The Black Cat
(1941), 70 min. b&w

 

 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 catsdozens of thembut 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 cats.

Not surprisingly, Henrietta is murdered, and everyone in the house is a suspect. The mysterious black cat appears now and again to foreshadow another death.

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 half-dozen lines.

Leyendecker

Film Bulletin, May 3, 1941, p. 7

 

Newspaper critics said:

"Dishes up a mixture of goose-fleshy ingredients ... Pacefully directed ... Sufficently spooky." Thirer, N.Y. Post

"More slow than sinister, it has all the ingredients of conventional horror melodrama ... Generally fails to chill." A.W., N.Y. Times

"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, N.Y. World-Telegram

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 story. 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.

Under Albert 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.

Motion Picture 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

"Goodnight, darling."

 

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 posters.

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 purposethe 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 trimmingsbut 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 finish.

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.

Motion Picture 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 beforethe 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 mysterybut 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 can imagine.

Your Reviewer Says: Boo! It's a scary-cat.

Photoplay, 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 business worries."

Trivia:

  • The opening of the film uses the same music as Tower of London (1939).
  • 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 caught.

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!"

Showmen's Trade Review, April 26, 1941, p. 9

 

At the end of the film the title character is shown with a litter of kittens. Awww.

 

Watch the trailer:

 

See Page Two for screenshots from the film. See Page Three for pictures of posters, lobby cards and promo photos.

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Cast  
Basil Rathbone ... Montague Hartley
Hugh Herbert ... Mr. Penny
Broderick Crawford ... Hubert Gilmore Smith
Bela Lugosi ... Eduardo
Gladys Cooper ... Myrna Hartley
Gale Sondergaard ... Abigail Doone
Anne Gwynne ... Elaine Winslow
Cecilia Loftus ... Henrietta Winslow
Claire Dodd ... Margaret Gordon
John Eldredge ... Stanley Bordon
Alan Ladd ... Richard Hartley
Erville Alderson ... Dr.  Williams
Harry C. Bradley ... Coroner
Jack Cheatham ... moving man
Edgar Sherrod ... Minister
   
 
Credits  
Production Company ... Universal
Producer ... Burt Kelly
Director ... Albert S. Rogell
Asst. Director ... Howard Christie
Screenplay ... Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, Eric Taylor, and Robert Neville
Cinematographer ... Stanley Cortez
Film Editing ... Ted J. Kent
Original Music ... H.J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Music Director ... H.J. Salter
Art Director ... Jack Otterson
Assoc. Art Director ... Ralph M. DeLacy
Set Decoration ... Russell A. Gausman
Special Photographic Effects ... John Fulton
Sound Supervisor ... Bernard B. Brown
Sound Technicians ... Hal Bumbaugh, William Schwartz
Costume Design ... Vera West
   

 

The Black Cat is available on DVD.

Order from Amazon

 

Notes

  1. Quoted in Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films, by Michael B. Druxman (Hardcover: South Brunswick and New York: A.S. Barnes, 1975) p. 248.
  2. Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas, Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 (McFarland & Co., 2007) pp. 252-253.

 

 

 

 

 

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2016