The Black Cat directed by Albert S. Rogell
As the new decade of the 1940s got under way, Universal Studios in Hollywood continued to pump out frightening movies that have since become a distinct film genre unto themselves: Universal horror! The ‘30s had seen the studio get the ball rolling with its Frankenstein, Invisible Man, Mummy and Dracula franchises, and as the new decade began, audiences would continue to be thrilled and amused by their continued antics. The year of 1940 saw four sterling entertainments released: The Invisible Man Returns, Black Friday (starring the studio’s two leading horror stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi), The Mummy’s Hand and The Invisible Woman, and 1941 would witness the release of another quartet of chillers: Man Made Monster and Horror Island (released as a double feature on March 28th), The Black Cat (released on May 2nd), and the eternal glory that is The Wolf Man (which came out on December 12th). Of those eight films, The Black Cat was one that this viewer had never somehow watched before. Oh, I had often seen Universal’s 1934 film called The Black Cat, a wonderful and truly artful cult masterpiece that teamed Boris and Bela for the very first time, but still, the 1941 version, which was again very loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of 1843, constituted a gap in my Universal viewing experience … until the other night, that is. And now that I have finally caught up with it, I can honestly say that it is still another pleasing, occasionally chilling, genuinely amusing, and often quite funny addition to the Universal horror catalog.
In the film, we learn that the millionairess Henrietta Winslow (Scottish actress Cecilia Loftus, here in her final screen role) is dying, and that her relations have convened at her gloomy old house, like vultures, awaiting word of her demise. Those relations include her niece Myrna Hartley (Gladys Cooper, who would go on to appear in the much-beloved Bette Davis film Now, Voyager the following year); Myrna’s husband Montague (the great Basil Rathbone); their son Richard (Alan Ladd); Henrietta’s granddaughter Elaine (Anne Gwynne; the grandmother, incidentally, of modern-day actor Chris Pine); and two other adult grandkids, Margaret (Claire Dodd) and Stanley (John Eldredge). Also to be found in the gloomy old household, besides the dozens and dozens of cats that the old dowager kept around, are the groundskeeper, Eduardo (Bela Lugosi, practically unrecognizable under heavy makeup), and the housekeeper, Abigail Doone (wonderfully imposing character actress Gale Sondergaard). In addition, on this one particular evening, there is to be found an old acquaintance of the family, Hubert Smith (Broderick Crawford), who has brought along an antiques dealer, one Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert), to appraise and purchase all the movable effects on the property. Despite Henrietta’s surviving her latest bout of illness and then going on to read her will to her future heirs, in which she is proved to be more than generous to all her greedy relations, a poisoning attempt is made on her life, and she is later found inside the property’s feline crematorium, stabbed to death with a knitting needle. And then the truth comes out: None of her heirs will receive a single penny of her estate, until all her cats, as well as their custodian, Abigail Doone, are deceased. And when a murder attempt is inevitably made on Abigail herself, it sets the stage for a very long and stormy night indeed, as our hero, the bumbling Hubert, tries to get to the bottom of it all….
Now, The Black Cat is the type of film that you might need to watch twice to fully appreciate all that it packs into its brief 70-minute running time. For one thing, the extremely clever script features dialogue that flies by in a rat-a-tat-tat manner; it is almost hard to keep up. Cowritten by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, Eric Taylor and Robert Neville, this script manages to combine scares with any number of hilarious one-liners, and while the film is nowhere near being in the rarified league of Universal’s 1948 horror/comedy masterpiece Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, it yet remains a pretty sterling exemplar of this often-difficult-to-pull-off hybrid genre. And those laffs are largely courtesy of the pairing of Broderick Crawford – a great dramatic tough-guy actor in later life who here proves himself quite adept with a zingy bon mot – and Hugh Herbert, who, with his fluttering antics and absentminded “hoo hoo hoo”s, is very much laff-out-loud funny here. And do they ever get to pump out those amusing one-liners in machine-gun fashion! Thus, Penny’s line “Looks like it’s been raining cats and cats around here!” And Penny’s comment about Abigail Doone: “What a puss! Like a lemon rinse.” And Hubert’s comment about the Winslow estate: “Everything around here is for the cats. That’s why the place is going to the dogs!” And then there’s this howler, which Hubert utters after Montague gives his theory about a recent murder attempt: “He thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes!” (It will be remembered that by 1941, Basil Rathbone had already played the famous detective twice on screen, and would ultimately go on to portray him 12 more times.) So yes, a repeat viewing might be useful in assimilating all the rapid-fire verbiage. But it might also prove useful in admiring the absolutely stunning cinematography that Stanley Cortez has provided for the film, turning what would ordinarily have been a pleasant amusement into a genuine work of art. Simply put, the film looks fantastic – reportedly, it only cost around $175K to produce, but looks as if it had cost far more – and Cortez’ B&W compositions, making great use of shadow and chiaroscuro, will make you want to watch and admire them over and over. Cortez would go on to lens such wonderful screen entertainments as The Magnificent Ambersons, Smash-up: The Story of a Woman, The Night of the Hunter and The Three Faces of Eve, and here, he offers the viewer work that is every bit as good as will be found in those classic others.
As for the rest of it, The Black Cat has been directed with a sure hand by Albert S. Rogell, a filmmaker whom I was not previously familiar with, but who seems to have a very long filmography to his credit, this particular film being perhaps his most well known. Every single one of the players in the film turns in a very fine performance, and it is a great pleasure to watch those accomplished British players Basil Rathbone and Gladys Cooper alongside their American colleagues … as well, of course, as the Hungarian Bela. Perhaps surprisingly, Bela’s role in the film is a minor one, and he for once underplays it nicely. As for frights, the film will probably prove most scarifying for the younger set, but still, there are a few chills to be had, most especially during the film’s final 10 minutes, during which the killer is revealed, and we see him/her dragging a victim to that feline crematorium for disposal. The figure of the black cat itself, a creature that had been relegated to a side mention early on in the film, eventually proves to be an integral one, too. In all, this film fits in very neatly into the “old dark house” genre of motion picture, in which a group of strange and disparate characters is gathered in a gloomy abode on a stormy night. Universal had had great success with its film The Old Dark House (based on J. B. Priestley’s terrific novel Benighted) nine years earlier, and The Black Cat follows in that same classic mold. Except that the moldering pile of Henrietta Winslow might be even more intimidating than that of the Femms in the 1932 film, featuring as it does hidden passages, revolving walls, and an underground tunnel leading straight to that creepy crematorium.
Okay, to be perfectly honest, fun as it is, The Black Cat remains a minor Universal film, and it did not perform all that well with audiences back in 1941, which really was a terrific year for Hollywood, after all, with dozens of classic pictures released, including Citizen Kane. As a matter of fact, of the more than 200 films released that year, The Black Cat came in at something like the #155 spot, managing to pull in only around $900K at the box office. (By comparison, The Wolf Man came in at #69, pulling in $2.4 million.) Still, for a modern-day viewer who wants to pass an entertaining hour and change one evening, the film should just fit the bill. A chance to see this particular group of fine actors, an opportunity to ogle at Stanley Cortez’ exquisite work, and a shot at getting some huge chuckles courtesy of all the many witty lines to be had, are reasons enough to sit down with this one … preferably on a dark and stormy night, and with your favorite 8-year-old by your side…