“Uneasy Threshold”: The Cat and the Canary (1927), Mammy Pleasant and the Outsider Inside

Nothing is innately trifling.  As I put it once, when I had the nerve to make a public display – in a museum gallery, no less – of the mass-produced ephemera I collect, ‘Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter.’  Now, some products of culture are more resistant than others to our realization of them as worth more than a fleeting glance, if that.  Exerting the effort to make them matter may feel downright perverse when there are claimed to be so many more deserving candidates for appreciation around.

When looking out for something to look into, I invariably draw on my own sense of otherness, of queerness.  It is not altogether by choice that I am drawn to the presumed irrelevant.  My perceived marginality is both the effect and the cause of my attraction to the margins.  What matters – and according to whom – is always worth questioning.  That is why I created Gothic Imagination, an alternative art history course I teach at Aberystwyth University.

To augment the weekly lectures and seminars, I created a series of film screenings for my students further to explore the territories of the visual ‘gothic’ beyond literary genre Gothic and the Gothic as an architectural style.  The second film in the chronologically arranged series, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is, for all its technical and cinematographic achievements, a rather undemanding old chestnut.  In part, such a view of it is owing to our belatedness of catching up with it, now that much of it strikes us as a grab bag of narrative clichés.

Well, those clichés were up for grabs even back in 1927, as the film draws on its audience’s familiarity with murder mysteries and stage melodramas.  Like Seven Keys to Baldpate before it, The Cat and the Canary is parodic and self-reflexive.  It play with conventions and our awareness, even our weariness, of them.  The Cat got our tongue firmly in cheek; and as much as we may feel sticking it out at the derivative claptrap to which we are subjected, we are encouraged to appreciate that the film anticipates our response, that it is one step ahead, dangling our tongue cheekily in front of us like a carrot intended to keep us playing along.

Is it only a single step ahead? Ahead of what? Is it ahead, retro or perhaps even reactionary? The Cat and the Canary is postmodern before there was a word for it.  Like any adaptation of a text I have not caught up with, it also makes me wonder just how what we get to see has evolved and how the film, in addition to interpreting its source material cinematically, questions, edits and revises that material as well.

One revision draws attention to itself in the credits – and it made me aware of the consequences the seemingly inconsequential can have.  I am referring to the character Mammy Pleasant, a housekeeper played in the film by the scene-stealing Martha Mattox.  Given that The Cat and the Canary was released in the same year that The Jazz Singer stridently hammered a sonic nail in the coffin of silent film – at times simply by dragging said nail screechingly across the surface of an eloquent body of work shaped over a quarter of a century – the reference to the ‘Mammy’ legend stood out like a discordant note.

A slide from my introduction to the screening

What is ‘Mammy’ about Mammy Pleasant, particularly when the role is performed by a white female actor? The 1922 stage melodrama by John Willard, who also acted in the play on which the film is based, describes the character as an ‘old negress.’  Not that Blanche Friderici, who originated the part on the stage, was black.  She performed it in blackface.  

As The Jazz Singer and other early sound films such as the ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ vehicle Check and Double Check (1930), blackface and minstrel shows were very much part of Western popular culture at the time, and they were not effectively challenged – that is, were not permitted effectively to challenge – until decades later.

And yet, the film does not partake of that tradition, retaining the character’s name only.  In the play, Mammy Pleasant is a servant who has gained enough independence to choose whether or not to serve the future heir to the fortune of her deceased employer, as is clear from this exchange with the family lawyer, Roger Crosby, prior to the reading of the will:

Crosby.  Six! All the surviving relatives.  By the way—Mammy—your job as guardian of this house is up to-night.  What are you going to do?

Mammy.  It all depends.  If I like the new heirs—I stay here.  If I don’t—I goes back to the West Indies.

There is no such exchange in the film, and the ethnicity of Mammy Pleasant is not made central to the characterisation, which in the play is rooted in stereotypes surrounding superstitions to be rooted out in the act of ratiocination.  The Cat and the Canary is, after all, not a Gothic romance but a whodunit in which weird goings-on are shown to have a logical, albeit preposterous, explanation.  

The name Mammy Pleasant, in Willard’s play at least, carries with it a reference to an actual person – the businesswoman and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, who, by passing as white, managed to become the first African American millionaire.

In the stage play, produced nearly two decades after Pleasant’s death in 1904, the reference is facetious and derogatory.  Mary Ellen Pleasant, who lost the fortune she had made and shared as an activist, and whose character was destroyed when her passing as a white cook and landlady was exposed, is misremembered in the film as a not altogether trustworthy and slightly threatening outsider operating on the inside of a dead white millionaire’s mansion.

Why did the reference remain? How many viewers back in 1927 would have recognised it as a reference to Mary Ellen Pleasant? And how many would have found comic relief in what might have been some sort of white revenge fantasy that renders Pleasant odious while keeping her in her supposed place?

It is a gothic reading, as opposed to a reading of the gothic, that refuses to privilege the center and, imagining alternatives, lets the canary chase the cat for a change.  An unlikely scenario, to be sure; but to expose what is cultural it is useful to conjure what is unnatural.

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