The 1941 film The Black Cat should not be confused with the 1934
film with the same title, also produced by Universal. They are two very
different stories. The opening credits say that the 1941 film is
"Suggested by the story by Edgar Allan Poe." But don't expect to see the
Poe tale; there's just one scene at the end of the film that appears to
have been "suggested" by the Poe story called "The Black Cat."
As wealthy, elderly Henrietta Winslow's health is failing, her
relatives and heirs gather at her spooky mansion, thinking that she is
about to die. Eager to get his share of her fortune, Henrietta's
son-in-law Monty (Basil Rathbone) arranges for a realtor (Broderick
Crawford) to line up a buyer for the house. Smith, the aforementioned
realtor, shows up at the house with his air-head colleague Mr. Penny (Hugh
Herbert) to appraise the furniture. But Monty has jumped the gun. Not only
is Henrietta still living, but the doctor says she is doing better!
"How is she, Doctor?"
Henrietta says, "I know you are disappointed."
Henrietta has a houseful of cats—dozens
of them—but not a single one is
black because Henrietta is superstitious. She believes that a black cat
portends death. Nevertheless, there is a mysterious black cat wandering
about. Henrietta even has a crematory for the cats who have died, and she
keeps their ashes in urns. Smith observes, "Everything around here is for
the cats. That's why the place is going to the dogs."
Henrietta also has a creepy
housekeeper (played by Gale Sondergaard) and a gardener (played by Bela
Lugosi). Henrietta reads her will aloud, telling each heir what he or she
will inherit, but she fails to tell them that the will also stipulates
that no one will inherit anything as long as Abigail Doone (the
housekeeper) and all the cats live. Abigail is to stay in the house and take care of the
Not surprisingly, Henrietta is murdered, and everyone in the house is a
suspect. The mysterious black cat appears now and again to foreshadow
Abigail tells the family about the conditions of the will, and now her
life is in danger. She orders everyone to leave the house, but they are
trapped by a storm.
Like so many other B's of late,
"The Black Cat" is
way down the alphabetical scale. Dating will probably be slow, as
will action at the box office where played.
Horror subject has
been poorly written by no less than four scenarists and loosely
produced by Burt Kelly, a pretty old hand in the B-making ranks. A
large and capable cast tries to pull a wagon with traces made of
string thus they can't be blamed for getting nowhere.
A short story by Edgar Allan Poe caused the picture to be made.
Poe may not be so much at fault, however, as those who took his yarn
in hand, moulded it into a 70-minute bore and are now out seeking an
indulgent market for the finished work. Although four writers were
required, the combined talent of all has produced little. Among
other things the dialog is trite. Result at comedy is even less than
that a typical crack being: "Everything around here is for the cats,
that's why the place is going to the dogs."
Referred to is the bleak and gloomy old house owned by an erratic
woman who is bugs about felines. She even maintains a crematorium
for those that kick off. A flock of relatives, near and fairly
distant, are waiting for her to die so that they may share in her
will. Knowing in advance what she is going to leave them one
relative murders her whereupon they all learn that they don't get
their bequests until all the cats have gone. Meantime, a faithful
housekeeper continues in charge. A succession of murders figure, but
none in reality or on the screen, were ever so uninteresting.
Brod Crawford (billed that way instead of Broderick) and Hugh
Herbert are outsiders in the action, all of which takes place at and
around the musty old house. Crawford is there trying to buy it for a
client, Herbert having come along to get in the way. He's an antique
hound, but only meagrely funny.
Bela Lugosi plays a caretaker who is constantly leering in
windows while Basil Rathbone is one of the scheming heirs. His wife,
played by Gladys Cooper, is another. Gale Sondergaard manages to be
appropriately menacing and dubious while Ann Gwynne, as the heroine
who's fond of Crawford, adds sweetness to the sour scenes. Char.
—Variety, April 30, 1941, p. 16
Monty is not the loving husband that he appears to be. He is carrying
on an affair with Henrietta's granddaughter Margaret (Claire Dodd). His
stepson Richard (Alan Ladd) catches him with Margaret, and warns him to
break off the relationship, or "I'll tell the coroner that you said we'd
all be better off if grandmother were dead." It is also revealed that
Monty is in debt.
Smith gives Henrietta an offer on the house.
Monty learns about the condition in the will.
When an attempt is made on Abigail's life, Smith is convinced that the
house must have secret passageways for the murderer to have been able to
move about undetected. A second attempt to kill Abigail succeeds, and she
is found hanged in her room. A short time later, Myrna (Henrietta's niece
and Monty's wife) is attacked in a similar manner, but saved in the nick
of time. Myrna claims that Eduardo (Lugosi) attacked her, but he denies
it. Eventually, the real killer is revealed, and one of the other
characters is saved just in time from being burned alive in the crematory.
"The Black Cat" has fine marquee value, but its
thoroughly synthetic horror plot makes it mediocre entertainment
generally. Here are all the ingredients for a successful mystery
thriller including an Edgar Allan Poe title, a weird setting, and a
cast including Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard and Bela Lugosi in
sinister roles; Hugh Herbert for wacky comedy relief and Gladys
Cooper and Cecilia Loftus for dramatic work — everything, that is,
except a story with a spark of originality. After an effective
opening scene, the over-abundance of clutching hands, shrieks,
secret panels and faces at the window during a stormy night becomes
more tiresome than chill-inducing. The title and cast will attract
above average business in action spots if properly exploited. It
ranks only as a secondary dualler elsewhere.
With only one
climactic situation suggested by the original Poe tale, the film
opens with the grasping relatives of eccentric old Cecilia Loftus
waiting for news of her death. The cat-loving spinster recovers,
however, and reads them her will containing generous bequests which
cannot be filled while her housekeeper (Gale Sondergaard) is still
living. That night Miss Loftus is poisoned, later the sinister Miss
Sondergaard is found hanged and all the rest become suspects. The
feeble-minded gardener (Bela Lugosi) is also killed and the youngest
niece (Anne Gwynne) is rescued from a horrible death in the cat
crematory before the identity of the killer is disclosed.
In its proper place, Hugh Herbert's woo-woo comedy is amusing
but, in this instance, Director Albert S. Rogell has frequently
permitted it to shatter the eerie mood. Broderick Crawford gets a
few laughs with his dim-witted antics, but he is scarcely the type
to handle the romantic interest. Outstanding in the cast are Gale
Sondergaard, as the menacing housekeeper, Cecilia Loftus, as the
querulous old spinster, and Gladys Cooper, who contributes several
splendid dramatic moments. Two of Hollywood's ace horror men, the
suave Basil Rathbone and the accented Bela Lugosi are wasted in
unimportant parts with the latter having only a few close-ups and a
May 3, 1941, p. 7
Newspaper critics said:
"Dishes up a mixture of goose-fleshy ingredients ... Pacefully directed
... Sufficently spooky." —Thirer,
"More slow than sinister, it has all the ingredients of conventional
horror melodrama ... Generally fails to chill." —A.W.,
"Somehow we couldn't get scared ... We will think of the laughs we got
... rather than anything else." —Dana,
N.Y. Herald Tribune
"Confused ... Cast much too good for such inferior highjinks." —Boehnel,
All the best mystery props known to the film
business have been whipped out for this story, and in addition, a
nice flavoring of face is worked in for good measure, with the
result as a whole turning out as entertaining screen fare for
general audiences. The cast is fine, the horror element in the story
is sufficient, with a full complement of secret passages, yowling
cats and sinister characters, and the direction is able. Picture
should serve well as a supporting feature, and it can stand on its
own feet as a single attraction where house policy permits and
audiences go for this type of film.
Rathbone is properly sinister
and heartless, Hebert is amusing as an antique buyer, Crawford does
well with his part, Bela Lugosi adds a note of horror to the cast,
and Gale Sondergaard, Anne Gwynne, Glady Cooper, Cecilia Loftus,
Claire Dodd, John Eldredge and Alan Ladd round out the cast. Albert
S. Rogell directed from an original screenplay by Robert Lees, Fred
Rinaldo, Eric Taylor and Robert Neville. Direction and screenplay
are both good.
Crawford, a real estate agent, takes Herbert, an antique dealer,
out to the estate of Miss Loftus, said to be dying by Rathbone, an
in-law who is in need of money. She recovers, but is murdered, and
things happen fast and furiously with plenty of chills and lots of
laughs before the killer is caught, and it turns out to be a person
audiences will not suspect.
—The Film Daily,
April 28, 1941, p. 6
Universal had had a big hit with the 1934 version of The Black Cat,
a horror film that also had little in common with the Edgar Allan Poe
The 1941 film was intended to be a blend of spooky thriller and comedy.
Hugh Herbert and Broderick Crawford provided the comedy. Some may find
Herbert hilarious; I personally found him annoying. It's a decent mystery,
and would have been a better film without the silly antics.
Rathbone with Claire Dodd
"We're taking an awful chance being seen out here."
Rathbone with Alan Ladd
"Are you trying to break Myrna's heart?"
Rathbone had previously worked with Bela Lugosi in Son of
Frankenstein (1939). Bela played Ygor. Gale Sondergaard and Rathbone would
later work together in The Spider Woman (1944). Rathbone and
Gladys Cooper (Myrna) had worked together in the play Diplomacy way
back in 1920 at His Majesty's Theatre in London, and then again in the
play The Astonished Heart in Hollywood in 1940. Rathbone had also
worked with Cecilia Loftus prior to this film; they acted together in the
Broadway play The Devil Passes in 1932.
This production of "The Black Cat" has all the
essentials of thrilling mystery and a few extras which collectively
make for an excitingly good time for mystery lovers.
S. Rogell's direction, the mystery is baffling until the very end,
when the identity of the killer is divulged. In the events leading
up to the climax, he has intermingled suspense with comedy and the
combination works out very well.
The first murder is that of an old woman, cremated, which leaves
the will to be disputed by the members of her family and the
housekeeper, Gale Sondergaard. Secret passages, a spooky crematory,
figures in the dark and a couple of more murders, one the
housekeeper and the other a caretaker, Bela Lugosi, subsequently
have their inning.
Hugh Herbert handles the comedy and repeatedly deflates the
tension in a manner which drew many chuckles from the patrons at the
Rialto on Broadway. Broderick Crawford is the hero who wanders about
in quandary, until he finally discovers the murderess and saves the
girl, Anne Gwynne, from the crematory. Basil Rathbone is the husband
of the murderess, who is the daughter of the old woman. The daughter
commits the crimes in a desperate effort to provide Rathbone with
funds and thus hold him.
Daily, April 28, 1941, p. 5
The Black Cat was made very quickly. Production began on February 17 and ended March 10, 1941.
The film was released in theaters May 2, 1941. Rathbone received top
billing because of his star power.
Rathbone and Gladys Cooper
Alan Ladd had a small part in The Black Cat and was billed
eleventh. He was relatively unknown at the time. In 1942 he had his
breakout role in The Gun for Hire. As a result of Ladd's popularity
following This Gun for Hire, when The Black Cat was
re-released in theaters in 1948, Ladd received second billing on the new
Edgar Allen Poe Up-to-Date
Derived by four
writers from the original work by the late Edgar Allen Poe, this
tale of murder and suspicion of murder, in a house full of cats,
secret passages and heirs to a fortune, stand head and shoulders
above most of the season's contribution to the thrill-chill-kill
school of production. It treats its original and its function with
respect, offends the plausibilities no more than is minimum for this
type of story, and it supplies comedy that serves it purpose as
relief without diluting the sense of menace on which it depends for
satisfaction of its audiences.
The plot contains ingredients which have been used by many a
producer for many a purpose—the
last will and testament of the wealthy eccentric, in this case a
woman fond of cats, the several heirs covetous of the inheritance,
the servant who looks capable of any variety of crime, the storm,
the banging shutters, all the trimmings—but
they are employed as befits a commonsense job of scaring the
customers into ecstasy before explaining how it all happens. The
story stays on the beam and the tension is unbroken from start to
Although all the members of the cast satisfy the demands of the
occasion, Hugh Herbert is a standout as the member in charge of
comedy and Broderick Crawford impresses as the young man who carries
the ball, so to speak, as to narrative. Basil Rathbone and Gale
Sondergaard are the runners-up.
Production by Burt Kelly is a solid job, as is direction by
Albert S. Rogell, and the art direction of Jack Otterson gives to
the investiture the Poe atmosphere with distortion neither to the
right nor to the left of realism.
Previewed at studio.—W.R.W.
Herald, May 3, 1941, p. 38
The fact that Basil Rathbone didn't mention The Black Cat in his
autobiography suggests that he didn't have a high opinion of the film.
Gale Sondergaard said, "I hated doing the thing. It was beneath me."1
"Elaine has disappeared!"
Monty: "Ashes! This proves it was Abigail."
Smith: "He thinks he's Sherlock Holmes."
The authors of Universal Horrors wrote, "The Black Cat is
mainly notable for squandering a fine cast and the considerable skills of
a top technical crew on bottom drawer material." They did praise the
photography and the sets for the film, however.2
It's About: Murders in an old mansion.
It's all been done before—the
murders, the eerie old manse, the heirs who all become suspects, the
blundering young man (this time it's a real-estate salesman) who
eventually solves the mystery—but
for some reason it still remains good entertainment.
It is even better entertainment than usual with such actors as
Basil Rathbone, Hugh Herbert, Broderick Crawford and Bela Lugosi to
raise goose pimples on the customers. Herbert, of course, tickles
the funny bone when the others aren't "spooking," and even when they
are, for that matter.
Gale Sondergaard, as the housekeeper, is the scariest dame you
Your Reviewer Says: Boo! It's a scary-cat.
August 1941, p. 102
"A synthetic chiller ... a reasonably satisfactory climax ... enlivened
by occasional comedy" —The
New York Daily News, April 26, 1941
"A tale more slow than sinister, it has all the ingredients of
conventional horror melodrama. ... the horror generally fails to chill.
... Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard and Bela Lugosi are properly
menacing." —The New York
Times, April 26, 1941
Alan Ladd, Rathbone, and Broderick Crawford
Myrna: "The money I get from Henrietta's estate will take care of all your
The opening of the film uses the same music as Tower of London
This was the last film made by Cecilia Loftus. She died in 1943.
AUDIENCE SLANT: (Adult) Average mystery
"shocker" will please fairly well in average communities.
BOX OFFICE SLANT: Billed in the "horror show" manner, it should draw
satisfactorily in most situations.
Plot: Grandma Cecilia Loftus' relatives await her death so
they can get their share of her estate. But after one of them
murders her to rush matters, they find all bequests are withheld
until the housekeeper, Gale Sondergaard, also dies. It isn't long
until she, too, is put out of the way. Eventually the murderer is
Comment: With all the regulation mystery trappings, this
is a fairly satisfying picture, although much padding in the form of
comedy relief (a necessary evil in mystery films) hampers the
story's progress considerably. Not until near the end does suspense
begin to grip the spectator. Since four scripters worked on the
screenplay, it is logical to assume that one had charge of the
drama, another the moving walls and sliding panels, another the
inevitable thunder storm that always takes place when eerie things
are going on in an isolated mansion. Hugh Herbert's comedy is good
in spots; at other times it becomes monotonous, slows up the
proceedings. Nevertheless, as mysteries go, this one is liable to
draw well for the showman who exploits it in the "horror show"
manner. The four principal characters, besides doing good work, are
also well known to most moviegoers. The "black cat" motif should
dominate all your displays.
Catchline: "The trail of the cat leads to your weirdest,
wildest chills and thrills!"
Review, April 26, 1941, p. 9
At the end of the film the title character is shown with a litter of
Watch the trailer:
See Page Two for screenshots from the
film. See Page Three for pictures of posters,
lobby cards and promo photos.
Hugh Herbert ...
Broderick Crawford ...
Hubert Gilmore Smith
Gladys Cooper ...
Gale Sondergaard ...
Anne Gwynne ...
Harry C. Bradley
Jack Cheatham ...
Edgar Sherrod ...
Albert S. Rogell
Asst. Director ...
Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo,
Eric Taylor, and Robert Neville