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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Vintage: The Cat and the Canary

In 1927, German director Paul Leni made The Cat and the Canary for Universal. It was the first of six adaptations of the 1922 stage play, but more importantly, it was the "cornerstone" of Universal's still-famed horror line-up, which eventually included Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man.

Even more importantly than that, it was one of the first horror comedies. The Evil Dead and Snakes on a Plane have their heritage in this film. It was one of the first haunted house films. The Haunting and Poltergeist have their heritage here as well. That's the weird thing about studying such an early era. Lines of creative ancestry always seem to converge.

Here's a vintage ad for the then-new film. In our Ballyhoo series, we've been stepping through a catalog of crazy marketing stunts, the vast majority of which are unheard of today. But here we see a pretty familiar format. Big title. Pull quotes from critics. Celebrity names (that we no longer recognize today). One page ads haven't actually changed all that much. More sophisticated imagery, a more eye-drawing use of fonts and text styles, but that's it.

Paul Leni, if you remember the brief name-drop in our German Expressionism segment from Episode 19, directed the film Waxworks (1924), an anthology of short stories, each told in a different expressionist style, and also the masterpiece The Man Who Laughs (1928), one of the very best expressionist films. He made only one film after that and died in 1929, at only 45 years old. Most of his films were made in Germany, but his last four, including The Cat and the Canary, were made in the United States, and it is because of people like Leni moving to Hollywood and bringing their artistry with them that American films of the 30s and 40s look so bold and inventive. Film noir and the Universal horror line-up are unmistakably American, but their heritage in German horror is crystal clear.

But as I said at the outset, one of the interesting things about The Cat and the Canary is that it's a horror-comedy. The humor is less apparent in this version than in some of the later ones (most notably the 1939 version with Bob Hope!) but it's there, and it was one of the first films to introduce this idea that something could be scary and funny at the same time. Today, as a culture, we are so keyed into the idea of using humor as a defense mechanism against horror -- as a way of tempering the effects of shock or terror or any kind of discomfort, really -- that it's arguably more difficult to pull off a straight horror film than an actual horror-comedy. But in 1927, the idea wasn't so familiar. And maybe that's why the early horror films work so well: they're so earnest and straightforward. They aren't always conspicuously trying to manipulate the humor angle, either to cash in on it or to sidestep it. They simply are what they are. Leni was sort of the only guy at the time experimenting with mixing horror and comedy in a major way. We should, however, acknowledge Buster Keaton for his 1921 short, "The Haunted House."

So perhaps it makes sense, then, that while American horror films remained earnest for a few more decades before dabbling with comedy, the haunted house subgenre that The Cat and the Canary more directly inspired took the reverse path: they were comic right from the beginning, and except for an exception here and there, it wasn't until much, much later that haunted house films started to be earnestly scary.

Up through the 1950s, haunted house films were primarily the province of comedians. Bob Hope, as I said, made his version of The Cat and the Canary, and others fitted the idea to their own comic styles: Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Blondie & Dagwood, Francis the Talking Mule, The East Side Kids, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, and the list goes on.

You don't need to see many of these knock-offs before the gags become familiar: the funny guy (Costello, Dagwood, Jerry Lewis, etc) gets scared by ghosts that conveniently disappear once the straight man (Abbott, Blondie, Dean Martin, etc) shows up to investigate. Despite that, a surprising number of these haunted house comedies are worth seeing.

We're drifting away from The Cat and the Canary again, though, where the comedy is much more subtle and subservient to the central mystery and the creepy atmosphere. If you're interested in expressionism or horror comedies, this is one to see.

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