Come, Cicily, let us go to our room, and pile the furniture in front of the door.
–from The Cat and the Canary: A Melodrama in Three Acts.
John Willard’s 1922 horror/melodrama/dark comedy has been adapted to film multiple times. The two 1930 versions, The Cat Creeps! and La Voluntad del muerto (A Spanish-language version filmed at night on the same sets, in the manner of the contemporaneous Dracula movies) have both been lost1, the 1960 TV version (an episode of the short-lived anthology series, The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries) is little-seen now, and I can find even less on the 1961 Swedish adaptation, Katten och kanariefågeln.
Our Halloween Day reviews (based on those votes cast) will address the three most famous adaptations, starting with the hugely influential 1927 version. Along with Lon Chaney’s famous films, this movie led to Universal’s domination of the horror genre during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and, incidentally, shaped comic-book history.
Cast and Crew
Directed by Paul Leni
Adapted by Robert F. Hill and Alfred A. Cohn from the play by John Willard.
Laura La Plante as Annabelle West
Creighton Hale as Paul Jones
Forrest Stanley as Charles Wilder
Tully Marshall as Roger Crosby
Gertrude Astor as Cecily
Flora Finch as Susan
Arthur Edmund Carewe as Harry
Martha Mattox as Mammy Pleasant
George Siegmann as Guard
Lucien Littlefield as Ira Lazar
Joe Murphy as Milk-man
A man invites his eccentric family back to the mansion twenty years after his death to hear his will. The sole heir must spend a night in the house and remain alive and sane, or the test will pass to the next. As the obligatory storm rages on, the group learns that a dangerous killer has escaped from the convenient nearby asylum. Hilarity and hysteria ensue.
This film stands out because of its influential design, including expressionistic sets and make-up. The film includes memorable make-up for its “Cat,” and, as a bonus, the creepiest looking doctor in film history. The mise en scène had a lasting effect on the horror movie.
We know the Cat is a killer. Why, when given opportunity and motive, does the Cat leave our hero conveniently alive when given an obvious chance to murder him and leave his body in a concealed spot?
Future adaptations won’t resolve this problem, either.
Originality: 3/6 The film adapts an existing, popular play, but it’s the first adaptation, and filled with horror-movie touches that were fresh at the time time.
Effects: 3/6 The visual effects are good for the time.
Acting: 5/6 Expect broad, silent-movie acting, and a film that cannot capture the verbal repartee of the stage version. The lead tries to evoke Harold Lloyd, and one scene contains hints of the Keystone Kops. The movie also features a cameo by Joe Murphy, a distinctive-looking comedian best-known at the time for playing comic-strip character Andy Gump in a series of film shorts.
Production: 6/6 The grade reflects both the achievement in design and the era in film history.
Story: 4/6 The rather contrived story holds together. Like its source, the film adaptation draws on a century of Victorian Gothic conventions, some played straight and others for laughs. These include an accomplice who relates the entire plot in meticulous detail the moment he gets captured.
Emotional Response: 4/6 The film holds up fairly well for a ninety-year-old horror/comedy.
Overall: 5/6 Of all of the existing adaptations, this one may be the most worth seeing.
In total, The Cat and the Canary (1927) receives 29/42
1. Stills and bits of the soundtracks survive, and clips from The Cat Creeps! exist because of their reuse in the comedy short, Boo! (1932).