The Black Cat (1934) Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners (65 min) 35mm print from Universal Studio Archive
A courtly doctor (Lugosi) befriends a honeymooning couple, and after an accident in death-haunted Europe, must extract them from the clutches of Karloff, a Satan-worshipping architect. Vaguely suggested by a Poe story, and bubbling with inter-war fascist angst, “My favorite Halloween movie is low on gore but high on disturbance” (Richard Brody The New Yorker).
No other horror film looks like The Black Cat. It’s been called “the most overtly Bauhaus film ever made by an American studio…used modern architecture for a particularly perverse brand of evil” (Mandelbaum and Myers 169). Usually haunted houses are crumbling Victorian piles, untidy and dark, the better to hid secrets and evoking “unspecified Englishness” (Schwaab 39). This haunted house is sleek, smooth, and modern. It hides another kind of secret, “an unsavory roll call of vice and obsession” (Weaver 87). The inspiration for the house was a real LA home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, The Ennis Brown House 2607 Glendower Ave. A landmark structure completed in 1924, the actual house has appeared in many other movies, tv shows, music videos, fashion shoots, etc. Currently the private residence of a millionaire, it is open to the public 12 days a year.
Edgar G. Ulmer was born in Austria. He began his career at 19 as a set designer for the stage director Max Reinhardt, built sets for German silent films like Metropolis and F. W Murnau’s Faust and The Last Laugh. In Hollywood, worked on Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, as well as being the assistant art director for all of F. W. Murnau’s American films. He worked both as an art director and as a director of short films, and when the talkies came in, directed foreign language productions of MGM films.
The story on the screen was Ulmer’s idea, a result of his personal demons, including a fixation on Satanist Aleister Crowley. During his work on The Golem, he had discussed with a colleague the devastating shelling of a fort during WW I, which provided the backstory for his deadly protagonists. He pitched it as a bargain vehicle for Karloff, and budgeted it so the front office could appreciate his appropriation of the known public domain Poe title. Ulmer collaborated on the script with mystery writer Peter Ruric and set designer Charles D. Hall. Boris Karloff even plays a character named after the German Expressionist designer of The Golem (Hans Poelzig)! The unique set, “a cold and glossy marvel of glass brick, Bakelite floors and curving metal staircases” also contains glass tables, Breuer chairs and digital clocks. The whole set only cost $3,700.00. This was a super cheap Universal monster movie, the entire budget was just under $100,000, it was shot in 19 days, including front office mandated retakes. The classical score, lovingly assembled from many public domain works was almost certainly an artful economy measure. Classical scores were often associated with early horror films, but it seems Ulmer’s use here was because he thought it gave the film a sophisticated air.
Lugosi, Karloff and Lillian Lund
Although supposedly “inspired” by Edgar Allan Poe, the film bears absolutely no resemblance to Poe’s story. Except for the title, and there is a black cat in it. “The things we did to Poe when he wasn’t around to defend himself” Karloff told Famous Monsters magazine in 1965 (Senn 241). Poe was a mood, and The Black Cat is essentially plotless, but “almost bottomless in its resonating reference to war, religion, film, theater, architecture, psychiatry, and classical music” as it evoked not the 1843 story, but the trauma of World War I (Skal 180).
This film is a striking example of the censors’ lack of imagination. Even to a jaded modern eye, “The Black Cat was a film so frightful and twisted that every right-thinking Catholic should have picketed it, but not even Breen (of the Catholic Legion of Decency) understood how perverted it was” and it was not condemned by the censors(Viera 175). Although, in the UK, the Satanists were relabeled “sun worshippers.” It was the first Hollywood, and for a long time only English-language feature of Ulmer; his other notable film is the B noir, Detour.
Boris Karloff…born and died William Henry Pratt, he never legally changed his name…was oddly determined to be an actor. He was the end of a long line of children, the first born in 1850, and he, the last, in 1887, to a forbidding but oft-married English father. Billy Pratt ran away to Canada at the earliest opportunity, there may have been a shadow on his birth, perhaps he was half Indian, or half Egyptian. In Canada, he worked laborers’ jobs and stock company parts. He apparently pulled his theatrical name out of thin air. He had no training as an actor, was extremely bow-legged, and had a stutter as well as a lisp; a most unlikely candidate for the stage. He started doing extra work and bit parts in Hollywood in 1916; he was in 18 films in 1931, the year of Frankenstein; working a week here and a week there. But, one of those films recreated a flashy stage part as a murderous convict in The Criminal Codewhich led to his becoming Frankenstein‘s monster.
Karloff reads Wells’ palm behind the scenes
He had taken the advice of Lon Chaney to heart. Chaney told him in the mid-1920s, “The secret of success in Hollywood lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do–and they’ll begin to take notice of you. Hollywood is full of competent actors. What the screen needs is individuality” (Nollen). Bela Lugosi railed against the fates that denied him the matinee idol status in the US he had enjoyed in his native Hungary. But Karloff, never having been famous, usually did not resent the typecasting that relegated him to thrillers. But, having just acted in two non-horror roles, he was a little reluctant to sign on, until Ulmer showed him the wardrobe and make-up he designed to give him an “out of this world appearance” (Fischer 95).
Karloff with Jack Pierce, the wizard of Universal’s monster make-ups.
And, the finished product, with dramatic lighting.
Bela Lugosi was born in Hungary in 1882. Tall and blue eyed, in Hungary he played romantic leading men like Romeo and Armand Duval in Camille, as well as Jesus on the stage. After a brief career in Hungarian silent film, he came to America in exile after his union agitation for actors’ rights and made his New York stage debut in 1922. In 1927, he played Dracula and became a Broadway star. He triumphed on stage, and then on screen as the seductive vampire “a morbid Valentino” (Mank 15). His first film was his peak of cinematic stardom, and he never became reconciled to his career as, largely, a supporting actor, with lesser billing and lesser salary to those he considered lesser artists, like Boris Karloff. Of course, our image of Lugosi these days is strongly colored by Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning portrayal of his last days in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.
David Manners and Jacqueline Wells are the extremely boring honeymoon couple, whose peril propels the plot. Manners is most associated today with Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s The Mummy, where he must save the heroine from unspeakable horrors…a fate worse than undeath, perhaps. For all his nominal heroism, he’s pretty ineffectual. As Alison Peirse says, his character exists merely to play the role of half the escaping “heteronormative” couple from the monsters. Manners was born Rauf de Ryther Daun Acklom in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He studied forestry at the University of Toronto, but after a series of uninspiring jobs, he decided to use his good looks to try the stage. He had some success, but was bored with the daily grind. He was on his way to try his luck on a Hawaiian sugar plantation, when he stopped off in LA and went to a party at director James Whale’s house. Or, he came to Hollywood after being cast in a film during the exodus of stage actors at the dawn of the talkies. Either way, Whale cast him in the World War I drama Journey’s End. Manners made 37 films from 1930-36, then retired from the screen to run a guest ranch in Arizona and to write. His professed reason was a desire to protect his privacy. It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to deduce he was gay (confirmed in William J. Mann’s book, Behind the Screen). Manners died only a couple of years ago at 98, never having resumed his screen career, but around long enough to give many thoughtful interviews to writers about his time in Hollywood.
He recalled that filming The Black Cat was “one of his better experiences” he was amused by the rivalry between the two stars. “Those two in the same picture! They got along very well as far as Karloff was concerned. But, with Lugosi, there was some jealousy. Lugosi was a big star—in his own mind” (Films in Review Mank 604). Karloff recalled, “Poor old Bela. It was a strange thing. He was really a shy, sensitive, talented man who had a fine career on the classical stage in Europe. But, he made a fatal mistake. He never took the trouble to learn our language. Consequently, he was very suspicious on the set, suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends. He had real problems with his speech and difficulty interpreting lines. I remember he once asked a director what a line of dialogue meant. He spent a great deal of his time with the Hungarian colony in Los Angeles, and this isolated him” (Roman FIR 397-8).
That Karloff and Lugosi, these two middle-aged, unhandsome men, one with a lisp and the other unable to understand English became Hollywood stars is amazing. One of the things to love about studio era films is how unusual faces and personalities were allowed to thrive.
Karloff, Anna Duncan, Manners and, in bow tie, director Ulmer. How Lugosi resented Karloff’s required tea breaks!
Released two months before the Production Code, and then, essentially unreleasable after, it was Universal’s top grossing film of 1934. Carl Laemmele, the studio head “almost had a heart attack” when he saw the final cut, hastening three days of retakes (Mank in Herzogenrath 100). Rumors persist that even more gruesome scenes are waiting to be discovered, but no testimony can confirm that these scenes were ever shot.
There are so many fantastic still images from this film, it was difficult to choose only a few for this essay. One author points out, before home video, viewers could not revisit favorite films at will. “The love for a film, especially in horror and B movies, is a love for moments. It can even be satisfied by still photographs” (Schwaab 43). Some of which, you see here.
“Yet today, The Black Cat rules as Universal’s most exquisitely twisted horror film, so hallowed that it is probably worth it that Edgar G. Ulmer performed professional penance for his dark masterpiece for the rest of his life” (Mank in Herzogenrath 90).
Screen Deco by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers, Sin in Soft Focus by Mark A. Viera, “David Manners” by Gregory Mank in the December 1977 Films in Review, “The Black Cat “ by Dennis Fischer in Boris Karloff edited by Gary J and Susan Svehla (palm reading and make-up photos) James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters by James Curtis, “Boris Karloff” by Robert C Roman in the August-September 1964 Films in Review, Universal Horrors by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas, Golden Horrors by Bryan Senn, The Monster Show by David J. Skal, After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film by Alison Peirse, Hollywood Horror: From the Gothic to the Cosmic by Mark A. Viera, Boris Karloff: A Bio-Bibliography by Benerley Bare Buehrer, The Films of Boris Karloff by Richard Bojarski and Kenneth Beals (tea break photo) “On the Graveyards of Europe by Herbert Schwaab in The Films of Edgar G. Ulmer edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, “The Black Cat” by Gregory William Mank in Edgar G. Ulmer edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, Edgar G. Ulmer edited by Gary D. Rhodes, Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ennis_House,