THE BLACK CAT (1941)
Directed by Albert S. Rogell
Written by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, Eric Taylor, Robert Neville (screenplay), from an original story by Edgar Allan Poe
Starring Basil Rathbone, Hugh Herbert, Broderick Crawford, Bela Lugosi, Anne Gwynne, Gladys Cooper, Gale Sondergaard, Cecilia Loftus, Claire Dodd, John Eldredge, Alan Ladd, Erville Alderson
Played more for laughs than taking inspiration from the Edgar Allan Poe story, THE BLACK CAT entertains nevertheless for its fun performances, solid script, and one stubborn cat lady.
As her family hovers over like vultures waiting for her to die, the wealthy Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus) is more concerned about taking care of the scores of cats that live on the mansion grounds. She does want to make sure the right people in her family get what they deserve, so she gives a living will reading. Soon, she keels over and dies, which at first is seen as an accident, but when bodies start piling up, it seems one of the family members is not happy with their inheritance and wants it all. Meanwhile, a businessman/amateur detective Hubert Smith (Broderick Crawford) and a goofy collector Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert) are at the mansion looking to purchase and resell some of the furniture and make a pretty penny. Hubert ends up attempting to solve the case, as he was a neighbor of Henrietta as a child and she always took a liking to him.
Any attempt at scares and thrills are undercut by the copious amount of slapstick humor in THE BLACK CAT. It is, of sorts, a very loose adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe classic, but only by the way the film mentions Henrietta’s superstition of never letting a black cat into the house. Vaudevillian comedian Hugh Herbert seems to be the star of the show, even though he plays second fiddle in terms of heroism to Broderick Crawford’s Hubert Smith. Hugh Herbert was the inspiration to Daffy Duck and incorporates his “Whoo-hoo!” catchphrase after almost every line. It is quite obvious that filmmaker Albert S. Rogell loves Herbert’s act as he highlights him bumbling around and breaking things throughout the entire film. I guess a modern day comparison would be if a serious mystery like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or GONE GIRL would occasionally cut to Mr. Bean doing his routine every five or ten minutes of the film. It all just feels so out of place as there seem to be lives at stake around Hugh’s antics. At the end of the film, Herbert’s character is completely oblivious that anyone was murdered, which makes for a final comical beat.
There really isn’t much more I can say about THE BLACK CAT. Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi are in bit parts here. Rathbone gets more screentime as one of Henrietta’s relatives, but Lugosi seems to have nothing to do. For the most part, these two seem to function as to look suspicious and act as potential suspects as the murderer. If you’re looking for a better Lugosi film in the same vein, check out the 1934 version of THE BLACK CAT, in which he stars as well alongside Boris Karloff.
This may be the very first “old cat lady” depicted in film. Which might be something of note about THE BLACK CAT. It was impressive how so many cats were wrangled to be in one location on the set, even though I would imagine at that time, they were treated less than humanely. I can’t say THE BLACK CAT was my favorite of this collection. I feel the humor really knocked the wind out of any and all weight this one might have carried. Much more effective versions of Poe’s story have been made such as Corman’s TALES OF TERROR and Romero/Argento’s TWO EVIL EYES—two films I’d much rather have seen than this version of THE BLACK CAT.