It was a dark and stormy night. In a gloomy old mansion, the elderly millionairess, Henrietta Winslow, lies abed, at the very brink of death. Her poor relations are gathered downstairs, waiting impatiently for the wretched old invalid to die. Old Mrs Winslow keeps refusing to heed the fatal summons; she is therefore murdered; more will follow her to the grave. An old dark house, terrible weather and a murderer on the loose: that’s the set up for “The Black Cat” (Universal, 1941). It should have been great, yet it is a terrible picture — needlessly terrible. It’s not a total loss, however: there are plenty of pleasures mixed in with the dreadfulness. Every second that Basil Rathbone, Gladys Cooper, Cecilia Loftus and Gale Sondergaard are onscreen, the picture’s a lot of fun. Rathbone, alas, has not nearly enough to do, but he does everything to perfection. This may be the tawdriest picture Gladys Cooper ever appeared in, but it’s very probably the juiciest part she ever played on screen. She made her Hollywood debut only a year before, playing Laurence Olivier’s sister in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” Later that year, she played Dennis Morgan’s regal, Philadelphia snob mother in “Kitty Foyle.” It was only her second Hollywood picture, and for the rest of her career she was typecast as imperious widows and seriously displeased doyennes, usually with at least one child who was likely to be the death of her (Charlotte Vale’s mother in “Now, Voyager,” Mrs Railton-Bell in “Separate Tables,” Henry Higgins’ mother in “Pygmalion” and again in “My Fair Lady”). The Scottish character actress, Cecilia Loftus, plays the batty old millionairess who, after not-quite-dropping dead once too often, is murdered. This is the first picture Gale Sondergaard made after she played the spooky Eurasian widow who murders Bette Davis in the last moments of “The Letter”; in this one, she plays the spooky housekeeper.
Unfortunately, the desperately unfunny Hugh Herbert and Broderick Crawford are thrown in (up?) as comic relief. Crawford plays a big, loudmouth jerk — it’s a stretch. About halfway through the picture, he becomes a semi-love interest. (What were they thinking?) Crawford is obnoxious and repulsive, but then there’s Hugh Herbert, who gets my vote as the most insufferable, wearisome low clown in pictures. His popularity in the thirties and forties has always mystified me. I never laugh at the Three Stooges, but I understand why others do. I’m rarely amused by gross-out humor, but I recognize it as humor. But Hugh Herbert? He pats his palms together, flutters his fingers and emits little falsetto hoots — that’s his act. In “The Black Cat,” he bumbles into a scene, brings the action to a halt, inadvertently knocks something over, stammers something incoherent, does his little falsetto woo-woo, then bumbles off. That’s his shtick. Half a minute later he bumbles into another scene and does the same thing. And so on for the rest of the picture. A Star Is Born. André Previn, in his memoir about his years at MGM, “No Minor Chords,” wrote that his idea of Hell is being forced to watch the last half hour of Norma Shearer in “Marie Antoinette” for all eternity. I’d take that form of damnation over ten minutes in the presence of horrible, exasperating, unfunny Hugh Herbert.
The Vultures in the Parlor
This is the first scene in the picture. Alan Ladd plays the son of Basil Rathbone and Gladys Cooper — not, I may say, entirely believably.
What I like best about this picture is its musical score, which is a compendium of spooky movie clichés played with great brio and flair. “The Black Cat” is unquestionably a low budget B picture, but the score is far more exciting and entertaining that what pass for musical scores in today’s A budget pictures. Shamefully, the three composers who scored the picture are not listed in the onscreen credits. They are: Hans J. Salter, who composed more than a dozen horror picture scores in the forties. His first horror score was “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940), his last was “Attack of the Slime People” (2008). Frank Skinner, who scored all the big, plush Douglas Sirk pictures in the fifties also contributed. Stock music written by Charles Previn is also used.
In this scene, we come upon Mrs Winslow, down in the family crypt, where she is busy incinerating one of her beloved cats. Poor little friend! Oh, it’s all very queer, and that’s a fact: there was nothing at all the matter with the poor little fellow. How could it have happened? One moment he’s lapping milk intended for Mrs Winslow and the next moment he’s as cold as any stone.
Gale Sondergaard made her Hollywood debut in 1936 in “Anthony Adverse,” for which she became the first winner of the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, which category was introduced in 1937. She tied with Mme Maria Ouspenskaya for being the first actress to be nominated for her debut performance (Ouspenskaya was nominated for her amazing turn in “Dodsworth”). Sondergaard usually played villainesses; she was one of the inspirations for the Evil Queen/Witch in Disney’s 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In “The Black Cat,” which was released the year after “Rebecca,” she’s pretty obviously doing a parody of Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers, but Sondergaard’s fearsome dolor makes Dame Judith Anderson seem like Little Miss Muffett by comparison.
That laugh! The first time I saw her do that take, I couldn’t stop laughing for the next ten minutes. The more Gale Sondergaard pictures you’ve seen, the funnier it is likely to seem. She was not a merry presence.
Miss Cooper Misbehaves
From the mid-Nineteen-teens through the Nineteen-twenties, Gladys Cooper was the unrivalled queen of the West End stage. She was never a truly inspired actress; it doesn’t appear that she possessed the sacred fire that greatness requires. For the first several years of her career, critics complained that her stately, almost immobile acting style had plenty of tableau about it, but skimped on the vivant. Of her performance in W. Somerset Maugham’s “Home and Beauty” (1919), Aldous Huxley wrote: “Miss Gladys Cooper hardly does justice to the part of Victoria. She is too impassive, too statuesque, playing all the time as if she were Galatea, newly unpetrified and still unused to the ways of the living world.” None of this seemed to matter to audiences, who loved her long before she began to impress the critics favorably. Whatever she may have lacked in fire and music, she made up for in diligence and commonsense. The improvement she made in her technique impressed Maugham so deeply that, in an essay he wrote some thirty years later (in 1953), he praised her for “turning herself from an indifferent actress to an extremely competent one.”
She played Peter Pan for the 1923 and 1924 Christmas shows at the Adelphi Theatre. Much as I love Gladys Cooper, I can’t imagine her in that role; had I been a child in the audience when she came swooshing in through the nursery window (she was the first Peter Pan to enter on a wire), I believe I’d have been distill’d almost to jelly with the act of fear. Her glacial austerity is impressive, majestic, worthy of veneration, but it’s not a quality that causes children to frisk about. (She would have been well cast as Frosty the Snowman’s trophy wife.)
It’s not every day you see Miss Cooper murder Bela Lugosi in cold blood. She had, of course, famously shot a man before: she was the original Leslie Crosbie in the stage version of Maugham’s “The Letter.” Just as Bette Davis did in the excellent movie adaptation, Miss Cooper started the evening by shooting her lover in the back, then followed him as he staggered on to the veranda, where she shot him five more times, twice while he staggered and fell, thrice when he was down. People who saw her in that part said no other actress ever came close to matching her performance. But that was in 1927, when she was still considered the most beautiful and glamorous woman in England and the toast of the West End, with a theatre named after her.
L to R: Gladys Cooper in the 1910s; Hugh Cecil’s 1926 portrait; Cooper on stage, circa mid-1920s.
Miss Cooper, the Human Torch
Having been a great beauty for many years, Miss Cooper had little patience for unattractive actors. She especially admired actors who began as models, as she had, who had struggled and fought to be taken seriously as real actors. In 1916, while starring in “The Misleading Lady,” she was quite taken by the twenty-five year old Ronald Colman, who played a tiny part. One night he overheard a remark she made about him while she stood in the wings waiting to make her entrance: “Such a handsome young man, but why does he have to be such a terrible actor? So very clumsy — and those feet!” I invite you to keep this in mind while you watch Miss Cooper share the screen with that study in dishevelment, Broderick Crawford. How she must have loathed him! But can you blame her?
I think it’s safe to say that “The Black Cat” is the only time you’ll ever see Miss Gladys Cooper run from a room, shrieking and flailing her arms and engulfed in flames. But even without the fire, she probably would have made the same exit to remove herself from Broderick Crawford’s odious presence.