Castro Theatre special screenings: ‘Haunted house’ horror-comedy The Cat and the Canary + Oscar-winning Sunrise + unique Soviet comedy A Kiss from Mary Pickford
On Valentine’s Day 2009, Feb. 14, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present four notable silents at the Castro Theatre: Paul Leni’s haunted-house caper The Cat and the Canary (1927), F.W. Murnau’s “Best Unique and Artistic Quality of Production” Academy Award winner Sunrise (1927), Sergei Komarov’s unique Russian/Soviet comedy A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927), and the Buster Keaton star vehicle Our Hospitality (1923).
The cavernous, Spanish-style Castro Theatre, which opened in 1922 reportedly with a screening of the Wallace Reid racing-car thrill ride Across the Continent, is the perfect venue for screening something like The Cat and the Canary.
German import Paul Leni’s first Hollywood movie – and his first directorial effort since the 1924 fantasy/horror classic Waxworks / Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (reportedly co-directed by co-producer Leo Birinsky) – The Cat and the Canary is one of Universal Pictures’ relatively few surviving silent releases, as much of their pre-sound-era output was – willfully – destroyed in the late 1940s.
Based on John Willard’s 1922 Broadway play starring Florence Eldridge (later Fredric March’s wife and frequent co-star on stage), the story – adapted by Robert F. Hill and Alfred A. Cohn; intertitles by Walter Anthony – revolves around a pretty young woman (Universal’s top female star of the 1920s, Laura La Plante) who, much to the dismay of her relatives, discovers at the stroke of midnight (or thereabouts) that she is the sole heir of her long-dead uncle’s fortune. Well, as long as a specially appointed doctor judges her to be sane. She and everybody else must spend the night at the uncle’s old dark house, where strange, inexplicable occurrences begin to take place. Is she mad? Or is someone trying to make her appear mad?
Leni’s horror-comedy is no masterpiece. Unlike James Whale’s far superior The Old Dark House (1932), The Cat and the Canary is neither spooky nor funny. On the positive side, pert, blonde La Plante is always a pleasure to watch – at times, as in Clarence Brown’s Butterfly and William Wyler’s The Love Trap, she can be truly outstanding – while the film itself boasts groovy expressionistic touches, courtesy of director Leni with the assistance of cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton.
The ensemble cast is a mixed bag: wimpish “hero” Creighton Hale is more tolerable than wimp/wiseass Bob Hope in the 1939 remake – which is not saying much – but Tully Marshall and Martha Mattox are appropriately creepy as, respectively, the family lawyer and the “haunted house” caretaker, while veteran Flora Finch, in movies since about 1908, is given the chance to display her well-honed comedic skills in a couple of scenes. (Update: “Comedy Actress Remembered.”)
Paul Leni ended up directing only four movies in Hollywood. The Cat and the Canary was followed by the mystery/creepy dramas The Chinese Parrot (1927); The Man Who Laughs (1928), notable for Conrad Veidt’s ghastly permanent smile; and The Last Warning (1929), which also starred Laura La Plante. He died of sepsis at age 44 on Sept. 2, 1929, in Los Angeles.
Death did not destroy the film careers of most The Cat and the Canary cast members. Sound, the Great Depression, and resulting industry upheavals, however, did just that.
By 1931, Laura La Plante was gone from Universal, landing roles in minor fare such as Russell Mack’s subpar RKO comedy Lonely Wives, as one of the women (alongside fellow silent era leading ladies Esther Ralston and Patsy Ruth Miller) in Edward Everett Horton’s life; George B. Seitz’s B Columbia Western Arizona, opposite oater-star-in-the-making John Wayne; and William Nigh’s indie The Sea Ghost, opposite Alan Hale.
Creighton Hale, Flora Finch, Martha Mattox, Forrest Stanley, Gertrude Astor, and Arthur Edmund Carewe either were reduced to playing bits or left films altogether. The one major exception was Tully Marshall, who went on working regularly – he nearly steals the show in the 1942 Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake crime drama This Gun for Hire – all the way to his death in 1943.
Below are three official The Cat and the Canary remakes:
- At Universal, Rupert Julian’s now lost The Cat Creeps (1930), starring Helen Twelvetrees, Raymond Hackett, Neil Hamilton, Lilyan Tashman, Jean Hersholt, and Elizabeth Patterson.
- At Paramount, the best-known – but only moderately enjoyable – version: Elliott Nugent’s The Cat and the Canary (1939), starring Paulette Goddard, Bob Hope, John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard, and, once again, Elizabeth Patterson. (The following year, Goddard and Hope would be reunited in George Marshall’s similarly-themed – and, again, only moderately enjoyable – The Ghost Breakers.)
- Radley Metzger’s British-made and, despite its prestige all-star cast, poorly received flop The Cat and the Canary (1978), starring Carol Lynley, Michael Callan, Edward Fox, Wendy Hiller, Honor Blackman, Olivia Hussey, Daniel Massey, Peter McEnery, and Wilfrid Hyde-White.
Early double Academy Award winner ‘Sunrise’
The other Castro Theatre presentation was also directed by a German import making his Hollywood debut: F.W. Murnau, whose previous credits included The Haunted Castle / Schloß Vogelöd (1921), Nosferatu / Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), The Phantom / Phantom (1922), The Last Laugh / Der letzte Mann (1924), and Faust / Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926).
The curious thing is that none of the titles mentioned above indicated that Murnau would be the right person to handle Sunrise, a.k.a. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Fox Film Corporation’s costly production about a villager who, after being tempted by a worldly city girl, rediscovers his love for his saintly looking wife. Yet Sunrise and its nameless, archetypal characters clicked with critics and it continue to impress film scholars and aficionados to this day. In fact, Murnau’s romantic drama is considered by many one of the greatest films ever made.
I’m sorry to report I’m not one of them. The sets are impressive (the city street set is supposed to have cost a whopping $200,000; approx. $2.4 million today), Margaret Livingston is a fantastic seducer, handsome George O’Brien does his emotional best, and the original must surely have been great to look at – although even the available restored Sunrise prints look a bit fuzzy and dark one can clearly discern the film’s beauty. Despite all that, after three viewings the redemption part of the nearly plotless narrative leaves me cold.
One key issue is Janet Gaynor. A generally capable actress, Gaynor, wearing a ridiculous blonde wig, comes across a tad lifeless as the village waif. That’s particularly surprising, as Gaynor excelled as naive young things – e.g., Street Angel, Lucky Star, A Star Is Born. So I find it hard to understand why George O’Brien didn’t unremorsefully drown his badly bewigged wife to live sinfully ever after with Margaret Livingston’s big-city gal.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members would have heartily disagreed with my assessment. At the first Academy Awards ceremony, Sunrise was shortlisted in four categories, ultimately winning three statuettes:
- Best Unique and Artistic Quality of Production (a sort of “Best Arthouse Film” category).
- Best Actress: Janet Gaynor, who also won for two Frank Borzage romantic melodramas, 7th Heaven and Street Angel.
- Best Cinematography: Charles Rosher & Karl Struss.
The lone Sunrise loser was Rochus Gliese, as the Best Art Direction award went to William Cameron Menzies for Tempest and The Dove.
‘A Kiss from Mary Pickford’: ‘Madcap slapstick farce from Russia’
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s press release describes Sergey Komarov’s A Kiss from Mary Pickford as “a madcap slapstick farce from Russia.” The plot revolves around a movie theater ticket-taker (popular comedian Igor Ilyinsky) who, in order to impress his object of desire – an aspiring actress and movie fan (Anel Sudakevich) – he decides to become a film star himself, eventually landing a stuntman job at a local studio. Now, to what extent will he go to impress visiting Hollywood Royals Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks?
Whether or not it fits the bill, Komarov’s relatively little-known effort sounds particularly intriguing as it features newsreel footage of one of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s European trips. (I’m not sure if it’s the much publicized 1920 European honeymoon tour, during which they were reportedly mobbed by out-of-control fans, or some later visit.)
“It is ironic that that tour should be best preserved via a film made in the Soviet Union,” David Shipman wrote in The Story of Cinema, “for the couple were, after all, two enormously wealthy people, major props of a capitalist industry. No one can doubt the charm and genuine pleasure of the couple, but one does notice them searching for the camera between smiles – just to make sure it’s there.”
On the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website, Richard Hildreth states that A Kiss from Mary Pickford “attacks Americanitis with a nod and a wink. Acknowledging the appeal of American stars, Komarov’s film critiques the hysteria that accompanies popular phenomena, whether it’s the appearance of a celebrity, a rumor, or a revolution.”
Best known as an actor, Sergey Komarov (The End of St. Petersburg, Love and Hate) directed only two features: A Kiss from Mary Pickford and The Doll with Millions (1928), also starring Igor Ilyinsky.
‘Our Hospitality’: Buster Keaton & wife Natalie Talmadge
I’ve stone-facedly sat through several Buster Keaton comedies, but Our Hospitality hasn’t been one of them. According to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival press release, the Keaton film, officially directed by Keaton and John G. Blystone, is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but with an American South setting circa 1830. Expect plenty of stunts and – only in case you’re a Keaton fan – laughs.
Now, whether or not you find the goings-on funny, Our Hospitality has a special place in Buster Keaton’s career because it marked his one and only feature film pairing with Natalie Talmadge, the one and only non-famous Talmadge sister (the other two being superstar Norma Talmadge and star Constance Talmadge) and Keaton’s wife from 1921–1932.
Also seen in Our Hospitality are Keaton’s father, Joe Keaton; his recently born son, Buster Keaton Jr.; and the son of 1910s superstar Francis X. Bushman, Francis X. Bushman Jr. (a.k.a. Ralph Bushman).
For detailed schedule information, check out the San Francisco Film Festival website. The Castro Theatre is located at 429 Castro Street.
Lost Pola Negri film reportedly found
From San Francisco’s Castro Theatre to Poland: The News/Polskie Radio reports that an early (and thus far unnamed) Pola Negri vehicle has been discovered at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia by the husband-and-wife team of Marek and Malgorzata Hendrykowski from Poznan University. Dating from the 1910s, the Polish production is a detective story set in Warsaw. The print has Italian subtitles and is said to be in good condition.
Born (Barbara) Apolonia Chalupiec in 1894 in Lipno, central Poland, Pola Negri began her show business career dancing with the Imperial Ballet in Warsaw, later enrolling in Poland’s Academy of Dramatic Arts. Following her stage debut in 1913, Negri rapidly ascended to the top of her profession, and by the late 1910s she had become a film star in German productions as well. Among those were several directed by Ernst Lubitsch, including worldwide blockbusters Carmen / Gypsy Blood (1918) and Madame DuBarry / Passion (1919).
Paramount beckoned in the early 1920s, and even though Negri remained a star in her Hollywood films – her publicity-driven rivalry with fellow Paramountie Gloria Swanson was legendary – she never quite achieved the superstardom that had been hers in Germany.
After the coming of sound, Negri moved back to Germany where she became a major star once again – Mazurka (1935) is her best-known film of that period – but her career came to a halt in 1938. She returned to the US following the advent of World War II, where she remained until her death at the age of 93, in 1987.
In addition to much-publicized affairs with Charles Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino (with whom in reality she may have had a mere passing acquaintance, if that much), Negri was married to Prince Serge Mdivani in the late 1920s (the prince reportedly helped to squander her fortune) and allegedly was Adolf Hitler’s favorite actress. Her last companion was Texan heiress Margaret West, with whom she lived in San Antonio.
Negri’s last screen appearance, in the Disney production The Moon-Spinners (1964), showed that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting any less flamboyant.
Photos: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.