The Cat and The Canary (1927)

The film genre ‘Comedy/Horror’ has produced a number of well known classics and many that are definitely not classics. Some that might come to mind may include ‘Scream‘, ‘Shaun of The Dead‘ and ‘The Cabin in The Woods‘. Or, examples slightly further back, could include ‘An American Warewolf in Paris‘, ‘Re-Animator‘ and ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes‘. As we’re on the subject it would be a shame not to mention earlier examples like ‘Abbott and Costello Meet the Frankenstein‘, ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘ and ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers‘ – I could go on, but it’s probably best not to!

What I didn’t realise until quite recently was that the genre goes even further back than that. In the early sound era there was ‘The Old Dark House‘ (1932), which was directed by James Whale (better known for the classics ‘Frankenstein‘ (1931), ‘The Bride of Frankenstein‘ (1935) and ‘The Invisible Man‘ (1933)). Even more surprisingly are the pre-synchronised sound examples (in other words the era of ‘silent films’ – I didn’t use that term on purpose and I’ll explain why later). I was also unaware that the classic Universal Studios horror films of the 30’s and 40’s (which included those just mentioned) actually began in the ‘silent era’ and ‘The Cat and The Canary’ was one of them – a plane flew around the globe at the beginning with a smoke trail of the word ‘universal’ behind it.

In 1927, the year of ‘The Jazz Singer‘ and the breakthrough that was synchronised sound, there was a ‘silent’ comedy/horror directed by Paul Leni called ‘The Cat and The Canary‘. I am not going to do a plot summary in this article, there are numerous ones on the internet. Essentially it is an example of the old dark house sub-genre of the horror film. Although it is now a well established cliché of cinema, it was essential a new thing in the 1920’s; but it had already become such a well known trope by 1932 that the previously mentioned James Whale film was named after it!

The 1927 film has had numerous remakes since (including one starring Bob Hope in 1939, which unsurprisingly played it more for laughs), but it was the original version that was screened during the Chichester Film Festival 2019 on Friday the 23rd August.

Every era of film has good examples, not so good examples, bad examples, and occasionally, outstanding ones. ‘The Cat and The Canary‘ is well worth seeing, which for me categorises it as a good one (it’s not outstanding, but very, very few films are!).

The term ‘silent movie’ is misleading, there was always music to accompany the images – that may be an orchestra on big budget premiers, or small ensembles, or simply an organ or a piano, particularly in small town cinemas and village halls. What made this screening so appealing was the addition of live music – a rare experience in the age of blu-rays and downloads. Also, it was a comedy/horror screened in an old chapel (St. John’s Chapel, Chichester, England) – it couldn’t get anymore atmospheric.

Silent films can be fantastic to watch at home with a pre-recorded soundtrack (and it is always worth supporting the restoration of old movies by actually buying them), but the opportunity to see one with live music should not be missed. It makes the film become an event, a performance, and as close to the way the films would have been seen when originally released. It is something which everyone interested in silent films should experience whenever possible. The music on this occasion was provided by Stephen Horne and he made fantastic use of a keyboard (largely with the piano sound), an Accordion, a Flute and a few other ‘instruments’ – it suited and enhanced the film perfectly!

On entering the Chapel were were given a photocopied A5 piece of paper which had the cast list one one side and a 1927 New York Times review of the film on the other. The review is by the fantastically named Mordaunt Hall, who was apparently The New York Times first regularly assigned film critic. I did not know the film and didn’t want to spoil it, so I actually read it the following day. I thought it would be a good idea to include it here if anyone’s interested (by the way, if you right click on the image and ‘open image in new tab’ the click on it again it should become easily readable!)

Die Nibelungen, pt.1 – Siegfried

I have been thinking about reviewing a silent film for some time.  It is a part of film history that I have gradually been drawn into over the past five years or so, and the further I look into the maligned early days of cinema the more astounded and entranced I become.

Until relatively recently many people have disregarded the silent era as a simplistic early stage in the development of the new medium of film.  This was probably due to our perception having been shaped by decades of poor quality prints used by TV stations to fill gaps in their schedules – scratchy, grainy, jumpy and flickering images of sped-up slap-stick comedy capers inevitably gave a less than favourable impression.  It was not until relatively recently that the idea that silent films could offer anything other than simplistic and one-dimensional entertainment was thought possible.  It has been through serious restoration projects that the era has gained wider acceptance (to the point of resurrection – think about The Artist for instance), and silent cinema is finally being seen as providing a rich vein of stories with real emotional and intellectual depth.

My own starting point, as it was for many others I’m sure, came from remembering the poor quality re-runs and compilations of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy films in the 80’s (unfortunately they are very rarely on terrestrial TV anymore).  Having been into films since I was young and having seen a wide variety of movies from every decade in its history, except the 1920’s and earlier,  I was convinced that there had to be more to cinema before the arrival of effective sound-on-film.  So I decided to investigate further.

This investigation has led me to the latest release by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series – Die Nibelungen, a two-part film by Fritz Lang released in 1924.  Both parts are included on separate discs, which is understandable as they total just under five hours of viewing.  So far I have only watched part one – Siegfried.  It was too late in the evening to start the other film, which was fine because the first part completely blew me away and the images are still swirling round my imagination.

Die Nibelungen is based on the 13th century German poem Nibelungenlied (or The Lay of the Nibelungs), which itself has links to both historical fact and older Scandinavian myths.  It was the same source material that formed the basis of Richard Wagner‘s Der Ring des Nibelungen (or The Ring Cycle of operas).  Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou wanted to get away from the heavy, bearded imagery of Wagner and managed to create a visually modernist interpretation of an ancient myth, without losing the mysticism and heroic nature of the story.

Essentially it is a tale of honour, lies, physical strength, moral weakness, love and misplaced trust – classic ingredients for myths and legends all over the world.  Interestingly, although the premier was a bit of a disaster, with Lang re-editing the film right up to the last-minute and rushing the reels to the cinema (which completely altered the visual ques for the orchestration) the film was actually a commercial success all over the world, even as far afield as Thailand!  It has been called the grandfather of epic film serials and its stately nature is reminiscent of The Lord of The Rings – but where that film was a modern mythology (even though founded on the study of medieval texts), Siegfried has the feel of a proper myth, a purer story that had been handed down from ancient times.

From the moment the decrepit-looking master blacksmith blows a feather into the air and it parts over the edge of Siegfried’s sword you know that you are about to watch a very special kind of film.  Within the first half hour Siegfried has battled a fire-breathing dragon and bathed in its blood to gain invincibility.  He then overpowers a goblin, claiming an invisibility cloak and his golden hoard.  He then journeys on to form an alliance with the royal house of Burgundy, the intention being to marry the Princess Kriemhield.  He is betrayed through a false confidence on behalf of Kriemhield and is ultimately killed – this is a huge simplification of the story, but I don’t want to give it all away here – there is no substitute for seeing it the film itself.

The first thing that struck me was the orchestral score, it had been recorded specially for the re-release and sounds fantastic – I remember being similarly struck by the score when I first saw the recent restoration of Metropolis; both film scores were written by Gottfried Huppertz.  The quality of the image on Die Nibelungen is also incredible, again on a par with the Masters of Cinema release of Metropolis – there are a few scratchy scenes (but none as damaged as the newly found scenes in Metropolis) and do not detract from the film at all.

The whole film is bathed in an orange tint throughout, which is unusual as apparently Lang did not particularly favour tinting, yet it somehow this seems to add to the mythic feel of the story.  Although the camera is static, as was common until the mid to late 20’s, in terms of the staging every set on this film and every new scene, is stately and elegant.  Each shot is perfectly composed and has an unreality about it (it was all filmed inside at the UFA studios) as though the story was being told on a moving tapestry.  Needless to say I was quite overwhelmed and even if you only have a passing interest in silent film this film is well worth your time.

At some stage I hope to comment on the second part of Die Nibelungen, but at the moment I’m still enjoying the first…