In the 1920s, European directors streamed into Hollywood, infusing American films with their artistic sensibilities. They often created masterpieces that were beloved by those who saw film as an art form but that were frequently ignored by audiences. Few of those directors were successful in America, perhaps because they failed to understand the audiences, or because they were unable to combine art and entertainment successfully. One who succeeded was Paul Leni, with his first American film, The Cat and the Canary, an inspired blend of German Expressionism and American razzmatazz. Had Leni not died suddenly just two years later, he might have achieved the stateside success of Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, and Billy Wilder.
Born in Stuttgart in 1885, Leni began as an avant-garde painter at age 15 and later took up stage design, working on several Max Reinhardt productions before moving into film in 1914. Through the mid-1920s, Leni worked as a set designer and scriptwriter on films directed by Joe May and E.A. Dupont, as well as on two of Michael Curtiz’s Austrian films. Leni began directing in 1916, but the six films he directed before 1921 are lost. One that does survive is Hintertreppe (Backstairs, 1921), on which Leni is credited with “visual conception.” While the film’s director is Leopold Jessner, most modern sources name Leni as codirector. His strikingly stylized sets and dramatic lighting exemplified German Expressionist cinema and gave distinction to a film otherwise marred by overwrought acting. Leni’s only surviving German film as director is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924), a three-part anthology for which he also served as production designer. Both the film’s German title and visual style evoked, perhaps intentionally, the seminal Expressionist film, Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920).
Waxworks brought Leni to the attention of Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios. Born in Germany, Laemmle returned frequently to look for talent. By the mid-1920s, with Germany’s economy collapsing in the aftermath of World War I, Laemmle was able to cherry-pick the best talent. Certainly Leni’s thrift in creating the effects in Waxworks must have appealed to Laemmle, whose studio was known for its low-budget films. As MOMA film curator Iris Barry later noted, the set design of the Jack the Ripper segment in Waxworks “was a triumph of craft and economy, since its unforgettably macabre effect was contrived entirely with some sheets of painted paper, ingenious lighting, and camerawork.” That segment may also have attracted Laemmle, whose studio had already secured a niche in the genre, based on the unique talents of Lon Chaney, who had recently left Universal for MGM. Laemmle offered Leni a contract, and Leni arrived in Hollywood in 1926, joining other German directors such as Dupont, Ernst Lubitsch, and F.W. Murnau. In an article for a German film magazine that year, Leni was enthusiastic about his move. “Don’t believe what they say about America’s attitude towards German cinema, because I have never heard more flattering words about our films than here, even if they are not yet making money.”
Dupont, whose sole American effort, the Viennese-kitschy Love Me and the World Is Mine (1926), had been shelved by Universal, soon decamped for England. But Leni’s first assignment appealed to American audiences: the film version of the popular 1922 play by San Francisco native John Willard, The Cat and the Canary. The play was one of several very successful stage productions, including The Bat (1920), that took place in a spooky mansion and featured a combination of horror and comedy. The film version of The Bat was released in 1926, but it was The Cat and the Canary that established the template for the “Old Dark House” genre. According to film historian Carlos Clarens, “Leni filled his haunted house not only with the standard cobwebs and sliding doors but with a genuine sense of mystery …. The Cat and the Canary became the cornerstone of Universal’s school of horror.”
The conventions of the “Old Dark House” genre have long since become clichés, but Leni essentially invented them, drawing from his Expressionist background and talent for art direction. The opening of the film sets the tone, with the dramatically lit exterior of the mansion of eccentric millionaire Cyrus West, all turrets and angles against a gloomy background. That shot dissolves into a chiaroscuro portrait of West’s medicine bottles, behind which a cat peers down on West. The Cat and the Canary is full of elaborately choreographed camera moves, extreme angles, and set designs that recall Caligari. Yet all of it serves the story, and the gloom is leavened with a broad humor that would have appealed to a 1920s American audience.
The Cat and the Canary pleased critics as well. Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times called it “one of the finest examples of motion picture art …. Mr. Leni has not lost a single chance in this new film to show what can be done with a camera.” Highbrow cineastes were less enthusiastic. As film historian Bernard F. Dick writes in his study of Universal Pictures, “Exponents of Caligarisme, Expressionism in the extreme … naturally thought Leni had vulgarized the conventions … yet all he did was lighten them so they could enter American cinema without the baggage of a movement that had spiraled out of control.”
Unlike other German directors who could not adapt to Hollywood filmmaking, Leni thrived, and Universal was a good place for him. Laemmle fostered a sense of family at Universal. He staffed the studio with many émigrés whom he found on his frequent trips to Germany, among them director William Wyler (Laemmle’s nephew), The Cat and the Canary producer Paul Kohner, and Conrad Veidt, who had appeared in Waxworks and later starred in Leni’s third American film, The Man Who Laughs (1928). The costume drama based on a Victor Hugo novel was a failed attempt to duplicate the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).
For his next film, The Last Warning (1929), Leni returned to the thriller genre. It was shot in mid-1928, during the transition to sound, and was released with sound effects. For more than a year, various projects were announced, discussed, and rejected. One of them reportedly being considered for Leni’s first sound film was Dracula, to star Conrad Veidt. The Last Warning, however, proved to be Leni’s last film. He died on September 2, 1929, of blood poisoning caused by a neglected tooth infection. He was 44 years old.
Over the years, The Cat and the Canary endured as a regular moneymaker. It was first remade as the talkie The Cat Creeps (1930) by Universal, which simultaneously made a Spanish-language version. A 1939 remake starring Bob Hope emphasized the comedy. And a 1979 British version made the lawyer a female, played by Wendy Hiller.
Paul Leni’s untimely death cut short an intriguing career. In a 1924 article he wrote for a German magazine, Leni demonstrated a strong, clear vision of cinema that might have produced masterpieces: “It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving that what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can reproduce this truth, heightened effectively.”
Presented at Special Event, February 2009 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer and Live Sound Effects by Mark Goldstein