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The Black Cat (1941)

Not to be confused with the 1934 classic of the same name or any other future film utilizing the Poe title which includes a 1981 thriller from gore maestro, Lucio Fulci, this old dark house tale is from the Universal Horror cycle that offers up a fun tale of murder and mystery. Thankfully the studio assigned a good roster of faces to the proceedings that clocks in at a brisk 70 minutes.

“If you wake up in the morning with your throat cut, don’t say I didn’t warn yah.”

When the rich matriarch of the Winslow family (Cecilia Loftus) is nearing her death, her benefactors gather together for a spooky night of evil intentions at the family estate which is overrun with her beloved cats. When she gathers the greedy onlookers around and reads them her will, no one seems overjoyed with their inheritance other than her granddaughter played by Anne Gwynne who will receive the bulk of the estate. The dividing of the riches definitely doesn’t sit well with top billed Basil Rathbone who has married into the family and is set to receive a paltry ten thousand dollars.

Injected into the proceedings is an old family friend played by Broderick Crawford who at Basil’s urging has shown up a might too soon to facilitate the sale of the estate that Rathbone had thought would now be up for grabs. Crawford has brought along the stale comedy relief that seems to have been a prerequisite for the genre in the form of Hugh Herbert. With death not quite imminent for our wealthy patriarch by natural causes, she dies suspiciously in the crematorium she has on site for her cats prompting Broderick to believe she’s been murdered. There’s a mystery here complimented with secret passages, a black cat running around on a stormy night and most everyone looking guilt of something. Crawford fully intends to solve it and maybe even win the hand of Miss Gwynne, his childhood sweetheart.

Also starring in this black and white special is an underused Bela Lugosi in the customary red herring role and an effectively creepy Gale Sondergaard as the elderly woman’s caretaker. One more name you might recognize down the cast list in eleventh place is Alan Ladd as one of the relatives and just one year away from stardom over on the Paramount lot. Once things get a might scary, Ladd’s quick to pull a gun in fine tough guy fashion. He just hadn’t yet mastered the charisma that would make him a bona fide box office attraction.

Broderick is going to be on the prowl all night long and when a second killing takes place, his suspicions are now shared with the others  spending the night. There’s a killer among them and when Basil believes he has the answers, Broderick is quick to point out, “He thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes.” Yes that line offers far more laughs than anything the bumbling Hugh Herbert does throughout the film. If only we could snip all his scenes from the negative. That or give me Shemp Howard in the same role. At least then I’d be a lot more forgiving thanks to Shemp’s Three Stooges association.

So it’s not the greatest film in the Universal Horror cycle. It’s still nostalgic for those of us who love the era and the studio that kept cranking them out. It’s got a soundtrack that you’ll recognize from their other horrors, an estate I’m sure I recognized from The Mummy series and other titles and while we may wish his role was larger, there’s Bela for added flavor.

Apparently Marlene Dietrich appears in the film. When actress Claire Dodd was discovered to have left for the day and Dietrich was visiting the set, she offered to stand in for Dodd though she’s filmed from behind so no one knew the difference. When the film was rereleased the new trailer and poster bumped Alan Ladd up to second billing just behind Rathbone to capitalize on his newfound stardom. All at the expense of Crawford who gets severely bumped in billing. The trailer is included on the Universal Studios DVD release of this title and features the following title cards splashed across the screen to bring dollars into the box office.

Beware! …. This Cat’s Howl is Fatal As A Death Rattle …. Horror-Fying? …. You’ll Forget You Ever Saw Frankenstein and Dracula …. When the Black Cat Leads You To The Year’s Weirdest Mystery

Without a doubt, that teaser would have pulled me in to theaters had I been the right age when it appeared at local movie houses. I’d have been at the head of the line. Can’t say I’d have agreed with it once leaving the theater but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t appreciate the effort. Truthfully this one might have been better served with the team of Abbott and Costello in the Crawford and Herbert roles. But then they were appearing in Hold That Ghost around the same time.

Look at the positives, the Universal logo and theme song kicking it off, Rathbone, Lugosi, Sondergaard, Crawford and a pre-fame Ladd. All heightened by a well lit old dark house thriller and the knowledge that it’s the second best Black Cat movie that Bela appeared in.

7 Comments »

  1. This is a lot of fun. I remember first seeing it on TV when I was a kid and then it was many years later – when the DVD set came out – when I got to catch up with it again. Light, fluffy stuff but nicely put together.

  2. This is on my list to review at some point this year…I saw it last year on Svengoolie. A fun watch, not to be taken too seriously…in fact, I wish it had been more serious, and less comedic. But nice to see so many faces…and now I know Marlene is in there somewhere!

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