Today is the final Thursday in August. Here at PEPS, we have declared this month to be #AMonthWithoutTheCode65. It is all about studying the movies which were made outside of the American Breen Era (1934-1954). Not watching Code films make us appreciate them more. For us, it is very difficult to avoid Code films for an entire month, since we watch more movies from the Breen Era than any other time. Although it has been interesting and enjoyable in its way, I am glad that the month of abstinence is almost over!
In addition to avoiding Code films, PEPS is honoring this month by publishing five special Breening Thursday articles during August. I am breening one film from each un-Code era. So far, I have breened a Shurlock Era film, Some Like It Hot (1959), a Rating System Era film, Hello Down There (1969), a Pre-Code film, Grand Hotel (1932), and a foreign film, 21 Days (1940). Since today is the fifth Thursday in August, it is now time for the final Breening Thursday article of the month. The only remaining era is the Silent Era. Thus, I will breen a silent movie today. This will be only the third silent film which we have breened here on PEPS. That is largely because we have watched very few silent films. However, I hope to remedy that situation by adding more silents to our list of breened films, starting with this one.
The silent film which I am going to breen today is The Cat and the Canary from 1927. Starring Laura La Plante and Arthur Edmund Carewe, this Universal horror/comedy is considered the first dark house mystery film. Its plot centers around the will of an eccentric old man who died twenty years before the film begins. His relatives stalked around him, desperate for his fortune, for so many years that he was almost driven mad. He decried that his will must not be read until twenty years after his death, at which point all his relatives gather in the spooky old house. Since the millionaire’s death, it has been vacant of everyone except the sinister housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), who claims that her dead master’s ghost has been keeping her company. On the designated night, the lawyer, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), comes to the house to read the will. The potential beneficiaries are Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Charles Wilder (Forrest Stanley), Cecily (Gertrude Astor), Susan (Flora Finch), and Harry (Arthur Edmund Carewe). It is announced that the most distant relative, Annabelle, is the recipient. She is a very sweet young lady. Most of the other relatives seem quite envious of her. Mr. Crosby mentions a strange stipulation of the will. Annabelle must be examined by a doctor to determine her sanity. If she is not deemed sane, someone else will receive the fortune. Many strange things begin happening at the house. First, the master’s portrait falls. Then, Mr. Crosby disappears! Next, a guard from an insane asylum (George Siegmann) arrives and informs them that there is an escaped lunatic on the property. All the relatives must spend the night in the sinister house. Will they survive the long night, and will Annabelle escape with her life and her sanity? With no further ado, let the breening begin!
The first breening problem occurs when the insane asylum guard visits the house, warning them about an escaped patient. The title card detailing his dialogue reads: “He’s a maniac who thinks he’s a cat, and tears his victims like they were canaries.” This film heavily emphasizes the “cat and canary” parable which is mentioned in the title. The lunatic’s feline delusion is tolerable, but the description of the way he attacks people is too grotesque. The word tears should be replaced with the word attacks.
Meanwhile, Mr. Crosby has taken Annabelle aside to tell her which relative would receive the fortune if she were deemed insane. He knows that that person has discovered this information and might try to harm her. Before he can reveal the name, a huge, hairy hand with long claws comes out of an opening in the wall, grabs him, and pulls him into the wall. Naturally, this sequence is supposed to be frightening, since this is a horror film. However, the hand looks so grotesque that I found it very disturbing. It is usually proper breening form to breen a film on face value without comparing it to anything. However, there was a 1939 remake of this film, which was a Code film. I did some research about this film to discover how this element was handled. In the two “hand from the wall” sequences in that film, the hand was a normal human one instead of a hairy one with claws. I think this example should be taken, so a human hand should be used here instead.
Paul Jones is the only relative who seems to be on Annabelle’s side. However, like the rest of the occupants, he is scared by the sinister events at the house that night. He hides under Susan’s bed while she is visiting Cecily’s room. The two women return to the room to spend the night together out of fear, not knowing that their male relative is under the bed. They begin to undress. As they do so, we see Cecily’s stockinged legs with excessive focus from Paul’s floor-level view. The bed is uncommonly high, so we can see all the way up to her knees! The bed should be a little lower, and the bedspread should come down farther so that all Paul can see is her feet and maybe her ankles.
As she is undressing, one of Cecily’s garments drops to the ground. It looks like a very delicate slip. Paul winces and covers his eyes, looking slightly horrified, although he quickly peaks through the crack in his fingers. Instead, we should see Cecily stepping out of her dress, focusing only her feet, of course. I don’t think it is proper to show her taking off her slip. Also, both her garters and those of her aunt are briefly visible just above their knees, but they wouldn’t be if the bedspread covered more. As now, the floor angle would end when we see her nightgown come down around her ankles.
When Aunt Susan checks under her bed, the sight of Paul’s eyes terrifies her. Cecily checks for herself but is relieved to realize that the fiend under the bed is just her bespectacled relative. He crawls out, and Susan is furious that he scared her so. She mutters something which is impossible to read on her lips. As translation, a title card shows squiggles, random letters, question marks, stars, and exclamation points, which I take to represent profanity. The idea that this old woman is swearing is highly unacceptable, even though it isn’t stated. She should just scowl and say something like, “Why, you!”
Before going to sleep in the late millionaire’s room, Annabelle looks at the family jewels. For some inexplicable reason, she puts the necklace on and neglects to take it off before going to sleep. While she is sleeping, the wall opens, and the same hairy hand which grabbed Mr. Crosby snatches the necklace off her before disappearing into the wall again. As before, this should be a normal human hand instead of a grotesque paw-like thing with claws.
After Annabelle’s screams call in the other relatives, we get a better look at Cecily’s nightgown, since her wrapper is now undone. The neckline is indecently low and loose on this nightgown. It must be higher and tighter to cover her sufficiently.
That concludes my breening of The Cat and the Canary! I now have breened another silent film, and I am glad. I look forward to exploring this fascinating era of Hollywood’s history more in the future. The small number of Code violations in this film reflects the truth about Hollywood and its decency standards before sound. There were some problems in silent films, but not nearly as many as in pre-Code films. The advent of sound brought much more unacceptable content to the screen.
This is an entertaining silent film. It is suspenseful but also humorous. I enjoyed the acting, and the premise was very interesting. I look forward to watching the Code version of this story which stars Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard so that I can compare the two films. This was my final breening film of August. I hope that you enjoyed these special edition Breening Thursday articles during #AMonthWithoutTheCode65!
By the way, please join our month-long study of un-Code films, #AMonthWithoutTheCode65! Throughout August we are not going to watch any American Breen Era films (except for our weekly new Code films), and we are inviting participants to do the same. Writers can join this celebration with articles about their opinions and discoveries about films that were not breened during the month, and we will republish them on our website. What have we learned during sixty-five years without Joseph Breen’s Code enforcement?
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