened but when they look on the wall, there it’s solid.  At first they think that she is going insane like Cyrus West but when Annabelle triggers a button on the wall, we see the dead body of the lawyer Crosby fall out.  Someone has killed him and now everyone is afraid.

Now everyone fears that the maniac known as Cat are now coming after them.  Stuck in a mansion they think is haunted, everyone begins to fear for what might become of them during the night.  Will any of them be alive by the morning?

VIDEO:

“The Cat and the Canary: The Photoplay Restoration” features another wonderful restoration courtesy of filmmakers Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury.  The picture quality is presented in 1:33:1 and is color tinted.  The 83-year-old film does have its share of scratches and dust but really, compared to many other silent films, this is standard and the actual picture quality of this film on DVD is very good.  It will be very interesting if this release is considered for Blu-ray by KINO International in the near future.

AUDIO & INTERTITLES:

“The Cat and the Canary” features music by a score by Neil Brand and the members of The City of Prague Philharmonic conducted by Timothy Brock.  The music was very well-done for this film!  Intertitles were easy to read as well.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“The Cat and the Canary” comes with stills of the cast.  You can use your remote to cycle through the various stills included on the DVD.

“The Cat and the Canary” was one film that I really have wanted to see for a long time.  My only familiarity of “The Cat and the Canary” was for the 1939 adaptation starring Bob Hope and Paulette Godard film (which by the way, was re-released in 2010 as part of the “Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories Collection” DVD box set).   But I definitely was curious because of clips I saw of certain shots of the mansion, how angles made it to look quite eerie, especially how the lighting would be lit on one end and very dark on the other, to give a feeling of “don’t go that way…or else something bad may happen”.

I suppose this film can be considered one of the first “haunted house” films.  From being filled with cobwebs and the various trickdoor placements, there was probably nothing like it back in the early years of Hollywood and thus, this film may have been the first to showcase the house being used in such a way.

But part of my enjoyment of the film was watching the different cast members.   Laura La Plante was absolutely delightful as the character Annabelle West and Creighton Hale’s Paul Jones definitely brought a Harry Langdon-esque type of feel to the character.  Gertrude Astor brought the socialite stubborness to her character of Cecily Young but I have to say that Arthur Edmund Carewe and Forrest Stanley were not utilized as much as I would have like to build upon their feelings of the death of Crosby to whatever was going on in the house.  The film tends to focus more on Annabelle, Paul, Cecily and her Aunt Susan Sillsby.

But still, the characters were still well-incorporated to the film, the story’s pacing was well-done and in the end, I actually enjoyed the film a lot, for a comedy horror film for the late ’20s.  I’m not sure how audiences felt back then in 1927 if they considered “The Cat and the Canary” as more scary or more humorous but for me, watching it in 2010, one thing I can see is why the audiences enjoyed it and why it was a box office success.  It was a well-done film incorporating American comedy along with German Expressionism and the melding of the two worked out amazingly well.

I do wish there were more special features, it would have been nice to watch a special feature on the director Paul Leni or event he actress Laura la Plante (who was a huge star for Universal Studios back then).  But you still get stills from the film and as for the DVD itself, the restoration by Brownlow and Stanbury for Photoplay was as awesome as their other previous Photoplay restorations.  And the music by Niel Brand, performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic and conducted by Timothy Brock was also well-done.

Overall, “The Cat and the Canary” is a fantastic comedy/horror silent classic of yesteryear and a wonderful inclusion in the “American Silent Horror Collection” DVD box set.

NOTE: The rating below is for “The Cat and Canary” DVD and not the complete DVD box set.

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