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Cat and the Canary, The (1927)
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by Jay Seaver

"Old dark house, fun old movie."
4 stars

There really should be some sort of revival of "old dark house" movies, because for as much as everything about them would likely come off as absurdly dated today, there is a great deal of fun to be had when you play by the rules in place at the time. But given that you're already kind of doing that with silent movies anyway, it's not that big a leap, and it makes for an amusing diversion.

This one starts from the premise that old Mr. West died two decades ago, hounded by greedy relatives, and aiming to deny them any sort of quick satisfaction, he insisted his will not be read until midnight of the twentieth anniversary of his death (he also resented his family calling him crazy, and one of the conditions of the will is that the inheritor be medically examined to have his or her sanity confirmed). That day has come, and now lawyer Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) and the maid who has been keeping the place tidy (Martha Mattox) await the would-be heirs: Charles Wilder (Forrest Stanley) and Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe), who have some sort of grudge between them; blonde flapper Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor) and her aunt Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch); easily frightened Paul Jones (Creighton Hale); and Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), said to resemble her great-uncle - including, perhaps, his madness, although she seems nice enough. Everyone winds up staying the night, even if the locals say the house is haunted and a guard the nearby asylum (George Siegmann) warns of an escaped lunatic.

That's a lot of characters for somebody to potentially be picking off, but the stabs in that direction are actually rather minimal; director Paul Leni and the various writers adapting John Willard's play aim as much for goofy hijinks as mystery and suspense. That's not to say there's never any sort of sinister air to the production; the opening scenes set up things to keep in mind as things play out later, and a low body count is probably far more effective than a high one if the goal is to either drive Annabelle mad, or at least to make her appear that way. A modern audience may find something campy about early-twentieth-century attitudes toward mental illness or the secret panels and passages that appear to riddle this old house, but Leni does not present then that way - a hand emerging from a bed's headboard to menace a sleeping woman comes off as genuinely creepy, for instance, and it's possible that certain bits can be scary or funny depending on what the accompanist does with it.

At this screening, organist Jeff Rapsis would kind of musically wink at how "Mammy Pleasant" would imply that the house was haunted, and that's probably the best way to go much of the time, as the movie is fairly funny throughout. Sure, there's potential for Cecily (who would clearly rather be out dancing) and her blustery aunt to be the one causing trouble, but they're mostly funny. My initial impression of Creighton Hale's Paul was a Harold Lloyd type, and that's the sort of physical comedy he does reasonably well, though he does make the transition from stumbling goof to fairly capable participant reasonably well toward the end. It's possible that the reason that the film still plays fairly well almost ninety years later is that the parts which maybe haven't agreed will are just shifting the balance between thrills and spills a bit, rather than undermining everything.

The film is clearly a product of its time in some ways. It's got nice sets which don't always quite fit together - one of the secret passages seems huge, for instance - while exteriors can be kind of basic. For this sort of silent movie, the acting is fairly decent - Hale isn't Lloyd, but he's okay, even if Laura La Plante isn't quite so emotive opposite him (also a sign of the time - despite being positioned as a romantic pairing, the plot must mean they're cousins of some sort, right?). There are a few more characters than are really necessary, as some occasionally disappear and there's little need for both Charles and Harry to be around, but it gives the filmmakers time to bounce around the house. The acting and action is sometimes augmented by intertitles that are a bit more elaborate than usual - stylized like you might find on the funny pages, for instance, or even with the occasional smidge of animation.

Make this sort of movie today, and you'd probably have to do things differently - make it a fair-play mystery, either excise the jokes or play them darker to maintain a consistent tone, or slather on a layer of mocking self-awareness. Fortunately, it was made in the 1920s, and if you approach it as that sort of artifact, it's actually not hard to get caught up in the fun.

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originally posted: 10/23/14 14:08:05
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  09-Sep-1927 (NR)



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