Tuesday, January 4, 2011

THE BLACK CAT (1934)

THE BLACK CAT made the rounds as a Realarts re-release starting in 1953 under the title THE VANISHING BODY; it looks like Realarts paired it with THE MISSING HEAD, which was their re-release of the "Inner Sanctum" title STRANGE CONFESSION (thanks for the spoiler, Realarts). I'm sure that there's some legalistic explanation that is too arcane for me to understand, but why didn't Screen Gems go with the re-release titles? Presumably TV audiences would've been more familiar with THE VANISHING BODY from the early '50s than THE BLACK CAT from almost twenty-five years before, right? (And where did they get that title from? Part of what's so unnerving about this movie is that the bodies haven't vanished-- they are kept in glass coffins in the basement for everyone to see and that's what's so freaky...)

Council Bluffs [IA] Nonpareil, May 22, 1953

I'm one of those tiresome classic horror movie fans who is absolutely obsessed with this obsessive movie, so it is difficult for me to write about THE BLACK CAT without dragging in all the research that I've read about it over the years-- the artistic sensibilities of director Edgar Ulmer, the controversies surrounding Ulmer and the film, the multivalent symbolism in many of the scenes, the re-writes, re-shoots, and re-edits, and all the rest. But for the purposes of this SHOCK! Viewing Project blog, I can't get into any of that fascinating back-story behind-the-scenes stuff about this feverishly visionary horror film. What I need to do is imagine what audience reaction might have been like for those seeing it on television in the late 1950s and to leave out all my theories about the movie's enigmatic atmospherics of morbid ecstasy.

Charleston [WV] Daily Mail, March 12, 1960

Salina [KS] Journal, December 9, 1958


Hammond [IN] Times, March 18, 1960

To get into that mindset, I tried to find someone to watch THE BLACK CAT with me who had never seen it before, but no one was interested in being my guinea pig with this one. The best that I could do was to think back to the time in the early 1970s when I first saw THE BLACK CAT. It was a Saturday afternoon in late Spring on a New York City television station and I figure that I was about eight years old. Of course, I knew nothing about Ulmer or the First World War or Aleister Crowley or the aesthetic tensions between Expressionistic Caligarism and Neue Sachlichkeit in post-Habsburg Central Europe at the dawn of the Nazi era, so that would've been the most "raw" viewing experience of this movie that I have ever had.

My memories are wispy, distant and vague: the only thing that I can recall with any certainty was my general feeling of unease that something very confusing and very disturbing was going on that involved my favorite monster-actors Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. I remember only the last twenty minutes or so of the film-- the showdown in the dank, sepulchral cellars beneath the outrageously modernist mansion, the detonation of Fort Marmorus' high explosive self-destruction system, and the escape of the two clueless American newlyweds. I have to wonder if the SHOCK! television audience in the Eisenhower era identified themselves most closely with those newlyweds (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) when the film was over: "Damn! What the hell was that all about? I can't wait to get back to my normal life." In his edited volume Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row (2010), Gary Don Rhodes includes an essay of his on the reception of THE BLACK CAT in 1934; I would be very interested in reading a similar study of its reception by TV viewers of the SHOCK! films.

San Mateo [CA] Times, November 12, 1960



A couple things about the entry on THE BLACK CAT in the Screen Gems SHOCK! promotional booklet: the first is a mistake in the copy for the twenty-second on-air promotion that was meant to be read or telop'ed. I edited it when I used it as a preview at the end of CHINATOWN SQUAD blog entry, but I reproduce it here verbatim:

"Two fiends clash in a death struggle while THE BLACK CAT creeps on Shock this [day], [date], at [time] on this channel! Who will be the loser when Karloff and Lugosi meet! It's anyone's guess. Be sure to see the full-length feature film, THE CAT CREEPS, on this channel [day], [time]."

As you can see, the movie changes in the course of twenty seconds from THE BLACK CAT to THE CAT CREEPS. It's easy to understand how such a slip-up happened in the Screen Gems office, but it is sort of amusing to think that these two movies were confused for one another when they are so very, very different.

The second item that I want to mention is that the Screen Gems books uses a photo of Boris Karloff to promote THE BLACK CAT which is clearly from a later time. Like the use of a 1950s-era photo of Lyle Talbot to promote 1935's CHINATOWN SQUAD that I talked about in my last blog entry, Screen Gems chose to use a picture of an older and mustachioed Karloff, more like YOU'LL FIND OUT (1940) or THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) than the unmistakably distinctive look of Hjalmar Poelzig that one sees in THE BLACK CAT. In the newspaper TV listing ad reproduced below, KUTV-Channel 2 has chosen to use that picture of Karloff that Screen Gems has provided for THE BLACK CAT; for comparison, a production still of Karloff as Poelzig is reproduced directly below it.


Salt Lake City [UT] Tribune, October 31, 1958






NEXT: "A city in turmoil at the mercy of the underworld. See NIGHT KEY starring Boris Karloff as the inventor who falls into the hands of a gangster mob. NIGHT KEY is a tense, absorbing drama, grand entertainment on Shock. Tune in for the premiere telecast of this full-length feature film on this channel."

5 comments:

Mirek said...

My memory of seeing this film for the first time is that I thought it strange, but hypnotic. It wasn't, obviously, a monster movie, despite having two "monster stars," and its subject matter was beyond me at that young age. I must have felt an unclean element weaving in and out of the film--unclean at that time, of course.

michael said...

Our local NIGHTMARE program, hosted by Terrence (Russ Coglin), was airing this movie the night I was born. It's a great sign to be born under.

I saw this one in 1970 on SHOCK IT TO ME THEATER with Asmodeus. By that time the names Karloff and Lugosi were well known to me, but I hadn't seen anything like this particular horror before. The adult themes went right over my head, but the dream-like quality of the POV tracking shots, and the surreal shot of women hanging by their hair, made an indelible impression. It remains one of my all time favorite Universals. I had a chance to see it on the big screen some years back, and it was overwhelming. I really can't imagine how it must have affected a 30s audience.

The Creeping Bride said...

I am ridiculously envious of you having seen this at a movie theater, michael... it must have been fan-freakin'-tastic...

michael said...

And not not just ANY movie theater, either. It was at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, one of the great movie palaces of the world - with a HUGE screen. They screened a week long festival of Universal for Halloween. This was on a double bill with Dracula's Daughter, making for quite an atmospheric evening.

Got to see Frankenstein and Bride of same, The Mummy, The Wolf Man. There may have been another evening - I know I made it to at least three of the Universal nights at the theater. I felt totally transported.

kochillt said...

Let's not forget the frustration of tuning in to watch Karloff and Lugosi weaving their deadly magic, only to find Lugosi playing a lowly caretaker in an entirely different film sporting the same title! Being a Lugosiphile, I'm quite happy to see my hero garner the lion's share of footage, but to view Karloff in the most evil role of his career is not to be missed. Boris had not worked at Universal since THE MUMMY, and was coming off back to back straight parts in THE LOST PATROL and THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD, reluctant to return to horror. It was the character's sensual wardrobe and utter perversity that lured him back into the fold, billed for the very first time as simply "KARLOFF" (he was only credited by last name only in this film, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE RAVEN, and THE INVISIBLE RAY). Another early bit part for John Carradine, seen playing the organ, and in the background among the Satanists. A difficult film to describe, but I too find the word hypnotic most appropriate (I never tire of watching the two stars together). 1934's THE BLACK CAT aired 8 times on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, while the 1941 title was shown 4 times. It featured as the last of 4 movies broadcast for Halloween 1966, preceded by THE BLOODY VAMPIRE (1962), SON OF DRACULA, and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932).