Universal Pictures. Released November 10, 1930. 75 minutes. Directed by Rupert Julian, John Willard. Starring Helen Twelvetrees, Raymond Hackett, Neil Hamilton, Lilyan Tashman, Jean Hersholt, Montagu Love, Lawrence Grant, Theodore von Eltz, Blanche Friderici, Elizabeth Patterson.
The following is an excerpted chapter from my book, Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue, which is coming very soon (save a place on your Christmas list!). The book includes 32 such chapters—one for each of Helen's films—plus a biographical section that runs almost as long as all of those film reviews combined.
I'm posting this section for The Universal Blogathon being hosted by Silver Scenes this Halloween weekend (Note: The screen captures won't appear in the book.).
Lost movie. A Spanish-language version was filmed separately. It is also lost.
This is Universal’s first talking version of the old dark house classic The Cat and the Canary. Author John Willard’s chiller originated on Broadway in 1921 and was most famously—and effectively—made as a silent at Universal by Expressionist director Paul Leni just a few years earlier in 1927. Paramount made it again in 1939 with Bob Hope wringing all of the laugh possibilities out of the story opposite Paulette Goddard in a version that is favored by many fans.
Not only is this 1930 adaptation, The Cat Creeps, lost, but so too is the Spanish-language version of the film, La voluntad del Muerto, starring Lupita Tovar and Antonio Moreno. Dual language production on The Cat Creeps ran around the clock at Universal with Rupert Julian directing the English-language version during the days, and Tovar, Moreno, and the Spanish-language company arriving overnight to appear in that version directed by George Melford.
A few key clips from the English-language film do survive in the Universal comedy short Boo! (1932). Luckily, Helen is featured in all of them.
Brief bits of action from The Cat Creeps are intercut with footage from Nosferatu (1922) and Frankenstein (1931) to form the nightmare of a young man (Morton Lowry) who nodded off while reading Dracula over a snack of milk and lobster. These clips reveal scenes familiar to anyone who has seen either the 1927 or 1939 versions of The Cat and Canary, and show that this first talkie version of the story probably had as much in common with the other two films as we know they did with one another.
Also surviving are the four double-sided sound discs recording the soundtrack of The Cat Creeps. Those who have heard the disc note the lack of a musical soundtrack except during the beginning and end credits; the somewhat patchy and stilted dialogue; and scary sound effects such as wind and rain, eerie howls, and creaking doors. By the same token, no less an authority than film historian William Everson, who had a chance to listen to those sound discs, concluded “it seems to be fair to assess The Cat Creeps as a better-paced and less creaky film that we have reason to expect.”
A report from a Hollywood preview published in Motion Picture News some two months before the official premiere of The Cat Creeps reveals an attempt to vary the climax, but journalist Dan Ashbaugh reported those changes were “the weakest feature,” leaving fellow viewers “visibly disappointed … with an ending totally different than the stage offering.” Ashbaugh adds, “the Laemmles have ordered considerable more shooting with a changed finish carrying added punch.” During the reshoots star Helen Twelvetrees was back and forth between Universal Studios for The Cat Creeps and Arizona desert locations for her next film, Pathé’s The Painted Desert. The Cat Creeps premiered on November 10, 1930, with details provided in the contemporary reviews closely matching the action we can still see in both the earlier and later films.
Based on the scant few minutes viewed within Boo!, there’s little reason to believe that The Cat Creeps was much different from either the 1927 or 1939 version of The Cat and Canary. The classic mystery story is now a familiar one:
Twenty years after the death of eccentric millionaire Cyrus West, a group of relatives are called to his creepy mansion for the reading of his will. The executor of the will, Mr. Crosby (Lawrence Grant), is first to arrive, greeted by West’s loyal West Indian servant Mam’ Pleasant (Blanche Frederici). The usual cast of potential heirs are then introduced as each arrives, with Annabelle West (Helen Twelvetrees) the last to enter before the midnight reading of the will.
Since West’s relatives had tried to drive him crazy at the end of his life—like a cat toying with a canary—he has added a stipulation to his will that names a back-up heir in case his first choice be deemed insane.
Annabelle is named heir and the second name remains sealed in an envelope kept in Crosby’s pocket. A third envelope comes to Annabelle, its contents pointing the path to a valuable diamond necklace. During a private conversation between Annabelle and lawyer Crosby, a secret panel opens in the wall behind them and a claw-like hand emerges to grab Crosby, who’s pulled inside the wall. Annabelle’s screams bring the other relatives running, but her wild story and the lack of witnesses cast doubts upon her sanity. The name in the second envelope takes on new importance, especially since it has disappeared with Crosby.
Annabelle next discovers the necklace revealed in the third envelope, but when she turns in for the night the claw reemerges, this time from a panel above her bed, to snatch the necklace. More screams from Annabelle and increased doubt from the others. Those doubts dissipate when a wall panel finally opens in front of everybody, terrifying them as Crosby’s corpse sways for a moment before dropping to the floor. Annabelle is redeemed, but the guests now have to face the fact that there is a murderer somewhere in the house.
Each of the three key scenes involving the creepy claw emerging from the wall panels can still be viewed in the ten-minute short Boo!
This puts Helen front and center in each of Boo!’s clips from The Cat Creeps, but while the surviving scenes are some of the movie’s most exciting, they don’t allow Helen to do anything but react in terror. Unfortunately, all of her shrieks and screams fall prey to comic overdubbing for the sake of the short, but Everson reported that she “screams and sobs in the best Fay Wray tradition.” Besides the three scenes described above, Boo! also shows the murderer emerge from the wall to creep up behind Annabelle and menace her. She leaps from her chair and runs away.
That’s the last we see of Helen Twelvetrees or The Cat Creeps in Boo! The short then introduces a new damsel in distress, Mae Clarke, on the run from Frankenstein’s monster.
The Annabelle West part taken on by Helen in The Cat Creeps was portrayed by Laura La Plante in the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary. In the 1939 edition of the film the character’s name was altered to Joyce Norman, who was played by Paulette Goddard. Everson found Helen “the most intense [italics his] of all the frightened ladies who have played the role.”
Contemporary reviews describe characters in The Cat Creeps playing their parts much the same as they are played in the two other movie versions. If you’ve seen any version of the story, you won’t have much of a problem piecing together what each actor’s part entailed.
In the 1930 version that starred Helen, Blanche Friderici reprises the Mam’ Pleasant role that she played in the original 1921 Broadway company of The Cat and the Canary. And Elizabeth Patterson, the prolific character actress best remembered as I Love Lucy’s Mrs. Trumbull on TV in the fifties, links this 1930 film to the later Hope revival: She played Aunt Susan in both the 1930 and 1939 versions of the film.
While the actions of each character essentially remain the same across both of the still existing movies, there are still some differences between all three films. The 1939 version featuring Hope plays for comedy more than creeps, while the opposite is true of Leni’s atmospheric 1927 silent film. That said, Creighton Hale, wearing Harold Lloyd-like specs, reaches for as many laughs as Hope later did, and the same can be said for old-time silent comedienne Flora Finch in the part as later played by Elizabeth Patterson in 1939. According to Variety, the 1930 version didn’t try to tickle the funny bone as much as its predecessor did: “The new version treats the juvenile character of Paul much less in a comedy strain than either the stage piece or the silent film editions.” While Variety saw the change as a potential weakness, it’s an intriguing bit of information for those who wish the other two movies didn’t try so hard to be funny.
“Wisely, and very much to the film’s benefit,” Everson wrote after hearing the soundtrack in the mid-eighties, “the film’s one constant comedy element is switched to the magnificent Lilyan Tashman.” Everson calls Tashman’s Cicily “a man-hungry seductress in the best Mae West tradition,” a description evoking images of her later treachery in Murder by the Clock (1931), a too obscure horror offering from Paramount worthy of cult status by virtue of Tashman’s performance alone.
Most contemporary reviews drew special attention to the performances of Tashman and Blanche Friderici, with reserved praise for Helen in a leading role that is challenged by talented character actors in every adaptation. “The story doesn’t offer much acting opportunity to the feminine lead,” said Variety, adding, “Helen Twelvetrees gives the role merely youthful grace and the beauty that is hers.” Much better was the appraisal of Charles A. Aaronson of Exhibitor’s Herald World, who wrote that Annabelle was “played with a good sense of the dramatic by Helen Twelvetrees, who proves herself a really versatile actress.”
John T. Soister in his guide to Universal’s early talkie genre films, Of Gods and Monsters, mentions the similarities between The Cat Creeps and the earlier versions of The Cat and Canary on stage and screen. “There is nothing ‘lost’ here, at least in terms of story,” Soister writes, though he adds: “What has been lost, so far, is our opportunity to appraise and experience … the recounting of a familiar tale in unfamiliar circumstances” (70).
While any future discovery of The Cat Creeps could prove underwhelming, it would cause a great deal of excitement among classic horror buffs no matter the quality of the production. Everson called it “the first bona-fide talkie horror film,” as well as “the key casualty” among lost early sound films (but also, “not … a major lost treat except in an academic sense.”). From the narrow perspective of the Twelvetrees enthusiast such a moment would offer the greatest possible opportunity for a mass reappraisal of the lead actress’s talents. Helen Twelvetrees, scream queen? Maybe some day.
This is just one of several new articles celebrating Universal's 100th anniversary as Silver Scenes presents ... The Universal Blogathon. Head here to check out all of the contributors!
Look for Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue, the paperback and the eBook, soon. It will appear on my Amazon Author Central page when available. Immortal Ephemera subscribers will receive an announcement.
- Aaronson, Charles A. Review of The Cat Creeps. Exhibitor’s Herald World November 15, 1930, 40.
- Ashbaugh, Dan. Review of The Cat Creeps. Motion Picture News September 20, 1930, 52.
- “Day and Night Production for U’s ‘The Cat Creeps.’” Film Daily. July 31, 1930, 9.
- Everson, William K. “The Cat Creeps: A Lost Horror Film Partly Found.” Films in Review. May 1986.
- Review of The Cat Creeps. Variety November 12, 1930, 32.
- Soister, John T. Of Gods and Monsters: A Critical Guide to Universal Studios' Science Fiction, Horror and Mystery Films, 1929-1939. 2005 reprint, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999.
- "The Cat Creeps." UCLA Film & Television Library Catalog. Accessed April 20, 2015. http://cinema.library.ucla.edu/vwebv/holdingsInfo?bibId=167993.
- Wilk, Ralph. “A Little from ‘Lots.’” Film Daily September 15, 1930, 6.