I’m not exactly sure why this unassuming offering from Universal’s so-called “Silver Era” (more like tin foil) is called The Black Cat (1941). I guess it’s partly because of the idea that invoking Edgar Allan Poe sells tickets. But a more honest title might be The Black Cat and the Canary. It’s very much in the mold of Bob Hope’s big 1939 hit for Paramount The Cat and the Canary (which Hope followed the next year with another comedy thriller, The Ghost Breakers). It makes sense in a way. After all, Universal was the home of horror. They not only knew how to create just the right atmosphere, but they had all manner of easily redressed (when they bothered) standing sets and props at hand. (You can see a lot of them there — the entry hall from The Wolf Man, a grandfather clock from The Old Dark House, etc.)
So they had four writers cobble together an old dark house screenplay, tapped their roster of contract players and came up with this. No, Broderick Crawford isn’t as funny (or as likable) as Bob Hope, but he’s OK and the rest of the cast helps. Yes, you can complain that Basil Rathbone is giving one of his “bad mood” performances. And, yes, the film wastes Bela Lugosi in a thankless role as a gardener, but what 1940s Universal picture doesn’t waste Lugosi? At least director Albert S. Rogell seems to have gone out of his way to give the actor more close-ups and more attention than the part warrants. And the always welcome Gale Sondergaard gets to pretty much recreate her role from (of all things) The Cat and the Canary. The results are at least fun — and the last few scenes are surprisingly straightforward and grimly effective.
At the bottom of the cast, you’ll note a young actor named Alan Ladd. A year later — after he became a star in Paramount’s This Gun for Hire — Universal changed his billing and brought the film back as an Alan Ladd picture, which must have pleased no one. Oh, well, studios are like that.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Black Cat Thursday, May 30, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.