During the Great Depression, movie theaters offered a two-for-one deal to attract more customers. For the price of one ticket, people would get to see two movies. This was called a double feature. A shorter, less expensive film (referred to as B movies) played before the main attraction. B-list movies were so popular at this time that even some of the major studios, such as Universal, had B movie lots and directors. The Black Cat was one such B-list movie starring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. Edgar Ulmer directed the 1934 film in fifteen days with a modest budget of almost $96,000. The Black Cat was one of Ulmer’s most commercially successful films. An important lesson can be learned from this movie and its renowned B-list director. Edgar Ulmer spent his entire career endeavoring to create good quality films on a shoestring budget. At the end of his life, Ulmer didn’t feel like he was very successful. He never got out of the B-list genre and many of his films were not well received. Sometimes the arts do not reward its artists during their lifetime. Today, film buffs and viewers who love cult classics praise Ulmer’s particular brilliance of creating memorable scenes with few resources. Ulmer may not have had the financial success that he wanted, but his work has continued to inspire long after his death. Today, the two original posters for The Black Cat, which our museum/gallery does not own, are worth more than a $250,000 each. Yet in his lifetime, Ulmer struggled financially.
If at times The Black Cat comes across as cliché, it’s because this film was one of the first to greatly contribute to the style of horror films. The movie begins seemingly innocent with newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan (billed as Jacqueline Wells) headed towards Hungary to enjoy their honeymoon. Upon chance, they meet a very dignified Hungarian psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). Dr. Werdegast explains that he’s on his way to visit an old friend, an architect named Hjalamar Poelzig (Karloff). On their way to their destination, they have a car accident, which injures Joan. Poelzig’s estate is conveniently close by, so the three of them make their way to his manor. What seems like good fortune quickly turns into a nightmare. The newlyweds, Peter and Joan, soon realize they are caught in the middle of a long-standing conflict between Poelzig and Werdergast. Peter and Joan’s attempts to leave are repeatedly foiled, and soon Peter realizes the Poelzig has intentions for his wife.
Werdergast blames Poelzig for betraying him and the Austro-Hungarian soldiers during a war with the Russians. Werdergast is determined to take revenge against Poelzig for stealing his wife while he wasted away in prison during the war. There is no question that Poelzig is a dangerous character. In one scene, Poelzig, while carrying his black cat, admires his collection of dead women suspended in glass cages, perfectly preserved. However, while Poelzig may seem psychotic and extremely confident, he is not stupid. Not only did Poelzig steal Werdergast’s wife, he also stole his daughter, Karen, and made her his wife. Poelzig, the ultimate architect, transformed his manor into a prison so that no one can leave without his permission.
Poelzig is so confident and consumed with his upcoming satanic ceremony that he unwittingly sets himself up for defeat. However, while his defeat seems inevitable, the way he is destroyed is not as predictable. Because this movie was made in the 1930’s, most viewers, including myself, are surprised that the ending is so gruesome.
During the 1930’s, Karloff and Lugosi were both well known for their roles in horror films. Some of you may remember Karloff as Frankenstein or even Lugosi as the original Dracula. “I vant to suck your blood!” The two actors have strong screen presences, but they also have great chemistry together. Part of what made Karloff and Lugosi ideal actors for the horror genre was their intensity and distinguished appearances. Karloff’s notable widow’s peak and penetrating gaze will stop anyone in their tracks.
The Black Cat perfectly demonstrates Ulmer’s genius of creating films with fewer resources than his A-list studio colleagues. As many artists could attest, sometimes a smaller budget forces you to be more creative. Ulmer was a man of elegant taste and this quality always shows in his movies. In The Black Cat, for instance, Ulmer keeps his sets very simple. As a result, everything on the set has significance. Poelzig’s manor is sparsely decorated. The sharp lines and minimalist furniture creates a cold, unforgiving environment, which works perfectly with the storyline. In addition, Ulmer’s decision to use classical music from Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Chopin for the majority of the film, adds another level of drama to this classic horror story.
Studying Ulmer’s life and The Black Cat taught me an important lesson about the arts. Talent doesn’t always equate with success, or at least immediate success. Ulmer loved to create films, and he was one of the best at putting together films on a very low budget. Yet, during his lifetime, he never had the recognition that he truly deserved. Being an artist isn’t just a profession, it is a lifestyle that involves uncertainty and sacrifice. Ulmer’s contribution to the film industry continues to impact viewers, filmmakers, and artists.