Friday, January 11, 2019

Cat and the Canary an early haunted house film

By Doug Gibson

“The Cat and the Canary,” a 1927 silent from Universal, directed by Paul Leni, a student of the German expressionist school, is a fun spooky/silly horror/comedy. It’s based on stage plays of that era — the 1920s — that were popular, with spooky forbidding mansions, red herrings, young lovelies in peril, bumbling cops, and homicidal maniacs. While “The Cat and the Canary” is a reaction to what was popular 85 years ago, it also over time is the genesis of many of the cliches that horror film viewers expect from haunted houses for at least two generations after the film.

There’s the forbidding mansion in a state of decay, the ominous housekeeper, the deceased, crazy-in-life owner who has gathered his heirs to the mansion for a reading of his crazed will. There’s the collection of eccentric relatives, including a young lovely and a bumbling good guy who has a crush on the lady. There’s the stereotypical murder, a killer on the loose, and escaped madman, a bumbling cop or two, a sinister doctor, a creepy lawyer, and a couple of other oddballs thrown in for good measure.

That’s essentially the plot of “The Cat and the Canary.” Twenty years after crazy old rich Cyrus West dies, he gathers, by his command, his heirs to the mansion. They include the young lovely Annabelle West (Laura LaPlanche), and her cousins, bumbling Paul Jones, (Creighton Hale), and more forbidding Charlie Wilder (Forrest Stanley). Hale’s Jones, by the way, looks just like a befuddled “Harry Potter,” complete with the glasses and unkept hair. How ironic that generations earlier, we had a “Harry Potter-ish” character in cinema. Of course, he’s not a wizard, although he ends up being the hero in this tale.

Not surprisingly, young lovely Annabelle is the heir and will keep her riches as long as the doctor is assured she is not insane. If she’s proven insane, an unnamed person, whose name is in the lawyer’s pocket, will inherit all the cash. (I forgot to mention that the envelope with that name was apparently opened up.) Such are the convoluted but fun plots. It isn’t long before the lawyer is murdered and a murderous fiend is haunting the mansion, trying to bump people off and harm our heroine.

As mentioned, director Leni incorporates much of the silent German expressionist film style. Expressionist thought puts feelings, inner particularly, above the action that is being portrayed. We feel the haunted house through the prism of the actors, more so than through the action we are seeing. The haunted mansion is almost dream-like in its many hallways, stairs, curtains and claustrophobic atmosphere.

I particularly like one of Leni’s touches at the beginning, where he portrays Cyrus West’s madness by portraying him as a “canary” surrounded by cats eager to feast on him. It is important to recall that this is a spoof, and there is very witty comedy throughout. Hale in particular plays the wimpy-turned-heroic hero as well as many silent comedians such as Lloyd and Chaplin. Also providing very strong acting chops is Martha Mattox, who plays the forbidding, gloomy housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant.

“The Cat and the Canary” was a big hit and was remade in 1930 as “The Cat Creeps,” which was Universal’s first sound horror film. A Spanish version was made as well. Unfortunately, “... Cat Creeps” is believed lost. In 1939, it was remade as a comedy vehicle for Bob Hope. There was a 1961 Swedish version made and in 1970, Richard Gordon produced a British version. However, the 1927 version remains the best version. The film was, as mentioned, based on a popular play of the same name.

The classic haunted house setting, the expressionist horror mixed with laughs provides a nice atmosphere fit for a Halloween viewing. The film is often shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Bela Lugosi as Poirot? Murder By Television

Review by Doug Gibson

"Murder By Television" probably doesn't merit too much discussion or analysis, but if you love Bela Lugosi, or are a completist as to his films, hey, it's out there. Released in 1935 from a film production company called Cameo, it's almost an hour's worth of a very mediocre entertainment.

The plot involves a professor, played by character actor Charles Hill Mailes, who has made a great discovery on transmitting that new-fangled, vaguely science-fiction-ish thing called television. A hos of baddy business interests are trying to find out his secrets and/or bribe him (Lugosi is one of the baddies). Anyway, while broadcasting info about his discovery the good inventor drops dead.

At that point the film turns into a particularly boring drawing-room murder mystery, a sort of fifth-rate Agatha Christie-type mystery with Lugosi, who ends up having two roles, turning into a third-rate Hercule Poirot, saddled with inane dialogue and poor plot twists as he spends the final 10 minutes gathering the suspects together and solving the crime. I won't give it away, lest one wants to watch the film on YouTube. Cast members include vets Henry Hall and June Collyer. (A better Lugosi film in which he adopts a Poirot-like character is The Thirteenth Chair, directed by Tod Browning,)

Lugosi biographer Arthur Lenning considers "Murder By Television" Bela's worst film, and he's right; maybe there's a silent out there worse but among his talkies "Murder By Television" lacks the camp value and cast energy of another poor Bela outing, "Scared To Death." Also, "Scared to Death" can grow on you; I've seen "Murder By Television" three times and so far it's not growing on me.

I do like Lugosi in it, although I am an admitted Lugosi-phile. While he's a bit weak in his first role (the baddie) he has a commanding air in his second role (as the sleuth) that keep us watching him, despite the poor script. With the exception of Lugosi and future Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, none of the other actors have any energy. Scenes drab on with dialogue spoken listlessly. It almost seems as if some actors are reading their lines.

"Murder By Television" was sandwiched between two of Lugosi's best films, MGM's "Mark of the Vampire," and Universal's "The Raven." Despite its obscure second-feature status, it was still playing in theaters as late as 1937, according to Gary Don Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger, in their new book, "Bela Lugosi in Person." It amazes me that with $35,000 and Bela Lugosi, Cameo would make a boring drawing room murder mystery. Why not take that money and make a thrifty horror flick that would have easily made the invested money back? You can watch "Murder By Television" below this review and if you like Lugosi, by all means watch it; it's only 54 minutes or so.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Embers -- one of the greatest novels

Review by Doug Gibson

The late Hungarian Sandor Marai's novel Embers takes place in Hungary in 1940, in a secluded castle. There lives the very old general Henrik, with his even older nanny, who has cared for him most of his life. The general's wife died a generation ago. It is a big night. Coming to dine that evening is Konrad, once the general's closest friend. The general and Konrad have not seen each other in 42 years, nor communicated.

It will be a tense dinner and evening. Prior to Konrad's arrival, the aged nanny places her hand on the general and gently tells him not to get too excited. When Konrad arrives, the pair take the same places they had the last time they met. After dinner, the host begins a discourse, with the guest mostly listening. Traced through the rest of the novel is a deconstruction of a dead friendship. Two lives, friendship, pride, guilt, anger, loathing, deceit, adultery, regret, hunting and thoughts of murder and betrayal are recalled during the long evening spent together by the pair.

Embers is a marvelous, lucid, engrossing novel that deals with male friendships and emotions from a male perspective. Two men with great potential are explored. One betrays the other and runs away without the courage to explain why. As a result the other shields his love from who needs it most, and lives an empty life. The dialogue between the old friends is masterfully crafted. Marai's style compares with Thomas Mann in that this is a European novel that builds slowly with much patience. The reader who delves into Embers one evening may encounter dawn before he turns from the pages.

Notes: Marai was an acclaimed Hungarian novelist 70 years ago but his works were mostly destroyed and he was forced into exile when communists grabbed power in Hungary. He emigrated to America and died in San Diego in 1989. Shortly afterwards, his novels were returned to circulation and his stature as one of the best European novelists of the first half of the 20th century was restored.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve with Andy Griffith and cast

Here's another recap/review of a great Andy Griffith Show episode. From Season 1, "The Christmas Story."

By Doug Gibson

The Andy Griffith Show, Season 1, Episode 11, "The Christmas Story." Starring Andy Griffith, Don Knotts Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Elinor Donahue. Guest starring Sam Edwards, Margaret Kerry and Joy Ellison as Sam, Bess and Effie Muggins, Will Wright as Ben Weaver.

Most successful TV situation comedies tend to have a Christmas episode and for some reason they are often produced in the first season: think "Mary Tyler Moore Show, "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days." TAGS was no exception producing its Christmas-themed show in the 11th episode. It's a well-paced, funny, heartwarming tale that features Ben Weaver, Mayberry's most prominent merchant, a crochety, stooped-shouldered somewhat Dickensian figure with a well-hidden heart of gold tucked behind his gruff exterior.

The plot involves Weaver (Will Wright) dragging in moonshiner Sam Edwards to the courthouse on Christmas Eve and demanding that Edwards be locked up. A big Christmas party is being planned and Andy asks Ben if he'll let Edwards have a furlough through Christmas. True to form Weaver refuses. It looks like the Christmas Party is off, until Andy invites Edwards wife, Bess, (Kerry), and daughter, Effie, (Ellison), to stay in the jail with dad. In a funny scene, Andy overrides Ben's objections by cross-examing Sam's smiling kin, who admit they knew about the moonshining!

The funny plot seamlessly turns serious as a lonely Weaver, his Grinch-like plans foiled, tries to get himself arrested. Writer Frank Tarloff -- who penned 9 TAGS episodes -- deserves a tip of the hat for his funny, ironic script. Ben's plans to get busted are foiled when party-goers, including Ellie, either pay his fines or donate "stolen property" to him. Finally, in a scene that can bring tears, we see a lonely Ben Weaver, standing in an alley, peeking through the jail window bars, softly singing along with a Christmas Carol sung in the courthouse.

I won't give way the end for the very few who might still have missed the show, but it should be noted that perhaps the reason TAGS never again attempted a Christmas episode is that it could never have topped this. Wright as Ben Weaver is simply magnificent. His page on says he looks as "if he was born old." The grizzled, stooped ex-Western actor actually died at the relatively young age of 68. He played Ben Weaver in three TAGS episodes, the last before his death of cancer. Several other actors played Weaver in later episodes, but only one, Tol Avery, captured even a smidgen of the cranky magic Wright gave the role. He was, and remains, Mayberry merchant Ben Weaver to TAGS fans. In his three episodes, Weaver created a happy Christmas, saved a family from homelessness and gave a tired traveling merchant a job.

Notes: "Family members" Edwards, Kerry and Ellison were the same family Wright's Weaver threatened with eviction in another TAGS episodes. They were the Scobees. Knotts' Fife played Santa Claus, in full costume and "ho ho hos." Donahue's Walker sang "Away in the Manger." Season 1 was a little uneven, with the cast developing their roles. Knotts was still being too often used only for manic comic relief. Taylor's Andy was still the impetus for most humor. In the second season Sheriff Taylor would began to react to the humorous situations of others, and the show would move to its current classic status as a result.