Monday, November 30, 2009

The Black Cat (Universal, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film last night was The Black Cat, a Universal horror-comedy made in 1941 and not to be confused with the marvelously surreal (it was a spacey script to begin with and got even more confusing when first the American and then the British film censors got through with it!) 1934 horror film The Black Cat, also from Universal, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Karloff isn’t in this one, but Lugosi is — playing a manservant, as he would in the later Night Monster, though this time in thick makeup that seems to have been intended to make him look like a Gypsy and therefore justify his ineradicable Hungarian accent. The plot of the 1941 The Black Cat has nothing to do with that of the 1934 version, and neither has anything to do with the plot of the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Black Cat” which both films claim as their inspiration.

The 1941 The Black Cat is that old familiar chestnut about the greedy relatives waiting impatiently for the family patriarch to die — only in this case it’s a family matriarch, Henrietta Winslow (Cecelia Loftus), who may be in a wheelchair and on death’s door but she’s still determined to give her family members a hard time as they sit around her living room waiting and hoping for her to croak soon. Henrietta is a mad eccentric who built a huge mansion and lived in it alone except for a pride of cats; she took them in, gave them food and houseroom, and built a special crematorium in her backyard (accessible directly from the house through a secret passage that, like most such devices in movies, is only discovered by accident midway through) whereby she could cremate her cats when they died. What’s more, she made the oven big enough to cremate a human, so she could be disposed of in the same way as her cats when the time came. The only wrinkle was that she absolutely forbade any black cats on the premises because she considered them harbingers of death — though she built a statue of a black cat in her crematorium and a black cat has sneaked onto the premises anyway and made itself at home with the other cats.

She ultimately gets stabbed with a knitting needle in the crematorium, after she’s read her will but before she’s revealed that she’s put in a codicil that the money she’s willed her family members will only be paid out once her maidservant Abigail (Gale Sondergaard, who plays in such a superb battle-axe fashion she makes Judith Anderson in Rebecca — a part Sondergaard was actually considered for — seem warm and fuzzy by comparison) — and the cats all die. The family members are a bit hard to get straight — they include her grandson Montague Hartley (Basil Rathbone), his brother Richard (Alan Ladd, billed 11th in the original credits but second in the Realart reissue trailer also included in this DVD — obviously they moved him up after the explosive success of This Gun for Hire made him a superstar at Paramount), Montague’s wife Myrna (Gladys Cooper), a grandson from a different son-in-law named Stanley Borden (John Eldredge as the milquetoast, as usual) whose father was a brilliant architect who passed on none of his talent to his son, and a few other miscellaneous descendants: Elaine Winslow (Anne Gwynne), whom Henrietta wills the bulk of her estate because “you’re the least bad of all of them,” and Margaret Gordon (Claire Dodd).

But the real stars of the film are the ostensible comic-relief players, distant relative “Gil” Smith (Broderick Crawford), who’s hoping to sell Henrietta’s house and all its belongings; and Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert), the person he’s hoping to sell it to, who comes along with a little hand drill to put holes in the furniture and call them wormholes so they’ll be worth more in the antiques market. Herbert is a good deal funnier than he was in some of his Warners vehicles but he still outwears his welcome pretty quickly, and in turns of screen time the oppressive presence of Broderick Crawford makes him the real star of the film, no matter what it says in the billing. At least two of the writers, Robert Lees and Frederick Rinaldo, were also better known for comedy (they were industriously cranking out the Abbott and Costello vehicles for Universal at the same time this was made, and producer Burt Kelly was also supervising A&C) — the other writers were Eric Taylor and Robert Neville, and the director was Albert S. Rogell, not exactly atop the “A” list of the time but still a better-known filmmaker than most of the hacks who churned out these things for Universal.

The filmmakers were obviously trying for the same marvelously nervy mixture of comedy and horror James Whale and his writers, Benn W. Levy and R. C. Sherriff, hit in the 1932 film The Old Dark House, and though they don’t come anywhere near hailing distance of Whale’s masterpiece the 1941 The Black Cat is a charming little film that tweaks a few of the genre conventions — even though Lugosi is wasted, as he usually was on his rare excursions back to the major studios by 1941, and Rathbone could have made more of an impression with more screen time but still acts the scenes he does have with his usual power and authority. At one point Broderick Crawford’s character says of Rathbone’s, “He thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes” — an in-joke reference to Rathbone’s two films as Holmes for 20th Century-Fox in 1939 (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and possibly also an advance promotion for his upcoming series of 12 Holmes films for Universal.

The 1941 Black Cat is hardly in the same league as the marvelous 1934 film of the same title, but on its own it’s suitably light-hearted (despite the murders and the mild scare scenes) and entertaining — and Orson Welles saw it when it first came out and decided, on the basis of the marvelous chiaroscuro lighting and atmospheric camera angles, to hire its cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, to shoot The Magnificent Ambersons (also a film about a dysfunctional family inhabiting a crumbling old Victorian mansion). Still, there have been better “takes” on the situation of a bunch of greedy relatives with their hands out awaiting the death of a rich person in their family — and it did occur to me that as long as Universal wanted to do a dark comedy around this situation, they might have been better advised to buy the film rights to Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi and put their legendary comedy star, W. C. Fields, in the lead!