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Karloff and Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT – A Look Back at 1934

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The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 25th successful year! Steve and I collaborated last year on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe and I’ve been writing a regular movie-related column since. Since there is no on-line version of The Globe, I post all of my articles here at We Are Movie Geeks as well. When Steve informed me that this month’s St. Louis Globe-Democrat is written as if it’s 1934, I jumped at the chance to write about the first teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

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Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, two of Universal Studio’s biggest stars and the silver screen’s two titans of terror have finally teamed up.  Their new film THE BLACK CAT is a magnificently eerie entry in Universal’s line of horror pictures as well as perhaps the studio’s darkest and most perverse. Three years ago, Universal Studios sought to fill the void of their horror star Lon Chaney’s death with Hungarian actor Lugosi who captivated audiences with his portrayal of the undead count in DRACULA. When that film struck box-office gold, Universal quickly laid out a slate of monster projects including an adaption of FRANKENSTEIN. Lugosi was offered the role of the Frankenstein monster, but refused the part on the grounds that his character would not speak. Little-known British actor Boris Karloff was given the role, and another boogey man was born. In the past three years, Lugosi has frightened audiences in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, WHITE ZOMBIE, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS as has Karloff with THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE MUMMY, MASK OF FU MANCHU, and THE GHOUL and now the two have combined their creepy talents.

‘Stranger Things Than You Ever Dreamed Of”, accurately warns the ads for THE BLACK CAT, an artful, if sadistic blending of gothic and modern, told in the shadow of the World War. The story begins with Peter (David Manners – the romantic lead opposite Lugosi in DRACULA) and Joan Allison (Julie Bishop), honeymooners in Budapest who, onboard a train, meet the strange scientist Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi), a recently-released prisoner of war. When their bus from the train station is in an accident, the young couple accompanies Verdegast to the nearby castle of the devilish Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), an architect and the leader of a Satanic cult. Turns out the two men are decades-old nemeses who have met for a fateful showdown on the very battlefield where Poelzig sacrificed thousands of his and Verdegast’s countrymen and framed the good doctor for the crime. While Verdegast rotted in prison, Poelzig stole his wife, who later died (he keeps her corpse in a glass case), then married Verdegast’s daughter. Now Verdegast has come back for revenge, and the honeymooners are trapped in the two men’s sinister battle of wills.

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THE BLACK CAT is the brainchild of its director, Austrian-born Edgar G. Ulmer who began his career in the German film industry as an art designer for director F.W. Murnau (NOSFERATU). Ulmer emigrated to the Hollywood ten years ago where he has worked for Cecil B. DeMille and helped build the sets for Universal’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1925. Ulmer approached Universal’s production head Carl Laemlle Jr. with the idea of filming Poe’s story The Black Cat. Laemlle agreed and gave Ulmer contract star Karloff, a budget of just $91,000 (a quarter of the budget of DRACULA), and a brief 15-day shooting schedule.  Ulmer scrapped all elements of the original story, save the titular feline, and had screenwriter Peter Ruric pen an original treatment. Ulmer had long been fascinated by the ravings of Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed “Beast of the Apocalypse”, and based Karloff’s character on the contemporary occultist. It was Laemlle’s idea to bring in Lugosi as costar, confident THE BLACK CAT would sell itself on the strength of the horror team-up and wouldn’t need a big budget.  While the two stars have roughly equal screen time and billing, Karloff was paid $7,500 for his work while Lugosi just $3000.

While THE BLACK CAT has little to do with Edgar Allen Poe’s famous short story, it surely evokes the morbid world of his literature. Ulmer seems to be openly defying Hollywood’s strict censorship codes with seemingly blatant undertones of necrophilia, sadism, torture, and the (barely off-screen) act of skinning someone alive “slowly… bit by bit”. Scantily-clad female corpses stand upright in glass cases and a black mass is held during which the heroine is to be sacrificed on an altar to Satan. THE BLACK CAT is not a film for the whole family. It’s the type of film that calls for the enforcement of the moral censorship guidelines known as the Motion Picture Production Code that has recently been adopted by Hollywood’s chief censor Will Hays.

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With THE BLACK CAT, Ulmer shows the influence from his work in German expressionism using sets and lighting schemes to establish mood and tone. He also gets the most of his stars, both who deliver pure magic and madness for their many fans, and there’s not one moment of disappointment anytime either of them are on screen. Outfitted in inky black silk robes, his hair styled and shaved into a triangular patterns, Karloff marches stiffly through the lustrous halls, holding a black cat firmly in his arms petting it ever so gently, going up to each glass coffin staring at his taxidermied female cadavers as if they were the most gorgeous forms of art ever created. Though he has a cruel scene where he rather casually kills a cat, Lugosi is relatively sympathetic, at least until he finally snaps. The film’s high point is an intense game of chess between the two stars for the life of the heroine. The castle is an incredible structure, designed and built by Poelzig on the ruins of a fort where thousands of soldiers are entombed, it’s an architectural marvel of art deco design. All glass and steel, the fortress consists of sharp angles that cast long, expressionistic shadows, giving THE BLACK CAT its extremely creepy atmosphere. The nearly constant musical score, with its compositions from Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Schubert, gives the film yet another mournful dimension. Everything fits together with THE BLACK CAT, making for an interesting, well-crafted horror feature well worth seeing and here’s hoping Karloff and Lugosi have the opportunity to work together again in many more films.

Audiences loved  the teaming of Karloff and Lugosi and THE BLACK CAT proved to be Universal’s most profitable film of 1934 earning over $250,000 so the Studio quickly hurried another Karloff/Lugosi/Poe vehicle, THE RAVEN,  into production. Edgar G. Ulmer had begun an affair with the wife of a Universal bigwig during the making of THE BLACK CAT and the ensuing scandal led to the director being blackballed from most major Hollywood studios throughout the rest of his career. For decades Ulmer languished at PRC, the lowest rung on the ladder of Hollywood’s poverty row studio, but still managed to direct films now considered classics such as the 1945 Film Noir DETOUR and the 1951 Sci-fi fave MAN FROM PLANET X. Ulmer died in 1972. While Karloff’s career continued to ascend, Lugosi’s, through a series of more bad choices, was about to begin a sad decline that culminated with the embarrassing Ed Wood films in the mid-1950’s. Lugosi died in 1956 and Karloff in 1969. Despite rumors that the two stars were personally very competitive, THE BLACK CAT marked the beginning of a pleasant working relationship. While never becoming close personal friends, they were quite amicable to each other and enjoyed working together on seven more films, though THE BLACK CAT is still considered their finest.

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