Friday, December 18, 2009
THE BLACK CAT (1941)
RATING: ** & 3/4 out of ****
DISCLAIMER: Let’s just get this out of the way immediately: there is ANOTHER film called “The Black Cat” from 1934 that also co-stars Bela Lugosi. Not only is this 1941 release a different film entirely, but there’s nothing even remotely funny in the 1934 film (which is a horrifically intense classic in its own right). So if you’re looking for laughs, be sure you pick up the right “Cat” from your local video store or Netflix!
PLOT: Henrietta Winslow (Cecelia Loftus) is an elderly cat fancier near death. Her stately home is filled with felines and antique furniture. The matriarch has gathered her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews together to read them her will. But she leaves one key piece of information unspoken: no one inherits a penny until housekeeper Abigail (Gale Sondergard) and the cats are dead. She reveals this to real estate agent Gil Smith (Broderick Crawford), who is anxious for Henrietta to sell the home to his client. Also on hand are antiques dealer Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert), looking to make a mint on the “musterpieces” within; and the mysterious groundskeeper Eduardo (Bela Lugosi). As expected in a film like this, it isn’t long before murder rears its head. Henrietta is first to be killed, which provides Abigail an opportunity to reveal the conditions of the will to the family. Of course, this doesn’t go over too well. Henrietta’s niece’s husband Montague (Basil Rathbone) vows to have his attorney null the will based on the notion that Henrietta was insane. From there, no one in the family is safe and everyone treads lightly, wondering if they will be next (some of them may be). Meanwhile, Mr. Penny investigates every piece of furniture, art and knick-knack in the place, breaking many of them as well as discovering some secrets (like hidden passageways) inside the estate. Will he uncover the murderer in the process?
REVIEW: This is one of the “borderline” entries in this project. Many legitimate horror films of the 1930s and ‘40s featured comic relief, but were ostensibly still horror films. A good example is “King of the Zombies,” which features a wonderfully comic performance by Mantan Moreland. But despite his many funny scenes, the overall tone of the film is still serious, and it is not inconceivable that a character like Moreland could be part of such a story, sharing the adventure alongside the straight characters. In “The Black Cat,” Hugh Herbert as Mr. Penny decidedly tips the scales on the side of comedy. The bumbling Herbert is such an improbable presence that the whole proceedings can’t help but take on an air of amiable charm and lighthearted comedy amidst the macabre setting of murder and mayhem. And Broderick Crawford’s bright and breezy manner helps to maintain that tone. Indeed, even some discourses between the serious characters are delivered in a jokey vein here.
The film starts out suitably creepy with a shot of a black cat walking down a tree branch with a spooky old moss-covered house in the background, framed by gnarly looking trees. This is just a couple years into the second cycle of Universal talkie horror films, ushered in by “Son of Frankenstein” in 1938 and it’s obvious the set designers and cinematographers have more than settled back into a spooky groove. This film reeks of Universal Horror atmosphere, and is all the better for it.
In fact, it reeks of Universal’s classic “The Old Dark House,” one of the major templates for the horror-comedy genre, released nine years before “The Black Cat.” Which is to say it has all the requisite trappings: the reading of a will, hidden passages, a musty old house filled with scary relics and dark shadows, a creepy crypt, and supremely spooky servants. And Broderick Crawford delivering this admonition to Hugh Herbert: “You talk as if the house was haunted!”
Oh yeah – it has a black cat, too! That black cat is uninvited – the matriarch of the mansion thinks they are harbingers of death and forbids them on the property, although one has somehow managed to sneak in and insinuate itself among the other cats. And the final creepy touch: a crematorium for the cats… that’s big enough to fit humans!
As the prospective heirs gather for the reading of the will, one of them plays discordant music on a piano (described as sounding like a funeral dirge). Par for the course in this type of film, the heirs are mostly selfish, disreputable types who the dying woman takes great pleasure in deriding as she rattles off the details of their inheritance. Of course, this also serves the plot, making everyone a suspect except Gil and Penny, who may be out for big paydays, too but never show any signs of hoping to do so through illegal means.
The mystery here gets slightly long-winded and confusing in the telling, but the ultimate denouement is reasonable enough. Given the abundance of suspects the final culprit who is revealed is as logical a choice as any other the authors could have pinned the crime on. At least it’s fun and exciting getting to the conclusion, as Gil and Penny start discovering both secret passageways and secret motives.
Unlike its 1934 predecessor, this “Black Cat” is often discredited as fluff, and while it admittedly has no pretensions beyond being a crowd-pleasing time passer, it is better than its detractors would have you believe. There is some care in the script (at least in the story’s set-up) as well as in the previously-mentioned eerie cinematography. The film moves fast, almost as fast as Broderick Crawford delivers his lines, but unlike “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” this film’s fleetness can be attributed to a full yet well-paced script, not a lack thereof. It also benefits tremendously from the variety of performers involved.
Broderick Crawford is just four years into his film career here and hasn’t yet become the tough guy character actor he would later be known as in such films as “Larceny Inc.” and “All the King’s Men;” and in dozens of TV guest-spots and starring roles in TV series, including Chief Dan Matthews in “Highway Patrol.” Instead, he plays an amiable role akin to the good-natured lead of a romantic comedy. He does it well, imbuing his character with a light and breezy charm and a basic decency. He proves adept at delivering a funny line, and when on screen with Hugh Herbert, the pair come off as a defacto comedy team.
Speaking of Herbert, your own ability to enjoy “The Black Cat” will depend greatly upon your tolerance for him. Herbert had a long career in both features and short subjects, and as both the comedy lead and second banana (his best roles probably being those where he supported Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson in some of their starring vehicles). To some (this author included) Herbert is “the delightful bumbler,” but to others, he is quite “undelightful” indeed. His mumbled asides (and there are many) range from corny one-liners and bad puns to acerbic sarcasm and witty rejoinders. And his method of breaking perfectly good furniture to “create” antiques is an amusing notion that leads to several sight-gags. His antics pervade so much of the film that if you don’t like him, you can deduct one or two stars from my rating. One thing is certain: between this, the feature “Sh! The Octopus” and several short subjects teamed with Dudley Dickerson, horror-comedy certainly became one of Herbert’s métiers.
Basil Rathbone is here, and his acting muscle in particular helps ground the film’s plot. At this point Rathbone had done several period pieces, at least one horror film (“Tower of London”) and had two outings in his most famous role as legendary Baker Street detective Sherlock Holmes. His sleuthing alter-ego figures in the film’s most surprising quip, and his experience with mysteries makes for an interesting juxtaposition now that he is playing a suspect as opposed to the investigator trying to crack the case. Basil would later give one of the most acclaimed performances ever in a horror-comedy, as the landlord who just can’t be killed in “The Comedy of Terrors.”
British actress Gladys Cooper plays Rathbone’s wife. She had an interesting career – she began in silent movies and was a World War I pin-up girl. She went from glamour gal to often cold character parts as she grew older, and ultimately was awarded three Oscar nominations and the title of Dame by the British Empire. Her more notable movies include “Rebecca,” “Now, Voyager” and “The Song of Bernadette.” The Movie Morlocks column on the Turner Classic Movies recently featured an excellent article on Dame Cooper that you can read here.
The film scores major horror cred in its choice of actors for the housekeeper (Gale Sondergaard) and groundskeeper (Bela Lugosi) roles. These are the type of roles that would be spoofed for years to come, in both movies and in cartoons, most notably in Tex Avery’s “Who Killed Who,” Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” and Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death.”
Gale Sondergaard had an icy gaze that could bore a hole through the hardest steel. As a result, she appeared in an array of femme fatale and sinister villainess parts. Among her most famous films are the Bob Hope horror-comedy “The Cat & the Canary,” the Sherlock Holmes entry “The Spider Woman,” the horror sequel “The Invisible Man’s Revenge,” and the Abbott & Costello ghost-fantasy, “The Time of Their Lives.”
…and then there’s Bela, who needs no introduction. One of the criticisms leveled at Lugosi’s horror-comedies over the years is that his parts could have been played by anyone. I consider that patently untrue. While it is true that he was hired to appear in these films because of his boogeyman status, I believe Bela always brought an extra level to his roles, no matter how underwritten. But when it comes to this film, I’m afraid Lugosi’s critics are right. He is essentially wasted with little to do but trade on the sinister implications his name brings (based on his past roles, especially Dracula). The screenwriters wear their reliance on Bela’s past on their sleeves. He is asked to recite non-threatening dialogue in a threatening way, and we even get a close-up of “that Dracula man’s” hypnotic eyes, which dissolves nicely into the headlights of our heroes’ car. Beyond that, nothing, nada, zilch for Bela to do but simmer in (red herring) sauce.
Whether you’re a fan of mysteries, horror films (particularly the spooky house variety) or screwball comedies, “The Black Cat” offers a little something for everyone. For the horror-comedy fan, all the trappings are here, and the Crawford-Herbert teaming compares favorably to the Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard teamings in “The Cat & the Canary” and “Ghost Breakers,” Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane in “Arsenic & Old Lace” and the great comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello. But I must emphasize once more that that the majority of comedy in “The Black Cat” is handled by Hugh Herbert. Hugh is the main show here, so if you don’t like Hugh, you’d best be a no-show.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Well, this film is a little different than others we’ve covered – there are no cab drivers or bartenders making 2 minute cameos here. But there is an actor who was about 9 years into his career and finally getting some bigger roles. Namely Alan Ladd. Originally billed 11th, he’d be bumped up to 4th upon the film’s re-release to capitalize on his post-“This Gun For Hire” popularity. Ladd’s career would prove to have a similar trajectory to Dick Powell’s. Both would start out with small roles playing soldiers, sailors, college students, etc., then appear in service comedies alongside famous comedy teams (Ladd with Laurel & Hardy in “Great Guns” and Powell with Abbott & Costello in “In the Navy”), and finally find their breakout roles in classic film noir flicks (Ladd in “This Gun For Hire” and Powell in “Murder My Sweet”).
I have to note the screenwriters here. This is the first full-fledged horror-comedy from the team of Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo (their prior film, “The Invisible Woman” was a dry run, being a romantic comedy with sci-fi and fantasy overtones). Their experience here was put to use the same year when they wrote Abbott & Costello’s first horror-comedy, “Hold That Ghost,” and their reputation as horror-comedy writers was cemented when they wrote the all-time classic of the genre, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Penny explains how he’ll fix an antique by first having to use several tools to fix other tools.
When Mr. Penny pushes a suit of armor from behind, Gil thinks it’s the killer and tackles it.
Mr. Penny flies out the door when Abigail offers him spiked tea.
Mr. Penny berates a moving man for handling a chair too delicately, then smashes it into pieces, telling the moving man you can get a fine antique by putting it back together.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
This movie feels very much like a play and is very dialogue-driven, so there’s a wealth of great lines. Let’s start with a random sampling of one-liners from Hugh Herbert:
“Looks like it’s been raining cats and cats around here!”
“ I hope they scratched up all the furniture – I’ll make a fortune if they did!”
(About Abigail): “What a puss! Like a lemon rinse!”
There’s also a tongue-twisting scene where Mr. Penny explains how he’ll fix an antique by first having to use several tools to fix other tools.
CRAWFORD: (while driving down a seriously bumpy road): As an antiques dealer Mr. Penny what do you think of this road?
HERBERT: I’d hate to meet the worms who made these holes!
Then there is this exchange between Broderick Crawford and Hugh Herbert. When Crawford goes to show Hugh Herbert the crematorium for the cats, Hugh is in much disbelief, to which Crawford replies, “Sure, everything around here is for the cats – that’s why the place has gone to the dogs!” It’s a line that seems like it should be coming from comedian Herbert, and as if to downplay it, Herbert retorts “I’m glad I didn’t say that” in what very well could have been an ad-lib.
But there’s no question as to the two funniest lines:
First, when Basil Rathbone makes a pronouncement that the evidence points to Abigail, Broderick Crawford mutters under his breath, “He thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes!”
Then there’s perhaps the funniest line of all, which actually appears in the credits: “Suggested by the story by EDGAR ALLAN POE”
BUY THE FILM: This film is available on DVD as part of a 5-movie collection called the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive paired with straight-laced horror films including “Man Made Monster,” “Horror Island,” “Night Monster” and “Captive Wild Women,” which you can buy here:
WATCH THE FILM ON YOUR COMPUTER: If you have a Netflix account, "The Black Cat" is currently available as an "instant view" selection.
FURTHER READING: There are several reviews on the internet worth reading, including this one at Eccentric Cinema, this review on the Universal Horror Archive blog and Movie Magg’s review.
Despite making a certified comedy, the marketers at Universal must have been uncertain about marketing it as such, given this overly serious trailer (note too that Alan Ladd gets second billing and that this seems to have been used for TV with the Screen Gems tag at the end). Watch this trailer here:
COME BACK ON MONDAY, DECEMBER 21st FOR SEASON’S SCREAMINGS AS WE TAKE A LOOK AT SOME CHRISTMAS CREEPS!