Tuesday, September 23, 2014



I chose the above still to illustrate the 1941 BLACK CAT because the film's main merit is its assemblage of enjoyable contract players. Most of them aren't given anything all that interesting to do, but it's fun seeing a cast this diverse: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Broderick Crawford, Anne Gwynne, Gale Sondergaard, Hugh "Woo Woo" Herbert, and even Alan Ladd in a small role.

THE BLACK CAT is one of many, many "old dark house" mysteries revolving around an eccentric elder-- this time, the grandmotherly Henrietta Winslow, played in spunky fashion by Gladys Cooper.  Most of the old biddy's relatives--Rathbone more or less dominating the group-- are impatient to see her pop off and leave them her bequests. Into this den of upper-class hostility come two ambitious lower-class types, Gil (Crawford) and Penny (Herbert). Crawford thinks he has a leg up on the situation because as a kid he was a neighbor to the rich folks. Gil, who also anticipates that Henrietta is not long for the world, hopes to get the family to list their house with his agency, while Penny is mainly interested in acquiring some of the Winslow antiques.  Gil's partly right: old Henrietta and her grandchild Elaine still remember with affection the mischievous neighbor-kid Gil used to be. To everyone else, he's just an annoyance. And one can't entirely blame them. In contrast to a lot of dark-house mysteries, this time the "outsider character" shares the same pecuniary motives as the greedier relatives. This motive may be intended to intensify Gil's determination to stay at the Winslow house, since he has a major problem with doing so: Henrietta's house is full of the old lady's pet cats, and Gil is fiercely allergic to cats.

He's given a new motive to stay when he becomes re-acquainted with the comely Elaine, though. This leads to the film's only good moment in terms of sociological myths, since Henrietta tells Gil that Elaine's not likely to marry anyone who doesn't have his own fortune.  This minor illustration of the gulf between "the haves" and the "wanna-haves" doesn't come to much of anything, since soon enough Henrietta does pop off. But before she does, Gil witnesses what may be an attempt to poison her-- and so he becomes the film's reluctant detective.

The film doesn't get much mileage out of the "weird families" trope. With the exception of Gale Sondergaard's hostile housekeeper, Henrietta's the only one who's a little weird, not only maintaining a collection of kitties but also a crematorium in which to incinerate their bodies. The crematorium is a nice touch, which the writers manage to make integral to the script on two occasions. The revelation of Henrietta's killer is reasonably compelling for this type of film. Naturally, both Rathbone and Lugosi, having played villains in past films, practically have "red herrings" written across their foreheads, and neither gets a standout scene, even for this kind of comedy-mystery.  Crawford and Gwynne display a good chemistry and Herbert is less annoying than usual.

Like 1934's BLACK CAT, there's no connection between this film and the Edgar Allan Poe story except that all of them are about people who have reasons to fear cats.

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