It is logical, and it seemed easy enough, to begin a discussion of The Cat and the Canary with a discussion of the history of “old dark house” mysteries — those movies where a disparate and largely shifty group of people convene upon a mysterious old mansion and find themselves embroiled in — and probably accused of — either a murder or a theft. Lots of skulking, staring, and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or the doors of hidden passages ensues. From the silent era to the end of the 1930s, there was a dizzying number of “old dark house” films produced. They were cheap to make, easy to write, and demanded little from the production company or the audience. At their worst, old dark house mysteries were harmlessly entertaining. Often they were much better than that. The formula was so adaptable that it could be grafted onto pretty much any type of movie. Even established series like the Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan movies fell back from time to time on the old dark house motif. From horror to comedy to crime to thriller, it was easy to crank out an old dark house version of the genre and keep everyone at least moderately satisfied.
Laura La Plante was one of the luminaries of silent era cinema, making a name for herself when she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, a promotional stunt arranged by the United States Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers to promote up and coming new actresses. During the 1920s, she appeared in more than sixty films, including one of our personal favorites, 1928’s The Cat and the Canary. Like many, her career did not survive the transition to talkies, and though she was the lead candidate to replace Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series when that star was mulling over the notion of leaving the films, Loy ultimately decided to stay and that was about it for La Planta, who moved to London, worked occasionally, but more or less went into retirement, emerging in the 1950s to do a turn on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life and, later in life, at a Night of a 100 Stars event during the 1980s.
But we love her for her role as a plucky heiress surrounded by sinister events in The Cat and the Canary — and we love her for the free spirit that sometimes led her to have a problem keeping her clothes on, including a stint as a nude model.