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The Cat and the Canary
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The Cat and the Canary (1927)

In the 1920s, the American film industry did not entirely reign supreme.

The largest motion picture studio in the world was not located in Hollywood, but in Berlin.

The Ufa Studio (Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft) was founded in 1917 (with government support) and steadily grew into a massive, brilliantly-organized film factory. Ufa had enormous stages at Neubabelsberg and Tempelhof where the most extravagant epics could be staged -- staged inexpensively due to the post-WWI collapse of Germany's economy. But their films were not merely big, they were often visionary. Producer Erich Pommer challenged the filmmakers on the Ufa payroll to devise films that were not only successful, but stunning. The results included F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Joe May's Asphalt (1929) and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930).

Unfortunately for Ufa, the devalued papiermark and later the Reichsmark, were weak in comparison with the American dollar, and ambitious Hollywood producers recruited virtually all of the German film industry's most important figures. They didn't merely buy star directors such as Murnau and Lang, but cinematographers such as Karl Freund, actors Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich and Conrad Veidt, and production designers including Edgar G. Ulmer and Paul Leni.

Born in Stuttgart in 1885, Leni studied at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, where he became a graphic artist and set designer. Aside from his design work, Leni had made several experimental short films and features. However, one particular film captured the attention of filmmakers around the world: Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). Waxworks, as it would be known in America, was an anthology film detailing the horrors of history's greatest fiends. The Harun al Raschid sequence inspired Douglas Fairbanks to quickly make The Thief of Bagdad (1924), while Conrad Veidt's performance as Ivan the Terrible would greatly influence Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible films (1944, 1958).

Leni, like several other Ufa veterans, found an American patron in Carl Laemmle. Born in Laupheim, Germany in 1867, Laemmle was the head of Universal Studios and frequently brought in new talent from his homeland. When Leni was put under contract at Universal, his career as an art director ended. He was, from that point on, a high-profile director. His first film in America was The Cat and the Canary (1927), adapted from the 1922 play by John Willard.

On a dark and stormy night, a group of people are summoned to the decaying mansion of Cyrus West, who died exactly twenty years earlier. To spite his greedy relatives, West has willed his fortune to a distant relative, mild-mannered Annabelle West (Laura La Plante)...under one condition. Annabelle must be legally declared sane before the inheritance is final. The embittered relatives bed down for the night in the spooky manor and the plot is allowed to thicken. Sliding panels seem to devour the unfortunate guests and Annabelle seems particularly vulnerable to the house's paranormal phenomena. Further complicating a simple legal matter, the caretaker of a local asylum (himself rather demented) arrives to warn the guests that a maniac has escaped from the hospital: a bug-eyed, snaggletoothed fiend known as "the Cat." As the night wears on, the drama no longer seems to concern Annabelle's sanity, but her very survival.

The Cat and the Canary is one of the finest examples of the "old dark house" film, a forerunner to the modern horror movie. In films of this subgenre, a group of people are menaced by one or more shadowy figures within the confines of a gloomy mansion. Unrelenting horror was not fashionable, and the mounting suspense is occasionally spritzed with comic relief, to calm the nerves of the more delicate viewers. As chilling as they often are, the films ultimately bow to convention and negate the supernatural premises that made them so fascinating. In what might be termed the "Scooby-Doo Device," these silent thrillers almost always revealed -- in the final moments -- that the monstrous stalker is not a supernatural being at all, but a man-made hoax. Tod Browning's London After Midnight (1927) and Roland West's The Bat (1926) are two of the best-known examples.

The supernatural barrier would be broken by Browning's Dracula in 1931. Derived from a stage play (as most "old dark house" films were), Dracula followed the formula of the innocent maiden being menaced by an otherworldly ghoul, but refused to rip the mask off the villain in the final reel. This horror film was revolutionized but, as an unfortunate consequence, the more traditional "old dark house" films were rendered quaint and old-fashioned.

Regardless of its formulaic structure, The Cat and the Canary remains a powerful viewing experience. Leni's expressionist roots reveal themselves in a breathtaking prologue, in which old man West's circumstances are depicted in visual metaphors. West is held prisoner by medicine bottles that tower above his wheelchair, while the greedy relatives are represented by hissing cats that claw at his cowering form. A scene of the stern Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) walking through the mansion's desolate hallways -- candelabra in hand, tattered curtains billowing in the nocturnal wind -- would flavor haunted house films for decades to come.

Along with Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary, Leni's most prominent work is the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, starring Conrad Veidt, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Like The Cat and the Canary, Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932), it was a Germanic thriller produced at Universal Studios, where the "old dark house" picture evolved into the modern horror film.

Although a supreme cinematic stylist, Leni's role in helping shape the horror genre is often overlooked. One reason is that he died prematurely, of blood poisoning, at age 44, just two years after making The Cat and the Canary, and before being able to fulfill his extraordinary promise.

Leading lady Laura La Plante was a juvenile actor who appeared in her first film at age fifteen (The Great Gamble [1919]). While working her way up to more prominent roles, she received a career boost when she was named a WAMPAS "Baby Star" of 1923. An acronym for the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers, WAMPAS each year (from 1922 to 1934) unveiled a baker's dozen of actresses destined for Hollywood stardom. Contrary to their moniker, the Baby Stars were not infants but full-grown women. Though not every chosen one ascended to the cinematic firmament, a surprising number of Baby Stars did achieve some degree of fame: Clara Bow (1924), Joan Crawford (1926), Janet Gaynor (1926), and Ginger Rogers (1932). Two years after appearing in The Cat and the Canary, La Plante reunited with director Leni in The Last Warning (1929), in which the "old dark house" formula was re-situated in a gloomy stage theater. That same year, she appeared in James Whale's Show Boat and The Love Trap, directed by William Wyler, who was another of Laemmle's German imports.

Director: Paul Leni
Producer: Paul Kohner (uncredited)
Screenplay: Alfred A. Cohn and Robert F. Hill, based on the play by John Willard
Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Production Design: Charles D. Hall
Cast: Laura La Plante (Annabelle West), Creighton Hale (Paul Jones), Flora Finch (Aunt Susan Sillsby), Tully Marshall (Roger Crosby), Forrest Stanley (Charles Wilder), Arthur Edmund Carewe (Harry Blythe).
BW-89m.

by Bret Wood

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