Monday, October 18, 2010
DR. SHOCK'S HALLOWEENIE MOVIE OF THE DAY: THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927). This hoary old silent film was adapted from the popular stage play that was already poking fun at the "old dark house" genre years before talking pictures came in. The plot sounds like a step-by-step blueprint of all the tropes. Cyrus West is a rich old bugger whose family surrounds him eyeing his wealth like a bunch of cats eyeing a canary. When he dies, not only does he leave a will that cannot be opened for 20 years but also hides away the famous West diamonds. 20 years pass and the grasping family collects at the old dark house for the reading of the will one dark and stormy night. Since he despised his moneygrubbing family, Cyrus leaves all his fortune to the most distant relative with the name "West"; that is pretty young Annabelle (Laura La Plante). However, if Annabelle is examined by a doctor and shown to be insane, the fortune goes to another relative whose name is sealed in an envelope in the lawyer's pocket. Of course, while this is going on a guard comes to the door and informs everyone present that there is an escaped lunatic loose on the grounds who thinks he is a cat and rips his victims to shreds. Soon, while discussing things in the library alone with Annabelle, the lawyer Crosby (Tully Marshall) is snatched by a hairy claw into a secret panel and disappears -- with the envelope revealing the alternate inheritor. The usual old dark house chaos ensues. In one of the movie's set pieces, Annabelle discovers the missing West diamonds in a secret panel above the fireplace. She foolishly wears the necklace to bed and the Cat's hairy claw emerges from a secret panel in the headboard and snatches the jewels from her neck while she sleeps. Director Paul Leni keeps things moving along at a surprisingly brisk pace for a silent movie and his camera is extremely fluid and mobile; careening across rooms and down hallways. Speaking of hallways, the sets (handled by Universal Studios vet Charles D. Hall) are wonderfully creepy -- particularly the long, spooky hallway with multitudes of billowing, blowing draperies suggesting a murderer behind each and every one. The cast is up to the challenge and seems to be having a wonderful time. Ingenue Laura La Plante plays it mostly straight and upholds the "had-I-but-known" school of acting while Creighton Hale as cowardly Paul is good for some funny moments. Gertrude Astor as the flapperesque Cecily and Flora Finch as pinch-faced Aunt Susan are also quite watchable and engaging in their clinging fright. Veteran Arthur Edmund Carewe is typically menacing-looking; Carewe played Ledoux in the 1925 Lon Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (remember how he held his hand up next to his head while in the catacombs so the Phantom didn't fling a noose around his neck to strangle him) as well as the drug-addict in the talkie MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and Dr. Rowitz in DOCTOR X -- both in two-strip technicolor starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. But the biggest impact from the visual front is surely Martha Mattox as Mammy Pleasant the sinister housekeeper. Surely all subsequent sinister housekeepers have used Mattox as their templates! Think all the way up to 1963's THE HAUNTING with the housekeeper constantly saying "No one can hear you in the night . . . in the dark . . ." Mattox can also be seen by horror fans in such films as MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1931), THE MONSTER WALKS (1932), MURDER AT DAWN (1932) and the horror-western HAUNTED GOLD (1932) with a young John Wayne.