The Cat and the Canary at HippFest 2019

The Skinny has a fun time at HippFest’s late-night screening of Paul Leni’s haunted house mystery The Cat and the Canary, with live performances from Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius

Article by Jamie Dunn | 08 Apr 2019
  • The Cat and the Canary

To Bo'ness last month, for one of the jewels in Scotland’s film calendar. This small coastal town in West Lothian is home to the Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema, and to the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival (or HippFest for short), a lively and welcoming celebration of silent movies.

This year was the ninth edition of the festival (which ran 20-24 Mar), and many tantalising silent-era works were on offer, including the 1922 version of Rob Roy, a restoration of Au Bonheur des Dames from the great unsung French filmmaker Julien Duvivier and a screening of The Red Heroine, the oldest surviving martial arts film from China. Circumstances meant we could only make one of the festival screenings, but luckily for us it was a doozy: Paul Leni’s wildly inventive horror-comedy The Cat and the Canary.

Leni was a set designer and director in Weimar-era Germany, where he worked for the likes of Ernst Lubitsch and directed his own German Expressionist gem Waxwork, but he’s probably most well-known for the films he made at Universal Studios before his early death from food poisoning in 1929. Particularly well-regarded is 1928's The Man Who Laughs, his sweeping adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel – Batman’s nemesis The Joker is reportedly based on Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the film’s permanently grinning protagonist.

Made a year earlier, The Cat and the Canary is goofier but no less inventive. It’s one of those great “dark and stormy night” thrillers, in which a throng of people are thrown together in a creepy old mansion while a gale blows the house’s shutters this way and that. The delicious premise for bringing this particular group of people out in this weather is that the money-grubbing relatives of an eccentric millionaire who died 20 years ago to the very night have been requested to convene at his crumbling home to hear the belated reading of his last will and testament. Throw in an escaped lunatic, a possible conspiracy to steal the inheritance from the rightful heir and a house chock full of hidden doors and secret passages that soon fill up with corpses and you have a spooky laugh riot. 

Made in 1927, the year the talkies were coming in but silent cinema was hitting its creative peak (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger and FW Murnau's Sunrise were all released the same year), The Cat and the Canary is dizzyingly cinematic and bursting with cock-a-hoop invention. The film opens with Cyrus West, the cranky old millionaire, surrounded by a group of huge black cats (his relatives who’re waiting to inherit his cash) who appear to be toying with him (he’s the canary in this striking visual metaphor).

The expressionistic set-pieces continue in the main meat of the story, which rattles along at a fair old pace. Leni makes great use of the macabre sets and ramps up the eerie atmosphere to the max, while the actors – who include Laura La Plante as the glamorous heiress whom sinister forces are out to get, and Creighton Hale as her clumsy, nerdy cousin who turns out to be a surprisingly good man to have around when a saber-toothed killer with bulging eyes is behind you – are clearly having a great time.

This octogenarian comedy-thriller's youthful vigour is enhanced on the night by the live score from Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, which turns from sprightly to spooky on a hairpin. On percussion, Bockius did a fine job of keeping pace with Leni’s crackerjack twists and turns, while Buchwald was on piano and violin (at one point I peered over to stage right and was surprised to see him playing both at the same time.)

If we have a more fun night at the pictures in 2019 we’ll be surprised. Our only regret is that we couldn't make it to more of the festival’s well-curated screenings. HippFest 2020 can’t come quick enough.

HippFest 19, 20-24 Mar, Hippodrome, Bo'ness