With Hans Salter and Frank Skinner’s orchestrations a-blazin’ we open on a dark and stormy night at the Winslow estate, which, we see, as the camera takes us through the front gate and heads for the main house, is completely overrun with cats. And as we head inside we discover the grounds have also been inundated with potential heirs, holding an anxious vigil as the grand matriarch of this cavernous manor, Henrietta Winslow (Loftus), lingers near death -- stress on the ‘lingers’. But when the doctor reports this was just another in a long line of false alarms, as Henrietta once more defies medical science and keeps on ticking, instead of looking grateful for the good news the disappointment and dashed-hopes shown by each and every relative is palpable -- some more than others. In fact, one of those heirs has already clandestinely contacted an estate agent, hoping to liquidate everything for cash as soon as the old girl goes; only she won’t go.
Cut to the estate agent in question, Gilbert Smith (Crawford), currently en route to the Winslow mansion; a place he is very familiar with having grown up in the area, hanging around until being banned from the grounds for allegedly throwing rocks at all the Winslow cats. In fact, the Winslow estate is a cat refuge, complete with a massive marbled crematorium where the eccentric old bird enshrines all the ashes of her dearly departed feline friends. All of this he reveals to his bumbling assessor, Mr. Penny (Herbert), while filling him in on their latest assignment and confirming our suspicions, saying, You bet your ass the unscrupulous Winslow offspring are willing to sell out while “the death rattle is still rattling” and will probably cash-out so fast they’ll leave nothing behind but the body. Also keenly aware of this is Henrietta, who decides to rub her greedy relatives’ collective noses in the cat poop a bit by revealing the contents of her will:
To her daughter, Myrna Hartley (Cooper), she leaves the sum of $100,000; to Myrna’s second husband, Montague Hartley (Rathbone), the sum of $10,000; and she leaves the same amount to Myrna’s step-son, Richard (Ladd). As for her grandchildren from Myrna’s first marriage (-- her first husband apparently died, an architect, who designed and oversaw the construction and renovation of the Winslow mansion and grounds), she leaves Margaret (Dodd) and Stanley (Eldredge) the same sum of $100,000 each, which leaves her favorite granddaughter -- well, maybe the one who wants to see her dead the least, Elaine (Gwynne), who gets the bulk of the estate, including the house and grounds. There is also a token sum left for her trusted groundskeeper and cat-wrangler, Eduardo Vigos (Lugosi), but strangely there’s no mention of anything for her long-time housekeeper, Abigail Doone (Sondergaard). At least not yet, because the reading is suddenly interrupted by the bumbling arrival of Smith and Penny.
And while Mr. Penny wanders off to inspect all the household antiques, doing his best to purposefully damage as many as possible because he feels this will make them more “authentic” and fetch a higher price, Smith presents an authorized check and letter from a potential buyer to Montague, revealing he was the one who hired him. Seeing Henrietta is still alive, and realizing he’s jumped the gun, Smith tries to salvage the deal by cutting out Montague altogether and pitches the offer to the owner herself. Henrietta recognizes Smith, seems he liked to hang around the mansion with Elaine when they were kids, and agrees to hear him out. But while they banter, unseen hands slip something into the glass of warm milk Abigail brought Henrietta. She then tries to get Smith to drink it for her, to fool and appease the taciturn hausfrau, but he’s not feeling so hot due to his massive cat allergy. In the end, Henrietta adamantly refuses to sell and moves to take a drink only to have it swatted away by Smith, who points to the dead cat on the floor that got to the milk first.
Fearing one of her heirs is now trying to kill her to get their hands on the inheritance, Smith is told this will do them no good. Seems Henrietta was interrupted before she could finish reading her will, with the final stipulation stating that when she dies everything will go to Abigail, who will be entrusted to run the grounds and take care of all the cats. And so, until Abigail and all the cats are dead, her immediate family gets doodly-squat. That is, they won’t unless someone keeps trying to speed that process along...
Make no mistake, as a studio Universal was the king of horror in the 1930s, starting with a talkie remake of their silent version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Cat Creeps (1931), which ushered the way for Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and launched their extended franchises, which, by the 1940s, were still going strong but aiming for a more juvenile audience. Tucked in there, too, was The Old Dark House (1932), another dark ‘n’ stormy night tale set in a creepy mansion full of kooks, family secrets, and closets full of skeletons, which, along with The Cat Creeps, spawned dozens of imitators, mostly from low-rent studios like Astor or Monogram; and by the end of the decade these tales of murder and inheritance grabs were just about played out. That is they were until Paramount got the notion to inject some full-frontal humor into their remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939), turning comedian Bob Hope loose on the proceedings to great box-office success.
And when they saw that Hope’s follow up feature, The Ghost Breakers (1940), proved the idea of an all-out horror-comedy hybrid wasn’t a fluke, Universal was soon siccing Abbott and Costello on a haunted house, turning Oh, Charlie! into Hold that Ghost (1941) while simultaneously dusting off some old and moldy murder-mystery scripts that would curtail into this kind of mayhem and comedic make-over. One such script by Eric Taylor and Robert Neville -- which was your standard reading of the will / body-count programmer with an Edgar Allan Poe twist, was found by associate producer Burt Kelly, who turned it over to Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo, who had turned The Invisible Woman (1940) into an outright yuk-fest the year prior and were also responsible for a lot of the gags in Hold that Ghost, making them the studio's new go-to-guys for this kind of thing, resulting in a run with Bud and Lou that finally culminated with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1949).
As for their efforts to spin The Black Cat (1941) into comedy gold, well, the results are a tad disjointed and borderline schizophrenic as the film tries (and mostly fails) to be three things at once: the set-designs, the cinematography and Lugosi say it's a horror movie, the script and half the actors think it's a comedy, while the other half and all the bodies piling up in the secret passages says murder-mystery. Now, someone with the comedy chops of Hope or Bud and Lou might’ve salvaged something here but, alas, Broderick Crawford was no match to fill the shoes of these comedians, though he tried valiantly; and the official comedy relief, Hugh Herbert, a guy I normally find hilarious -- yes, even in Sh! The Octopus (1937), is stuck with a very limited shtick that goes absolutely nowhere as it’s slowly beaten to death by director Albert Rogell, who was hired a mere five days before filming was set to commence, which is another indictment on the slap-hazard nature of the production.
There are a few gags that work well, like Mr. Penny always unwittingly stumbling into one secret passage after another, or Lugosi dudded-up in that Elmer Fudd get-up, who has to round-up a herd of cats when Crawford lets them loose, thinking he’s trying to get rid of a body -- though the only reason that’s funny is due to Lugosi calling for the kitties with his goulash accent. And that’s the main thrust of the film: Smith blundering around with much gusto at the slightest hint of trouble only to find one false alarm after another until there really is something wrong; but by then he’s been cry-wolf’d one too many times already and now his indifference could lead to another death as suspicions move from one family member to the next after Henrietta dies in the crematorium at the hands of a cloaked killer, who makes it look like an accident.
Thus, no inquest is called for and Abigail takes over; but the rest of the family refuses to leave, conspiring to lawyer up and break the will together. Of course, none of this can happen until the storm passes; and so everyone spreads out to their own separate corner, allowing Smith to rekindle some old feelings for Elaine, while also sniffing out Montague is in dire financial straights and might also be having an affair with Margaret, which is kind of confirmed when the ever belligerent Richard catches them alone. And then the first false alarm comes with a scream from Abigail’s bedroom, where they find her body in a trunk with a black cat -- only she isn’t as dead as they all thought. (Quick editor’s note: though she loved cats, Henrietta had refused to let any black cats on the property, feeling they were harbingers of death. And judging how this little guy keeps showing up whenever there’s a body lying around, maybe there’s something to it.) And though her recall is groggy, what happened to Abigail might just have been another “accident” -- especially when you consider her door was locked with no other way in or out, except for the secret passage, of course, but the absent-minded Mr. Penny can’t remember where the entrance to that is.
Accident or no, Smith thinks it’s high time to call in the police only all the phone lines have been cut. And so, a reluctant Eduardo must make the walk into town on foot. But he doesn’t get very far before returning with the news the lone bridge has washed out. Meanwhile, after another “accident” in the crematorium almost kills him, Smith can’t find Elaine and goes on a search and destroy mission to locate her. Again, this was another false alarm since she was just off trying to find something to read. Still on the prod as everyone settles in for the night, Smith stands guard outside Elaine’s room. Inside, the cloaked killer enters using another secret passage, spreading cat ashes all over the sleeping Elaine’s pillow because of … reasons?
But the killer isn’t stealthy enough and Elaine awakens, discovers the ashes, screams and flees, running right into Smith as the attacker slips out the way they came in. These histrionics have woken everyone else, too, who also find ashes in their beds except for the noticeably absent Abigail. Checking in her bedroom they find her hanging from the back of a closet door, victim of an apparent suicide. They also find the cloak and bag of ashes, making Abigail the one who killed Henrietta, then faked her own attack, and then tried to scare everyone off.
But after examining the rope and the door, Smith isn’t so sure and is beginning to think both Abigail and Henrietta were murdered. Meanwhile, Henrietta’s will has been changing hands all night, spending most of it with the oblivious Mr. Penny. Feeling whoever has the will is the killer, Richard pipes up, saying he took it but gave it to Myrna to spite his philandering father. When they check on Myrna, they find her hanging from a closet door in the exact same fashion as Abigail but are able to release her in time. Claiming Eduardo did it, the men split up to flush him out. But while they search, Eduardo circles back to Myrna’s room and demands to know why she’s blaming him for something she did. Caught, Myrna explains she did it all for the money so Montague wouldn't dump her for Margaret. When Eduardo threatens to expose her, she shoots him with Richard’s gun.
Unfortunately for Elaine, she heard this whole thing. See, she had been examining the rope like Smith demonstrated earlier and found it showed Myrna had actually hanged herself and was prepared to confront her with it. Caught again, and hearing the men returning, Myrna pistol-whips Elaine and drags her into the closet. She then stages the scene for the others, claiming Eduardo was killed in self defense. (A second bullet for Elaine would ruin the scene.) And as the men remove Eduardo’s body Myrna asks to be left alone to recover. Once they’re gone, she gathers up the unconscious Elaine and ducks into another secret passage. Her destination, the crematorium, to dispose of one last piece of evidence.
Both Broderick Crawford and Basil Rathbone were last minute casting changes for The Black Cat, replacing Richard Carlson and Paul Cavanaugh respectively. Again, Crawford isn’t that terrible in the role of the affable dope it’s just the script does him no favors. Luckily, much better things were in store for him down the road in All the King’s Men (1949). Speaking of, it’s kind of funny to see Alan Ladd all the way down at the bottom of the bill. (Also minus his customary shoe-lifts.) He was destined to break out the very next year with This Gun for Hire (1942), cementing his tough-guy status for the rest of the decade. (When Realart re-released the film in 1947, Ladd suddenly found himself from 11th to second-billed, right behind Rathbone.) Sadly, Lugosi is only here for name recognition and bogeyman status, mostly his glowing eyeballs, as he silently peeps into windows or around corners while constantly eavesdropping on the others, which I think was supposed to be construed as menacing but this odd combination of Ygor and Elmer Fudd kinda short-circuits things a bit. The rest of the cast is solid enough, with good turns by Sondergaard, Gwynne, and especially Cooper when we find out Myrna was the killer all along and she cracks up a bit.
But she does hold it together long enough to schlep Elaine all the way to the crematorium, where she’s trussed up and prepped to be stuffed into the oven. Meantime, in his efforts to find his now missing sweetheart, Smith finally finds an entrance to the secret passage, where he bumps into Mr. Penny, who claims he saw someone headed for the crematorium. But by the time he gets there, he finds Myrna all alone (-- Elaine has already been sealed inside the oven), who claims she couldn’t sleep and came here to commune with Henrietta. With no reason to disbelieve her, Smith leaves to continue his search, commenting on how the rain is finally letting up. Once he’s gone, Myrna moves to light the gas and dispose of Elaine. Suddenly, Smith bursts back in, wanting to know how Myrna got to the crematorium without getting wet in the rain, meaning she knew about the secret passages all along. (Picked up from her late husband, apparently.) And though she claims not to know where Elaine is, they both hear a cat meowing from inside the furnace; the same black cat that’s been lurking around since the beginning of the film. Shoving Myrna out of the way, Smith opens the oven door, freeing the cat and pulls Elaine to safety. Meanwhile, Myrna goes for her gun but the cat knocks over a candle, setting her nightgown ablaze, which quickly consumes her as this human fireball runs screaming into the night.
Wow. Kinda gruesome for a comedy don’t ya think? OK. Aside from the guy who pulled off that last optical, if we’re gonna speak honestly, the real star of The Black Cat is most probably the cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, who wrings a ton of eerie atmosphere out of this thing in spite of the cockamamie script and lackluster direction with some outstanding set-ups and the mesmerizing use of shadows and light in all those secret passages. I especially liked how the hanging bodies were discovered with their shadows cast on the wall.
The massive sets he got to shoot in and around were equally amazing, too, with the high ceilings, ginormous windows, arches, and long long hallways, and would later be extensively recycled in Night Monster (1942), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and Son of Dracula (1943). And apparently, Orson Welles saw this movie and immediately hired Cortez to shoot The Magnificent Andersons (1942) for him. Cortez would also shoot Night of the Hunter (1955) for Charles Laughton, one of the best looking black and white features ever made, and would later add some juice to the truly wonky The Angry Red Planet (1959), Madmen of Mandoras (1963), and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966).
Despite its dubious reputation, the first time I watched The Black Cat I didn’t find it to be all that terrible and fairly amusing in its brief 70-minute run-time. But during a second viewing for this write-up? Yeah, the seams were showing quite a bit. Again, with such a talented and game cast and a ton of clout behind the camera it’s really too bad the slapped and dashed script sold them all that short.
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The Black Cat (1941) Universal Pictures / P: Burt Kelly / D: Albert S. Rogell / C: Stanley Cortez / E: Ted J. Kent / M: Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner / S: Broderick Crawford, Anne Gwynne, Basil Rathbone, Hugh Herbert, Gladys Cooper, Gale Sondergaard, Cecilia Loftus, Claire Dodd, John Eldredge, Alan Ladd, Bela Lugosi