One of my favorite discoveries in my college library was the volume Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931–1946 by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas. The 1990 book was one of the first to look at the entire canon of Universal’s horror and mystery pictures from their Golden Age and treat them as something more than the “kiddie TV entertainment” they were once relegated to. I grew up watching these movies on weekend afternoons, but until Weaver et. al I knew little about the behind-the-scenes tales of their making.
I must’ve kept the book checked out of the college library for a straight year, constantly renewing it. It gave me a huge uptick in appreciation for classic horror and instilled in me a hunger to dig up the more obscure movies the authors covered. And they covered everything: The Sherlock Holmes movies; the Inner Sanctum mysteries; the supernatural comedy Ghost Catchers; films such as The Secret Key that only count as horror because a star like Boris Karloff appeared in them; historical epics with gruesome content, like Tower of London; plus obscurities The Mad Ghoul, House of Horrors, and the film I’m writing about today.
Universal Horrors vanished from my life after college, and the only copies I could locate online were prohibitively pricey. Then I found the book available for $3.99 in a revised version for Kindle. Re-reading it caused another Universal Horror love explosion, and I scrounged up the DVD collection Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive, a package of five lesser-known chillers from the early 1940s. The first film on it: The Black Cat (1941).
Universal already made a film called The Black Cat in 1934. It’s one of the greatest horror movies of its decade. This new Black Cat also credits Edgar Allan Poe’s short story—“suggested by” in both cases—while having (almost) no plot connection to it at all. The 1934 film made use of many of Poe’s themes, which nobody would accuse the 1941 version of doing.
The inspiration for this new Black Cat was the success of 1939’s The Cat and the Canary, a Paramount smash hit with Bob Hope that added comedy to the “Old Dark House” mystery that was already hashed out by the end of the ‘30s. Universal certainly made their share of them, such as The Secret of the Blue Room and the wonderful James Whale picture with the archetypal title The Old Dark House. By the dawn of the ‘40s, the genre could no longer be played with a straight face. Universal assigned two comedy writers to revise the screenplay by Eric Taylor and Robert Neville based on Poe’s title to see if they could work out a spooky-funny cash grab. I’m being a touch cynical—but so was Universal. However, The Black Cat features an appealing cast with three horror icons from the studio (Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Gail Sondergaard) and a famous character actor and future Oscar-winner (Broderick Crawford), so looks like it might be fun. I’m always up for a spooky mansion story!
Or I should say, I’m up for a good spooky mansion story. The Black Cat ‘41 is nothing of the kind. With two sets of writers, one for the murder mystery and the other to bring belly laughs, the result is a disjointed movie. The comic characters played by Crawford and Hugh Herbert rub the fur the wrong way on the inhabitants of a creepy mansion who are going through the motions of figuring out who killed an old lady with a huge inheritance. It’s as boring as it sounds.
Neither of the two mismatched sections works well on its own merits. The murder mystery plot is perfunctory: Mrs. Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus in her final role) hovers on the edge of death, bringing avaricious relatives to swarm around her to await the moment. After estate dealer Gilbert Smith (Crawford) foils an attempt to poison Mrs. Winslow’s milk, the killer takes a more proactive approach and stabs Mrs. Winslow to death with a knitting needle and deposits the body in the crematorium. However, it turns out that Mrs. Winslow left a hidden stipulation in her will: the relatives won’t receive a penny of their inheritance until after the death of Mrs. Winslow’s maid and caretaker of the many cats on the estate, Abigail Doone (Sondergaard). What are the odds on Abigail’s survival? Mrs. Winslow must have really had it out for her poor maid.
It’s bizarre that solving this murder should fall to a fast-talking estate swindler like Gilbert Smith, but that’s what happens when you smash two styles together. The reveal of the murderer is not a surprise, but that isn’t because audiences will manage to guess who it is. It’s because audiences won’t care who it is.
What disappoints the most about The Black Cat ‘41, as much as a quickie programmer could disappoint, is how little it manages to get out of potentially fun performers like Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. The huge heap of nothing Rathbone has to do here is criminal misconduct from Universal’s casting department. Rathbone plays one of the potential heirs and therefore potential suspects who wander around the mansion, but he has nothing more fascinating to occupy his time than most of the down-ticket suspects. Bela Lugosi has a more lively part as a stereotypical spooky groundskeeper, modeled on his Ygor character from Son of Frankenstein. But he doesn’t have much screen time and few opportunities to steal the show. I’m thankful to have Bela crawling around any Universal picture, and when he gets his few moments—like trying to corral a bunch of loose cats—he brightens up the dreary proceedings. But more Bela is better Bela, dammit, and Universal should’ve realized it.
Way down on the cast list is a still unknown Alan Ladd. After his breakout role in This Gun for Hire (1942), Universal re-released The Black Cat to harness some of his star power, adding the tagline to the posters, “Even Ladd Is Scared!” Ladd’s thankless part must have ticked off anyone who bought a ticket to this revival.
Gale Sondergaard fares the best. Her part is the “Mrs. Danvers” character: the suspicious and hovering housekeeper. In an interview late in life, Sondergaard remarked that the part was “beneath her.” But you wouldn’t know it from how much she invests in Mrs. Doone. This is the only key character who shows any true horror movie style. She’s acting in the better spooky house movie audiences would rather be watching.
Broderick Crawford gave some excellent performances in his career, winning an Oscar for playing Governor Stark in the 1949 version of All the King’s Men. But getting saddled with being both the young romantic hero and the comedy backbone (the picture’s ersatz Bob Hope) misses his actual talents. His delivery is snappy, and he wrings some laughs out of the better of the B-level gags he’s given, but it’s not enough. His comedy sidekick, the bumbling and clueless Mr. Penny (played by Hugh Herbert), poisons the pot. The running gag with Mr. Penny’s character is that he constantly damages furniture in order to pass them off as legitimate antiques. He goes about this tired business, drilling fake “worm holes” in valuable cabinets, while the rest of the movie rolls on around him. In a funnier film, this might work, but Herbert’s shtick is just one more gob of misplaced comedy gumming up the works.
Technically, the winner in The Black Cat ’41 is photographer Stanley Cortez, who would go on to shoot one of the most remarkable-looking films of all time, The Night of the Hunter (1955). Orson Welles hired Cortez to shoot The Magnificent Ambersons based on seeing this movie (what was Welles doing watching this?) so we can thank The Black Cat for that collaboration. Cortez’s camera provides the atmosphere the film needs, and he lavishes attention on Bela Lugosi the part as written doesn’t deserve, but which Bela certainly does. Cortez makes magic out of the film’s best set, a crematorium dedicated exclusively to the remains of cats. Designed in veined black marble with Art Deco doors and a cat goddess statue in obsidian, the crematorium begs to be in a finer feline horror film. Oh, Cat People came out this same year. Why am I not watching that instead?
Ironically, although The Black Cat ‘41 has far less Edgar Allan Poe atmosphere than the ‘34 version, it does have a plot connection to the short story. During the finale, the screech of a black cat leads to the discovery of a hidden body. I appreciate that one of the screenwriters, probably not the comedy scribes Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo, thought the movie should justify its title beyond simply having a black cat occasionally wander into the frame and lurk around the credits.
My final recommendation: you should see The Black Cat … the 1934 version. Leave this one bricked up behind the wall unless you must see everything featuring Bela Lugosi.