The Cat and the Canary [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (12th May 2024).
The Film

Wealthy and eccentric Cyrus Canby West spends his remaining days feeling like a canary surrounded by cats. If he is mad, he believes he has been driven to it by greedy relatives, and he decides to make them wait a while after his death until they can learn of their inheritance; indeed, he makes them wait twenty years after his death until all that remain of his family line are imperious Aunt Susan Sillsby (Orphans of the Storm's Flora Finch), ditzy niece Cecily Young (Stage Struck's Gertrude Astor), grave Harry Blythe (Doctor X's Arthur Edmund Carewe), wily Charlie Wilder (Curse of the Undead's Forrest Stanley), craven Paul Jones (Seven Footprints to Satan's Creighton Hale), and lovely Annabelle West (The Last Warning's Laura La Plante). On the appointed date, lawyer Crosby (The Covered Wagon's Tully Marshall) arrives at West's brooding estate above the Hudson ahead of the heirs and opens the safe where the will has been secreted for the past two decades only to discover a living moth inside. Despite the claims by housekeeper Mammy Pleasant (The Monster Walks' Martha Mattox) that she has only kept company with the spirits, Crosby suspects that someone has opened the will as recently as that very night. Crosby reveals that heir to the fortune most distant relative bearing the name "West" and that Annabelle will have to submit to tests to verify her sanity. Should she be judged insane, the fortune will pass to another heir named in a second will of which only Crosby ostensibly knows the identity. Suspecting that Annabelle may be in danger from the other heir, he tries to warn her but mysteriously vanishes. With Annabelle the only witness to his Crosby's inexplicable disappearance, the other heirs start to question her sanity apart from smitten Paul but she might not even survive the night with her life much less her sanity when a guard (The Man Who Laughs' George Siegmann) from the local asylum to announce the escape of a maniac who claws his victims to death "like a cat."

The Cat and the Canary was the first Hollywood feature of German expressionist auteur Paul Leni who, like fellow expatriate Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour) had been a theatrical and film production designer, and had previously helmed the German genre portmaneau Waxworks before being invited to Hollywood by Universal's Carl Laemmle to direct this first cinematic adaptation of the influential John Willard stage play. The film was difficult to see apart from stills in reference books before the eighties when a 16mm print made the rounds on the video gray market followed by David Shepard's more widely accessible 1997 tinted restoration of the same materials and subsequent efforts (see below). The opportunity to finally see the source of those stills of a clawed hand dragging Crosby into a secret passage and reaching for Annabelle's throat in her bed may be a bit of a mixed bag for horror fans hoping for something more suspenseful than the 1939 Bob Hope vehicle and more visually-striking than Radley Metzger's 1978 version which was more overtly horrific while still witty. Viewers unfamiliar with the stage play including those who credit James Whale with adding the comedy to his Old Dark House (which was heavily-influenced by the Leni film) just as those who were unable to see the Whale film for decades due to Universal selling the rights to Hammer and Columbia for their William Castle adaptation might have assumed that Gene Wilder added the humor to his Haunted Honeymoon of which the Whale film was a major influence will probably be put off by the amount of time the film devotes to Scooby Doo-esque "scaredy cat" theatrics involving Paul and Aunt Susan over what we would come to refer derisively as "old dark house theatrics" (usually stripped of their comedic aspect).

By necessity of the silent film medium, Leni and his writers had to find a way to prune down the dialogue to the essentials, and his focus on visualizing the real and false scares probably provided much of the influence on similarly-toned Universal comic horrors to come in the thirties and forties (especially since most of the cinematic adaptations of other "old dark house" stage plays from this period and the decade before are lost). Whatever one's opinion of the story itself, Leni's visual imagination is very much the highlight of this production with surprisingly mobile and fluid "POV" camerawork, seesaw crane shots as well as the high-angle shot of Mammy Pleasant walking down a corridor of billowing curtains carrying a lantern to which later old dark house films would pay homage (some presumably referencing publicity stills rather than the actual film) probing shots that dolly in to extreme close-ups to emphasize the importance of dialogue before the intertitle reveal, clever use of cutaways to character mannerisms that give sequences nervous energy and tension, eye lights and lighting of characters from below, "expressive" animated intertitles like a wavering "Ghosts!", and the wonderful double exposure visualization of the dying Cyrus West surrounded by looming cats and medicine bottles, an image so powerful that it is not necessary to create an equivalent when lawyer Crosby observes that Annabelle is in a similar figurative position with the third act visit of the predatory-seeming examining psychologist (Uncle Tom's Cabin's Lucien Littlefield) left ambiguous as to whether he is legitimate or part of the machinations to drive Annabelle over the edge while adding a strange touch of perversion to what should be a cutesy image of the new happy couple in the aftermath of a rather stilted climax of exposition and scuffling. Despite the fact that Leni credited a steady diet of Lucky Strikes with helping him deal with the stresses of the film's production, it would be an infected tooth that cut his life short after his subsequent efforts: the tantalizing lost Charlie Chan adaptation The Chinese Parrot, the prestige epic Victor Hugo adaptation The Man Who Laughs, and his more sophisticated "old dark house in a theater" murder mystery The Last Warning. A major influence on subsequent "old dark house" films including several adaptations official and otherwise of the source play the strength of the original silent version of The Cat and the Canary rightly lies its imagery given how production and publicity stills long stimulated the imagination before the film could be rescued from obscurity.
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Video

Following its theatrical release, The Cat and the Canary was long difficult to see due to the greater desirability for sound productions if there was a sound reissue of the film, it is long lost with the sound materials for The Last Warning, it is lost until the eighties when a 16mm "Show at Home" print made the rounds on the mail-order video gray market, including a Video Yesteryear travesty transferred to video at too slow a framerate bringing the running time up to roughly two hours. The 16mm source provided by Blackhawk Films was utilized by David Shepard in 1997 for a restoration that reinstated the original color tinting and appeared on Image Entertainment laserdisc and DVD the following year. Photoplay did their own restoration from materials derived from the 35mm B negative consisting of second choice takes for creating overseas prints (the 16mm "Show at Home" prints were derived from the A negative). While this restoration appeared on DVD from Kino in 2007, it had already been utilized by Shepard for a newly-tinted composite making use of the intertitles from the "Show at Home" source for Image Entertainment's 2005 reissue DVD.

Eureka's dual-territory 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray is derived from a Musuem of Modern Art 4K restoration of 35mm materials derived from the A negative. We do not have the Shepard or Photoplay restorations on hand at the moment, but the MoMA version has also been tinted. Damage remains, including various scratches, dirt, and hairs that are baked into the unspecified generations away from the negative but, while the image is never truly clean, there are moments of startling clarity, particularly when it comes to those extreme close-ups in which pores in the skin and fine lines are visible even beneath the tints (in the faces of Marshall, Mattox, and Finch that is, while LaPlante, Astor, and even Hale to an extent get the glamour treatment). The saturation of the warm and cold tints are kept relatively light to retain what fine detail and shadow detail there is. Whatever defects are inherent in the material, it is still a satisfying and faithful presentation no matter how the 16mm and 35mm B-negative sourced materials might be cleaner in equivalent scenes.
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Audio

As with other silent film restorations over the years, the film has had a number of scores, including a Rosa Rio Hammond Organ score for the Video Yesteryear version, an Eric Beheim MIDI synthesizer score based on James Bradford's original score for the 1998 Image laserdisc and DVD carried over to the 2005 edition with the addition of a Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score and a Neil Brand score for the Kino edition. Eureka's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track features a score by Robert Israel "based on music cue sheets compiled and issued for the original 1927 release" with added sound effects consisting of thunder, banging door knockers and wind (screams are not added since the animated intertitles are used to convey frightened reactions). The intertitles are original along with the opening credits which are revealed by hands clearing away dust and spiderwebs from window panes.
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Extras

The film comes with a pair of commentaries the first recorded for this version of the film starting with an audio commentary by author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman who discuss Leni's short career, Laemmle scouting German talent, and the Willard play along with its "old dark house" contemporaries play contemporaries that had set the precedent before the Leni film of cinematic adaptations including Mary Roberts Rinehart's novel "The Circular Staircase" which became the play "The Bat" (the Rinehart novel of that name being a later novelization rather than a retitling) which Roland West adapted for the now-lost 1926 The Bat and the 1930 sound film 35mm Academy/65mm Magnifilm widescreen The Bat Whispers (forthcoming as a Blu-ray) along with the lesser 1959 film by Crane Wilbur whose own 1925 stage play "The Monster" had been adapted into a now-lost film by West, and the Earl Derr Biggers play "Seven Keys to Baldpate" whose silent adaptation is also lost while the pleasantly-creaky Cannon adaptation The House of the Long Shadowsis widely-available as well as the various remakes of the Willard property, official and otherwise (like Jess Franco's Night of the Skull that attributes its source as Edgar Allan Poe's "El gato y el canario" but was more of an adaptation of Edgar Wallace's "The Frightened Lady"). They also discuss the cast of this 1927 "super production", most of whom either did not move onto sound or were uncredited extras in later years, including LaPlante, Hale, and Carew playing the role that Willard himself played on Broadway who was one of the many actors offered the role of Dracula before Universal approached the seemingly natural choice of Bela Lugosi who originated it on the stage.

The second track is an audio commentary by film historians Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby who discuss the ways in which the film is the blueprint for the Universal Gothics, how what we have come to know as the genre harkened back to the literary gothic in revealing human agency behind supernatural-seeming events until the Draculas and Frankensteins came along. In discussing Leni's style, they also note that the later silent films were much more experimental with camera movement only to become static with the addition of sound due to the need to place microphones and the noise of moving the equipment. They also provide some analysis of the characters and cast, noting Paul's PTSD which was referenced in the play but not the film and was mentioned obliquely in the Bob Hope version as well as Marshall as a "fine purveyor of dissipated evil." They also discuss the British equivalents of the "old dark house" plays which were also adapted to film like Edgar Wallace's "The Terror" as well as Black Waters, a British adaptation of the Willard play "Fog" that had to be shot in Hollywood to utilize sound recording equipment.
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"Mysteries Mean Dark Corners" (29:02) is a video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson who provide a further survey of the "old dark house" books, plays, and their film adaptations including the aforementioned titles, the 1909 play "The Ghost Breaker" its two lost silent adaptations and the Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard follow-up to the 1939 The Cat and the Canary, and the Martin and Lewis vehicle Scared Stiff, the various versions of "The Bat", "The Terror", and the Willard play.

In "Pamela Hutchinson on The Cat and the Canary" (13:04), writer and film critic Hutchinson focuses on Leni's style evinced in the film as well as his beginnings in Germany designing theatrical and film posters, sets, and staging live stage prologues to play ahead of premiere film screenings (which was what Laemmle initially brought Leni over to the states to do for drastically re-edited 1926 reissue of Tod Browning's Outside the Law.

In "Phuong Le on The Cat and the Canary" (9:11), film critic Le also waxes on the film's visual style while noting that the "prototypical horror comedy" was what Leni wanted to do in his desire not to make a "German film" in Hollywood.

Also included are extracts from John Willard's original play titled "A Very Eccentric Man" (3:11) and "Yeah, a Cat!" (2:15) that provide more detail in dialogue left out of the adaptation; however, the voice casting is poorly chosen and grating.

Lastly, the disc includes Leni's "Lucky Strike" cigarette brand endorsement (0:53), the use of which surprisingly was not what killed him.
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Packaging

The first pressing of two thousand copies includes a limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys while non-limited content consists of a collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Richard Combs, Craig Ian Mann, and Imogen Sara Smith (not supplied for review).

Overall

A major influence on subsequent "old dark house" films including several adaptations official and otherwise of the source play the strength of the original silent version of The Cat and the Canary rightly lies its imagery given how production and publicity stills long stimulated the imagination before the film could be rescued from obscurity.

 


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