Movie: The Black Cat (1941)

I am increasingly wondering what qualifies as “horror” in selections chosen for the Universal Horror series of blu-ray sets Scream Factory has been issuing.  Tower of London, to cite one example, was entirely a history drama, with the only trappings of the genre being the castle’s torture chamber.

1941’s The Black Cat is a comedy first and foremost.  It just happens to be set in a creepy old mansion on the prerequisite dark and stormy night.  The shady and devious members of a wealth family wait idly by for the matriarch to meet her demise, with one person not willing to wait.

Even with a few murders, this is still a relatively gentle picture.  Even the humor is breezy.  Imagine Clue without the innuendos and the crasser moments.  Hell, if this film had been made in the 1980’s, it probably would have been Clue.

The opening credits tell us this is “suggested by” by the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same title.  It had damn well better be nothing more than an allusion to that tale, as I don’t want to see a cat get an eye cut out, let alone hung afterwards.  No kidding, folks—you can check out the story yourself.

The cats here are numerous and are all the wards of Cecilia Loftus, the old woman for whom many relatives are waiting for her to shuffle off the mortal coil.  Little do they know, but the terms of her will only go into effect after Gale Sondergaard, as her creepy housekeeper, and all her feline friends meet their demise.

That hasn’t stopped Broderick Crawford and Hugh Herbert from going through the house and appraising the antiques for their potential resale value.  I can’t recall seeing Crawford in such a blatantly comedic role before, and he’s pretty good here.  It was also odd to see him thinner and with more hair than in the films he’s better known for.  That said, the signs are already obvious for how he will look in just a couple of years.

Herbert gets most of the comic material and I think viewers are either going to be amused by his antics or take a strong dislike to him.  This is a solidly Vaudevillian performance, complete with a fourth wall break at one point.  Myself, I was amused by his bumbling antics.  He is so distracted by the volume and quantity of antiques throughout the house that he keeps accidentally wandering into secret passages, oblivious to having done so.  Like an infant, he lives in a world of constant wonder, and I found it a bit infectious.

 Perhaps the most curious aspect of The Black Cat is how little use it makes of two of the biggest names here: Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi.  The former is well-cast as the most superficially scheming of the relatives, but he isn’t given much to do.  Lugosi has more material, but is curiously cast as what I can only describe as The Simpsons’s Groundskeeper Willie come to life.

Dir: Albert S. Rogell

Starring Basil Rathbone, Hugh Herbert, Broderick Crawford

Watched as part of Shout Factory’s blu-ray box set Universal Horror Volume 3