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.
I was both excited and a little sad when I started to watch Sunrise as it is my last F. W. Murnau film of the month; on the other hand, this is his American film debut and unlike most of his previous films, this was classified as both a romantic comedy and a drama. To no surprise, I loved this touching, personal story.
The opening intertitles of the film reads: "This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets in the city's turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet." The film opens on a rural lakeside town and focuses on three unnamed characters: the conflicted adulterous husband, The Man; the lonely Woman from the City who seeks to make The Man her man; and the demure, neglected wife, The Woman. The mistress convinces the husband to sell his farm, move to the city with her, and, most disturbingly, to drown his wife while making it look like an accident. The Man seems like he'll follow through with this unjust cruelty, but quickly discovers that he cannot bring himself to harm his wife. When The Woman flees in fear and disappointment, the story seamlessly goes from melodrama to rom-com.
Janet Gaynor, who portrayed The Woman, won the very 1st Academy Award for Best Actress and it was truly well deserved; her performance in Sunrise drove me to tears. I could feel her anguish, the pain of her husband's betrayal. The Man begs his wife to not fear him and tries to assuage her with gifts of flowers and cake, but nothing works... Until the couple stumbles upon a wedding in a nearby church. Inside, when The Man hears the priest ask the groom if he will love and protect his bride The Man breaks down, ashamed of his actions, and he begs for his wife's forgiveness. It's sort of sweet, if perhaps a tad unrealistic, that after a sharing such a harrowing experience they find comfort and solace in each other's presence. They leave the church to the sound of the wedding bells, symbolizing a renewal of their marriage vows and of their love.
After this reconciliation, the couple has a fun-filled adventure in the city that's reminiscent of their joyful days as newlyweds, and they were absolutely adorable together. The film certainly got a few laughs out of me, but it also reminded me that the Woman from the City was still out there, waiting for her lover to return sans wife, and I waited to see what ills could possibly befall this sweet couple. Murnau takes audiences on a suspense-filled ride with the ending, which I won't spoil for you here. I will say that I was at the edge of my seat, all choked up and fearing that the worst and most ironic of tragedies has come to pass.
Sunrise is considered one of the greatest films ever made and it is both narratively and technically impressive. Murnau was back to his old tricks of the "unchained camera" and there were double exposure special effects galore. As usual, intertitles were sparingly used, but when they were used, scenes would fade in over the text, something I hadn't seen before, and this was also the first film to use animals (other than a horse) as "actors," with roles to play in the story. There was the family pup as well as a carnival piglet who, hilariously, got drunk on some spilled wine.
All in all, Murnau, once again, did not disappoint. Although I won't be seeing anymore of his films this month, I doubt my affair is over just yet.
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