A Game of Rivals: The Conflicts That Shaped Horror Classic ‘The Black Cat’


In the 1930s, Universal laid claim to the two biggest horror stars of the era, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and it was only a matter of time before the pair would meet on screen. In 1932, only months after each rocketed to stardom in Dracula and Frankenstein respectively, the two were dressed in tuxedoes and brought together for a genial photoshoot that simultaneously announced their partnership and implied a rivalry. Through a series of circumstances, it was another two years before the pair would star in a film together. As one might expect, it was in the most transgressive horror film of the era, 1934’s The Black Cat, a film that remains shocking not only for the early 1930s but even more surprising as a product overseen by the newly enforced Hays Code.

The Code had been established in 1927 as a self-censoring wing of the motion picture industry and an attempt to avoid government censorship. From the days of the first talkies to early 1934, it was very loosely enforced giving rise to what is now known as the “Pre-Code” era. But in 1934, the Hays office began to crack down on the film industry under the watch of the newly appointed overseer of the Code, Joseph Breen. As the first horror film made by Universal under this new regime, it was expected that the office would come down hard on the script to The Black Cat with its depictions of Satanism and implications of incest, necrophilia, and more. Breen did make his objections known but still gave the screenplay by Peter Ruric from the story by director Edgar G. Ulmer and Tom Kilpatrick the stamp of approval.

The story had been commissioned to Ulmer by head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. who was eagerly pushing for a vehicle for their newly re-acquired star Boris Karloff, who had walked out on his contract in 1933 due to a pay dispute with the studio. Universal soon realized their loss and quickly renegotiated with the actor, signing him to a “star” contract which afforded him top billing, lucrative salaries, and the ability to make films with other studios. Between this renegotiation and the making of The Black Cat, Karloff had played featured roles in The Lost Patrol (for director John Ford) and The House of Rothschild. These parts gave him the chance to stretch his acting muscles and he returned to Universal more relaxed and confident in his abilities as an actor.

On the other hand, Lugosi’s fortunes had fallen somewhat since his breakthrough performance as Dracula. He famously turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein, instead making Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), which did not fare well at the box office. He followed this up with small but memorable roles in films like Island of Lost Souls and The Death Kiss and larger roles in independent and poverty row films like White Zombie. Lugosi was also known to be generous to a fault, often literally giving his friends the clothes off his back, and money easily slipped through his fingers. Lugosi was brought on to The Black Cat signed to a one picture deal with Universal with an option for more if the film was successful. He would also by necessity of contract receive second billing to Boris Karloff, who was credited at this point only as “Karloff.”

Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that there has been an assumption of rivalry between the two stars ever since, and there is good reason for this assumption. Gregory William Mank in his book Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration, as well as in his commentary on the Scream Factory Blu-ray of The Black Cat, pieces together and attempts to come to the truth of their rivalry. In public, neither man ever said a negative word against the other. Their children Sara Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Jr. have both stated on many occasions that they never heard their respective parents speak ill of the other actor. Mank interviewed three people involved with the film who gave their perspectives on the “rivalry.” David Manners, who had faced off against Lugosi in Dracula and Karloff in The Mummy (1932) and played Peter Alison in The Black Cat sensed jealousy on Lugosi’s part on the set of the film. When Mank asked Lugosi’s fourth wife Lillian Lugosi Donlevy, who drove her husband to and from the set every day if Lugosi and Karloff were friends, she emphatically responded “No!” She went on to say “Bela didn’t like Karloff. He thought he was a ‘cold fish.’”

Perhaps most insightful of each man while working on the film was Jacqueline Wells (aka Julie Bishop) who played Joan Alison. She adored Karloff and enjoyed spending time with him between scenes. “I have been fortunate, working with a great many excellent male stars,” she told Mank, “but none of them have I respected more than Boris, both as an actor and a gentleman.” She went on to tell him, “Lugosi was a delight. Kind and considerate to work with. I liked him very much, but we didn’t visit between scenes. He was very serious, and I just didn’t get as well acquainted with him as I did with Boris.” She also said that she sensed no rivalry between the two actors.

If there was, it appears that it was primarily on Lugosi’s end. He seemed to feel that Karloff was receiving preferential treatment from the production and Ulmer in particular. It was Karloff who had the memorable makeup, costumes, and entrances in the film. He was also receiving tea breaks, per English tradition, and enjoyed personal time with the director that Lugosi did not. In a later interview, Karloff discussed that Lugosi was, “…fearful of what he regarded as scene-stealing. Later, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends…” But as previously noted, Karloff’s feelings may not have been mutual. Whatever the case, the two actors seemed to have a professional, if distant, relationship on The Black Cat.

Another better documented but less discussed rivalry was between Carl Laemmle, Sr., the founder of Universal, and his son Carl Laemmle, Jr. who had been put in charge of production in 1930. Director Edgar G. Ulmer, a friend of Junior, was roped into this rivalry as a seemingly willing participant, at least at first. The elder Laemmle, or Uncle Carl as he was affectionately called, objected to horror and was vocal about it. “I don’t believe in horror pictures,” he told his son, “It’s morbid. None of our officers are for it. People don’t want that sort of thing.” Despite his father’s objections he moved forward, proving his father wrong with the massive twin successes of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. By 1934, after several more successes (and a few failures) in the genre, Junior was intent on making a horror film that would scare the old man out of his wits. Apparently, he did just that with The Black Cat.

After viewing Ulmer’s first cut, Uncle Carl demanded reshoots to tone down the horror of the film. Junior and Ulmer reluctantly obliged but at least some of these new sequences improved the film, making Lugosi’s character, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, more complex and sympathetic and Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig even more sinister. One of the most disturbing scenes of the film was actually one of these reshoots. In it, Poelzig strokes his apparently resurrected black cat, which Werdegast had killed in a previous sequence, and walks among the corpses of several young women displayed and preserved in glass cases. The implication of this collection is that Poelzig and his followers captured these women to be taken as his brides and sacrificed to Satan after forced consummation. There is further suggestion that he might continue to defile their corpses on later occasions. Apparently, the concepts of rape, human sacrifice, and necrophilia implied by this scene did not register with Uncle Carl and remains in the final film.

The film created a further rivalry between the elder Laemmle and Edgar G. Ulmer when it was discovered that the director and the assistant script supervisor, Shirley Kassler had fallen in love. Unfortunately, Kassler was married to Laemmle’s favorite nephew at the time and blackballed Ulmer from working at any studio in town. The couple married in 1935 and Ulmer began to work again in 1939 after the elder Laemmle’s death. He would go on to make several films, mostly for independent studios, the most famous being the landmark film noir Detour in 1945. Edgar and Shirley Ulmer remained married until his death in 1972 and she continued to be the guardian of his legacy until she too passed away in 2000.

The third major conflict that shaped The Black Cat is central to the story and themes of the film itself—World War I, still known at the time as The Great War. According to writer Steve Haberman in his audio commentary for the film, The Black Cat is the first horror movie to overtly deal with this war, though it had been subtext to a great deal of horror since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920. The War looms like a shadow over the entire film and greatly affects the psyches of the two leads who were both on the losing side. It is revealed early on that Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast was taken as a prisoner of war and spent fifteen years at Kurgaal “where the soul is killed, slowly.” Karloff’s character, Poelzig, was the commander of Fort Marmaris which he sold to the Russians and “scattered away in the night and left us to die.” He then built his house on the site of the old fort and took Werdegast’s wife, who died, and daughter whom he married. Here we see yet another subtext surprising for a movie made under the Code—incest.

The film is innovative in its examination of the effects of the War and also in its design. The setup for The Black Cat is along the lines of the classic “old dark house” plot with the Alisons and Werdegast involved in a car accident on a rainy road and forced to take refuge in a house on the hill. In this case, however, the house is not a crumbling manor but a sleek and modern, even futuristic, domicile in the art deco style. Of course, it is owned by Werdegast’s old rival. The climax of the film is also extremely subversive compared to anything else seen at the time. It begins with Poelzig presiding over a satanic ritual that will involve his being “married” to yet another unwilling victim, in this case Joan Alison. A keen eye can spot Michael Mark (the father of Maria, the girl who drowns in Frankenstein) and a very young John Carradine among the worshipers. Werdegast rescues Joan and captures Poelzig, shackling him to a large wooden “X” in a crucifixion pose and strips him to the waist. He then proceeds to skin him alive. In the film this is only seen in shadow and silhouette, but the original script called for a much more gruesome conclusion with Karloff, sans skin, crawling across the floor toward Joan.

The film ultimately did receive some regional censorship and cuts were made. A few countries, including Austria where the film is set, banned it outright. It was also not treated kindly by critics. Variety called it “a clash of two eyebrow squinting nuts” in a particularly delightful pan. Despite this, the film was quite successful and the two stars, rivalry or not, would team up again.

At its heart, The Black Cat is about conflict and rivalry. In addition to examining the Great War, the film pits its stars against each other in a literal game of chess in which the lives of the young newlyweds are placed in the balance. Perhaps both the perceived and real offscreen rivalries served to enhance those depicted in the film. It remains the best of the Karloff-Lugosi collaborations at Universal and the only one in which the two stars are given roughly equal screen time. Lugosi was quite fond of the film, feeling that the role of Dr. Werdegast was one of his best. When he saw a revival of it a few years before his death, Lugosi loudly proclaimed “my, what a handsome bastard I was” when he appeared on screen to the amusement and delight of the other theatergoers. As for Karloff, he considered Lugosi “a fine actor and a brilliant technician in every sense of the word.” Later in life, he refused to take the bait of reporters and discuss Lugosi’s troubles, sharing only kind words about “Poor Bela.” Instead, Karloff said, “Bela was a kind and loveable man and I remember our work together with affection.”

And ninety years later, so do fans all over the world.

In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.

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