John Willard’s hardy old stage chestnut—first performed in New York City on February 7, 1922—has been around the block, cinematically so to speak, on at least four different occasions: 1927, 1930 (as The Cat Creeps), 1939 and 1978. I’ve now seen all of them except the 1930 version—which is considered a lost film—and my favorite is the one made in 1939 because it was the film that brought Bob Hope to cinematic prominence. But after seeing the original silent version (directed by German director Paul Leni) this morning via Kino’s 2007 DVD release (this is the Photoplay restoration produced by Patrick Stanbury and Kevin Brownlow), I’m convinced that while Hope’s Canary still holds a place in my itty-bitty film buff heart, the Leni production certainly gives it a run for its money.
Canary—considered the “granddaddy” of all ‘dark old house” mysteries—stars Laura La Plante as Annabelle West, the heir to a fortune left in a twenty-year-old will by eccentric millionaire Cyrus West. But before Annabelle can cash in on her inheritance, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), the executor of West’s estate, reveals that Annabelle must undergo an examination by a doctor (Lucien Littlefield) to prove that she’s sane—and if she flunks this, the fortune will revert to…well, an heir whose name is concealed in an envelope in the barrister’s coat pocket. The rest of the family that gathered for the reading of the will—nephews Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and Charles Wilder (Forrest Stanley); along with West’s sister Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch) and her daughter Cecilia (Gertrude Astor)—stay on for a nosh of dinner, only to be informed by a guard (George Siegmann) that an escaped lunatic (known at “The Cat”) is on the loose.
Canary will seem like fairly conventional material to anyone who’s seen this type of film before, but in Leni’s hands it becomes a riveting little mystery-thriller. He’s particularly adept at applying the expressionistic techniques he learned while working in the German cinema to the visuals; I particularly enjoy how he “overlaps” scenes by exposing two separate events onscreen at the same time. There’s a scene, for example, where Crosby and Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox)—the caretaker of the estate—are engaged in conversation and are “interrupted” on the right-half of the screen by a visual of someone’s hand using the front-door knocker of the mansion to gain entrance. When the time comes for the reading of the will, the participants seat themselves at a table while the inner workings of a grandfather clock are superimposed on the screen, chiming the time of the hour. Leni also makes use of a moving camera for some impressive tracking shots, particularly in the film’s opening, when we are taken on a tour of the West mansion almost as if we were looking to rent.
The film also blends terror and comedy in an entertainingly deft manner. I particularly enjoyed Hale’s performance as a milquetoasty Harold Lloyd-type who’s on the receiving end of some of Canary’s lighter moments (Finch and Astor also contribute some mirth to the proceedings as well). Hale appeared in a great many silent films including Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1922), but I have to admit I remember him more for a multitude of bit parts in sound films including the Our Gang shorts School's Out (1930) and Big Ears (1931). La Plante is an appropriately plucky heroine, and it’s refreshing to know that Tully Marshall was apparently never a young man in his entire screen career (he also made numerous appearances in sound films like Hale, his most memorable being the sinister Alvin Brewster in This Gun for Hire ). Mattox’s Mammy Pleasant no doubt influenced a generation of hatchet-faced housekeepers; when she makes her first appearance in this film I found myself borrowing a line of Binnie Barnes’ when she meets up with the formidable Gale Sondergaard in The Time of Their Lives (1946): “Pardon me, but did I see you in ‘Rebecca?’”
Tomorrow, I’m going to wrap up TDOY’s Silent Horrors tribute with a look at what many consider to be Paul Leni’s masterpiece, The Man Who Laughs (1928). In the meantime, you’ll find easy access to The Cat and the Canary on DVD due to its public domain status but I can’t recommend the Kino disc highly enough—the restoration done on this innovative chiller of the Silent Era is a must-own indeed.