Some believe “Old Dark House” thrillers began with J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted, which was adapted for the screen by James Whale as The Old Dark House in 1932. The reality is that the template had already been created by Mary Roberts Rinehart in her 1908 novel The Circular Staircase, which she reworked into a highly successful 1920 Broadway production entitled The Bat with playwright Avery Hopwood. Author and actor John Willard also had a Broadway smash hit with his 1922 play The Cat and the Canary, which shared a number of familiar horror/mystery elements with Rinehart’s creation, most significantly the gloomy mansion in an isolated setting with a menacing character prowling the corridors.
The first film version of The Bat, directed by Roland West, appeared in 1926 (West remade it in the sound era as The Bat Whispers in 1930), but The Cat and the Canary, directed by Paul Leni for Universal, is generally acknowledged as the more influential movie for two reasons. First, the stylish visual design, which introduced German Expressionism to a broad American audience, established the look and ambience of the studio’s future horror classics, especially evident in the work of art director Charles D. Hall on 1930’s Dracula, 1931’s Frankenstein, and 1933’s The Invisible Man. And second, Leni’s fast-paced direction, which deftly combined the sinister with the humorous and transcended the stage-bound setting to immerse the viewer in a fraught nocturnal world of menacing shadows, low-angle close-ups, superimpositions, and jarring POV shots.
Paul Leni had recently arrived in Hollywood from his native Germany after being recruited by Universal chief Carl Laemmle, who had been impressed with the director’s delightfully macabre anthology film Waxworks (1924). The Cat and the Canary was Leni’s Universal debut and his three subsequent features were proof positive that he was one of the studio’s most talented new directors. The Chinese Parrot (1927), now considered a lost film, is a Charlie Chan mystery starring Japanese actor Sojin Kamiyama as the famous sleuth and Anna May Wong as a murder victim. Next came The Man Who Laughs (1928), with Conrad Veidt infusing pathos into his portrayal of the title character in Victor Hugo’s grotesque historical melodrama and what many feel is still the definitive film version of the novel. Leni’s final film was The Last Warning (1929), a murder mystery set in a haunted theater, which reunited him with Laura La Plante, the heroine of The Cat and the Canary. Reportedly, Dracula was next on Leni’s slate, but he died suddenly in September 1929 of sepsis from an untreated tooth infection at age forty-four.
The Cat and the Canary remains one of Leni’s peak achievements and the opening prologue sets the sinister tone. Twenty years after the death of Cyrus West, his surviving heirs arrive for a midnight reading of the will at his forbidding hillside mansion along the Hudson River. All of them are shut out of the inheritance with the exception of Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), who stands to get everything but must first prove she is competent and sane. Before the night is over, someone will try to drive her to the brink of madness in order to claim the property and its hidden fortune of diamonds. Another layer of menace is added when news reaches the mansion that a maniac known as The Cat has escaped from the local asylum and enjoys clawing his victims to death.
The haunted house horror tropes might seem clichéd after more than ninety-five years, but they are still enormously effective today: a hairy claw-hand reaches for a victim, curtains flutter in the drafty hallways, a black cat appears on the road to the mansion, and a portrait of the deceased owner drops to the floor, suddenly, like a sign of impending doom. This new MoMA restoration, with the original color tinting, finally allows for a better view of the settings and art direction that transform the ordinary into something forbidding—like a stairwell that becomes uninviting through a chiaroscuro lighting scheme. Even the furnishings can function as something to be feared, as when Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) and her niece Cecily (Gertrude Astor) suspect that someone is hiding under their bed. When they nervously investigate, they are startled to see two eyes glowing at them in the dark.
From the opening shot, Leni’s gothic approach is playfully introduced with a gloved hand wiping away cobwebs and dusting off a mirror to display the credits. Even the font style used for the intertitles has an undeniably “spooky” look. Other striking examples of the German Expressionism Leni brought with him can be seen in his disturbing depiction of Cyrus West, who, in his final days, is dwarfed by giant bottles of medicine and a trio of oversized hissing cats, or in Leni’s innovative use of a flashlight to illuminate details in a darkened room. Leni also inserted what appears to be an homage to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the primordial Expressionist film, with the mysterious character of Doctor Ira Lazar (Lucien Littlefield), who is brought in to question the heroine’s sanity. He comes on like Werner Krauss’s shape-shifting mesmerist of Dr. Caligari but turns out to be one of several red herrings in the plot.
In the role of the frightened but resilient heroine is Laura La Plante, one of Universal’s top stars of the early 1920s, who had made her film debut at age fifteen. She was a versatile actress appearing in everything from Tom Mix westerns to action serials like Perils of the Yukon (1922) and from romantic dramas such as Smouldering Fires (1925), directed by Clarence Brown, to her comedies opposite Reginald Denny. La Plante could even lay claim to being one of the first movie Scream Queens for her performances in the two films she made with Paul Leni. La Plante successfully survived the transition to talkies and her signature role is generally considered to be Magnolia in the 1929 part-sound version of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat.
Playing opposite La Plante is Creighton Hale as Paul Jones, a skittish ally who alternates between cowardice and bravery and appears to be mimicking the appearance and demeanor of comedian Harold Lloyd who was at his peak in 1927. (Bob Hope played a version of this character in the 1939 Paramount remake of The Cat and the Canary.) Hale was a trained theater actor who entered the film industry in 1914 and had supporting roles in D.W. Griffith films, such as Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Although he was reduced to playing bit parts for most of the sound era, Hale enjoyed a film career that lasted forty-four years with a credit list of more than three hundred films and TV appearances, including Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle (1924), Benjamin Christensen’s Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), and the 1930 version of Holiday.
Paul Leni’s legacy far outpaced the four features he was able to complete at Universal. “He was one of the most stylistically assured directors of the 1920s,” according to MoMA film curator Dave Kehr. As a former poster artist and set designer for the renowned Austrian stage impresario Max Reinhardt, Leni realized the importance of art direction in a visual medium like cinema. The director once said, “I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen every day and to attain its true sinews … He must penetrate the surface of things and reach their heart. He must create mood (Stimmung) even though he has to safeguard his independence with regard to the object seen merely through everyday eyes.”
As an example, the mansion of Cyrus West in The Cat and the Canary becomes a character in its own right, interacting with the assembled heirs. When a cabinet panel slides open to reveal a standing corpse inside, it is as if the house has served up a victim. There is even an astonishing POV shot from within the inner workings of the grandfather clock as it looks out onto the table where the guests have assembled for the reading of the will. The house may not be haunted but it definitely exerts a presence. It is easy to see why Alfred Hitchcock was impressed and influenced by Leni’s work, but also why The Cat and the Canary brought a new vitality to the Old Dark House genre and made it the gold standard for the Universal horrors that followed.
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Utsav Lal