My next adventure is another silent horror film and like many silent horrors of this decade, director Paul Leni was part of the German Expressionist movement. This is one of Universal Studio's earliest horrors, alongside The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, both of which I covered in previous posts. The Cat and the Canary has been called "the cornerstone of Universal's school of horror" and is part of Universal's library of classic monster flicks.
The film centers around the death of millionaire Cyrus West; he opens with a tale of his descent into madness as a result of his greedy family flocking onto him and his fortune "like cats around a canary." As per his last wishes, West's will is to be locked up and untouched until the 20th anniversary of his death. When the decided date has been reached, a mysterious second will is discovered in the safe by West's lawyer, Roger Crosby. The instructions are that the second will is only to be opened if the the terms set out in the first will are not met. I do love a good mystery!
Finally, West's family is summoned to his decaying manor overlooking the Hudson River to discover who he has chosen to inherit his fortune. Among the summoned relatives are West's nephews: Harry Blythe, Charlie Wilder, and Paul Jones. Then there is Susan Sillsby, Paul's sister, and Susan's niece, Cecil Young. Finally, there is Annabelle West, West's niece. The film wastes no time is gaining the audience's sympathy for Annabelle: with the exception of Charlie, a meek and easily frightened man, every other relative in the manor is selfish and cruel. Annabelle is soft-spoken and is the only one who remembers her Uncle Cyrus kindly. So, it's no surprise when the will is read and Annabelle is the one bequeathed West's fortune. However, she must first be declared legally sane; otherwise, West's fortune will go to the person named in the mysterious second will.
That night, as the family prepares for dinner, a guard arrives and announces that a maniac who calls himself the Cat as escaped from a nearby asylum and is most likely lurking about the grounds. The guard says this maniac thinks he's a cat and likes to "tear apart his victims like they were canaries." Looks like the title of the movie just got literal. Crosby, West's lawyer, suspects that someone might try to harm Annabelle and decide to tell her who West named in the second will. Before he gets the chance, a terrifying hairy hand with long claws appears from a secret passage behind a bookshelf and drags Corsby in. A terrified Annabelle tells the others and they decide that she must be crazy!
One thing films from this decade lack is subtlety: it became immediately clear to me that this Cat lunatic was probably a concoction of one of Annabelle's greedy relatives designed to make her seem and act insane. The obvious culprit is whoever West named in the second will, but the only person who had that information was swiftly taken care of. What follows is a series of very Scooby-Doo like antics: chases through secret passage ways, everyone's a suspect until they're not, red herrings are laid out and snatched up to further confuse the audience, and a man in a mask is (predictably) behind the whole thing! The mystery is slowly unraveled until the Cat is unmasked and, yes, Annabelle lives.
While the film seems hardly original by today's standard, it was the very first of it's kind that I've seen thus far. It was a box office success at the time of it's premier and one critic stated that it is "the definitive 'haunted house' movie... Leni wisely plays it mainly for laughs, but his prowling, Murnau-like camera work generates a frisson or two along the way. It is, in fact, hugely entertaining..." and I agree. The slapstick comedy elements of the film does not take away from the effect of the jump-scare moments and I'm reminded of modern horror movies that don't shy away from including laughable moments, like the recent Stephen King's IT remake by Andres Muschietti. And I would be remiss if I didn't admit that the Cat costume did actually scare me. While the film didn't captivate me, I did enjoy Leni's direction as well as the film sets. Since the film takes place exclusively inside a run-down manor, the film features some excellent lavish interiors and while I can't prove that this movie inspired the creators of Scooby-Doo, I can continue to theorize until someone proves me wrong.
The Passion of Joan of Arc was not at all what I expected, to say the least. Most people are familiar with the story, but in case you're not, Joan of Arc was a 15th century French girl born to a family of peasants during the Hundred Years War. Joan claimed to have divine visions of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret starting at around age 13. The visions told her to drive out the invading English from France. She managed to gain an audience with a nearby garrison commander and accurately predicated a military reversal in Orleans. After that, she was taken to meet the sitting king of France, Charles VII, and was granted permission to accompany a relief visit to the besieged city of Orleans. While history is not clear on the extent of Joan's involvement, what is clear is that Joan's presence had a profound effect on the soldiers and the French military experienced remarkable success during Joan's brief time in it. Nicknamed "The Maid of Orleans," she was present at several other military campaigns and historians do note a striking difference in military patterns post Joan's arrival. Only a year after she the siege of Orleans, however, Joan was ambushed and captured and subsequently sold to English forces for 10,000 livres. Joan was then put on trial for heresy by the English.
The film is a French historical film based on the actual records of Joan's trial. The dialogue heavy re-enactment is about as accurate as you can get. Although not exactly a thrilling film (I watched late one night and almost fell asleep on more than one occasion), it is beautiful filmed and I remember more how the film made me feel than anything else. Two things in particularly stood out in my mind. Firstly, as a staunch feminist, I was livid at Joan's treatment throughout her trail at the hands of the men who unjustifiably put her on trial. It seemed to me that the English were more motivated to disprove and embarrass Joan more because of her gender than because of her religion. After all, King Charles had launched an inquisition of his own upon meeting Joan and was met with reports that she was a staunch Catholic and woman of G*d. Joan's fidelity and faith come through clearly in the film, which brings me to the other thing that stood out to me: Renee Jeanne Falconetti, the actress who portrayed Joan. Although not as young as 20 year old Joan, Falconetti is a stunningly beautiful woman and her screen presence, above all else, brought me to tears during my viewing.
Because of the film's subject matter, there was little action or movement to follow, costume and wardrobe was quite bland, and the sets (if you can call them that) were not particularly note-worthy. The film's success rested solely on the performance and, being the leading lady, Falconetti carried 98% of the film. Many close-ups were employed to expertly catch the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer spent a year researching the manuscript of Joan's trial before filming began and The Passion of Joan of Arc has been consistently called one of the greatest films ever made. While lacking depth in many of the areas of filmmaking, the film's simplicity is augmented by the remarkable thespians that brought this piece of history to life. Needless to say, it was bold of Dreyer to focus on the trail rather than Joan's origins or her participation in military campaigns.
Joan of Arc of executed by burning at the stake on May 30th, 1431 and the Hundred Years War would rage for another 22 years after Joan's death. A retrial was launched after the end of the war and Joan was declared a martyr in 1426. Then, in 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church and is today one of nine secondary patron saints of France.
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