This past October, I was graced with an opportunity that very few have. I had the opportunity to step back in time. It's taken time to properly convey the experience but I am glad to finally have had the time to do the evening justice. Enjoy.
Thanks to the wonderful group of volunteers at the Loew’s Jersey Theater in Jersey City, New Jersey, those who attended the Boris Karloff Film Festival the weekend before Halloween, were taken back to the 1930s and I was delighted to see two great Universal Monster movies on the big screen. Unfortunately due to other commitments, I couldn’t attend the rest of the screenings, but my experience at the opening night double feature of THE BLACK CAT and OLD DARK HOUSE renewed my love for these two great cinematic horrors.
The Loew’s Jersey Theater was opened in September of 1929. The first film shown at the theater was Lionel Barrymore’s MADAME X. The film went on to receive two Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Actress. The theater is what’s known as a Movie Palace, known to my generation via film and television only. They were created to serve as an escape for the working class, a place where they can go, relax and enjoy an evening out in luxury. The architecture of many of these theaters were often inspired by European royal palaces. The Loew’s Jersey Theater resembles a European Opera house. The lobby of the theater is a sight to behold! A beautiful chandelier made of Czechoslovakian Crystal and reportedly cost over $50,000 to make in 1929 greets you as you enter. Towards the back, passed all the towering columns is the lavish Grand Staircase, leading to the balcony. Everything but the balcony has been wonderfully restored by the volunteers.
In the lobby, the concession stand sells boxes of popcorn and cans of soda for a mere $1.00 a piece (try finding that at your local theater!), but the real treats for me were in the back of the lobby. On loan to the theater from a private collector were the original theatrical posters for THE BLACK CAT, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and OLD DARK HOUSE. Also displayed under glass were several magazines and comic books whose covers were graced by the face of the man we were all there to see… KARLOFF! Just a few shorts steps away, one would find a special treat left behind by theater-goers from nearly a century ago. Candy wrappers and candy boxes from the 1920s through the 1950s all displayed under glass. Apparently, the janitors from this theater over the years didn’t clean up as nicely as their bosses would have liked and inadvertently left us with a time capsule rescued from the heating ducts. After a few minutes, we entered the theater. The size and space was unparalleled! This one theater could seat well over a thousand! Unfortunately, most of my pictures from in the theater were too dark to be seen.
History was made that night at the Loew’s Jersey theater and my girlfriend Michelle and I were there to witness it. For the first time in forty years, the painstakingly restored “Wonder Morton” theater organ was played for an audience. The video above was filmed just a few days after that historic moment.
This served as a wonderful overture to THE BLACK CAT. This minor masterpiece, directed by Edgar Ulmer is not one of the titles that rushes immediately to mind when one mentions the Universal Horrors. With such titles as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and my personal favorite, THE WOLF MAN in Universal’s vast catalogue, one can understand why. But don’t let the unfamiliarity fool you, this film is definitely worth a look. The Austrian-born Ulmer brought a bit of European flavor to the proceedings and this film may be the most stylish and lavish of Universal’s 1930s horror output (no doubt due to Ulmer‘s background as an art director).
On a historical note, this film was Universal’s first ever attempt to team it’s two main horror stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. (Interesting side note: Until the recent discovery of a print of the 1932 comedy GIFT OF GAB, this was believed to be the first ever team up of these two giants of the genre).
Often criticized for it’s confusing plot, the story of how this film came to be is as convoluted as the screenplay itself and the fate of the auteur of the piece is as tragic as the tale itself. Following the flop of Universal’s last Poe-inspired outing, 1932’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, several variations of THE BLACK CAT, which were commissioned prior to MURDERS, were rejected by studio brass. The first such variation was called THE BRAIN NEVER DIES written by Stanley Bergman and Jack Cunningham. The second version was to star Boris Karloff and while it stayed closer to the original Poe tale, it also included plot elements from Poe’s THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO. The following attempt would combine THE BLACK CAT with the story THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. Ultimately, it took Ulmer’s relationship with Carl Laemmle Jr. combined with his desire to create his own version of the film to finally get the production green-lit.
Ulmer came up with a heavy piece combining elements of the first three screenplay incarnations with the newsworthy exploits of Alistair Crowley. Ulmer’s fascination with what his wife called man’s “dark side” seemed to stem from his days working as an assistant to FW Murnau on such films as NOSFERATU and FAUST.
Conflicting reports have the screenplay listed as having been completed on either the 17th or 19th of February in 1934. The Studio had once again found itself in dire straights and since this production was relatively cheap at a $91,125 estimated budget, production was set to commence immediately on February 24.
Due to circumstances that would take the elder Laemmle to Europe and Laemmle Jr. to New York, the film began production before the script could be thoroughly examined. The resulting film was a censor’s nightmare, involving Satanism, torture, incest, revenge and a character being skinned alive. Very heavy stuff for 1934! The film wrapped on March 17, one day over schedule and was ordered to undergo re-shoots on March 24, 25 and 26 to remove some of the film’s more “unsavory” touches.
Upon it’s release, the film was loved by audiences and savaged by critics, but it was financially successful. Ulmer, who came to America in 1923 or 1925 depending on the sources, had worked on the Universal lot for much of the 1920s as an Art Director before directing a handful of two reel B Westerns. Growing tired of being stuck in the same position, he briefly returned to Europe in 1929, but was back in the United States and working for MGM by 1930. He returned to Universal and his rapport with Carl Laemmle Jr. led to a reversal of fortune. Following THE BLACK CAT, Ulmer was to direct Karloff once again in BLUEBEARD. This film would not be made until a decade later when poverty row studio PRC (Producers’ Releasing Corp.) green-lit the project for Ulmer. The film also lacked the star power of Boris Karloff in the title role, but is widely hailed as a classic due to the performance by Shakespearian actor John Carradine, whose head briefly appears in THE BLACK CAT as the organist during the Satanic ceremony.
How could Ulmer’s career take such a swan dive? How could he go from making pictures for the top-level Universal to the studio considered to be the bottom rung, even of Poverty Row? It’s simple. Laemmle Jr. wasn’t the only person at Universal impressed by Ulmer. During the production of THE BLACK CAT, Shirley Alexander, the wife of Carl Laemmle Sr.’s nephew Max Alexander and Ulmer had begun an affair and soon after, Shirley left her husband and married Ulmer. Ulmer was soon blacklisted and relegated to working on shoestring budgets at Z-Grade studios like PRC.
In subsequent years, he would direct films hailed as masterpieces (BLUEBEARD and DETOUR) and cheap schlock (DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL and THE MAN FROM PLANET X). He would earn the nickname “The Miracle Man of Poverty Row” and remains one of the few reasons that PRC is even remembered as a footnote in cinema history. Ulmer’s marriage to Shirley would last until his death in 1972. Shirley passed away in 2000. She never remarried.
As for the film itself, THE BLACK CAT, is now regarded in many circles as a masterpiece. It was even a favorite of Bela Lugosi. Rumor has it that Lugosi, tired of being typecast as a heavy, asked that his character be sympathetic and that he was given the role of Werdegast as some form of appeasement. The fact that the screenplay was completed on February 17th
and that Lugosi was in New York until the 15th
, this story seems very implausible. The other factor that challenges the believability of this rumor is that Lugosi’s stock had fallen so significantly since turning down the title role in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN and the subsequent commercial failure of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, that it is highly suspect that Universal would cater to any of Lugosi’s whims.
Lugosi’s value (or lack thereof) to Universal was evident in the payroll of this film. Lugosi’s co-star Boris Karloff would receive $7,500 as salary for this film while Bela made a paltry (in comparison) $1,000. Studio pretty boy David Manners even made more than Lugosi at $1,250. Despite this, Bela was said to have been uncharacteristically upbeat during the production of this film. According to an interview with Shirley Ulmer, he was constantly telling jokes and exhibited a jovial mood throughout the 15 day shoot. It is even said that in 1955, during a theatrical revival of the film in California, Lugosi had stood up in the audience and proclaimed “What a handsome bastard I was!” Unfortunately for Bela, he would not have many more proud moments during his career. Like Ulmer in the201940s, he was relegated to starring in poverty row films such as PRC’s THE DEVIL BAT and Monogram’s THE APE MAN.
Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdergast, a once prominent psychiatrist, who had been a POW for fifteen years following the first World War. On the Orient Express, he shares a car with the honeymooning couple, the Allisons, Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Julie Bishop). Werdegast reveals that he is on his way to see an old “friend” he hasn’t seen since the war. A bus crash would bring all three to the home of Werdegast’s “friend,” renowned engineer and architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). The tension between Werdergast and Poelzig is obvious from the very beginning. While Werdergast was stuck in a soul-crushing military prison, Poelzig had married Werdergast’s wife after convincing her that her husband had died in the war. After eighteen years (fifteen in prison and three searching for answers), Werdegast has come back to reclaim his wife and daughter, unaware that his wife has since died and was encased in a glass tomb in the mausoleum in Poelzig’s home to preserve her beauty, on display as though in some macabre museum. Werdergast also learns that following his wife’s death, Poelzig would marry Werdergast’s daughter, Karen. The following morning, the Allisons’ attempts to leave are thwarted by Poelzig, who now has designs on Joan.
What would follow is a graphic (for the time) film, featuring a Satanic ceremony, torture, a chess match to determine the fate of the Allisons and most grotesque of all, a man being skinned alive. Keep in mind that this is the version with the “unsavory” parts removed! It’s easy to see why the executives at Universal were uncomfortable with this film. So what became of the footage deemed too vile and extreme for the depression-era audiences? There were rumors in the 1980s about some of the uncensored scenes still surviving in the Universal vault, but as of this writing in 2008, they still have not come to light. Some historians maintain that the footage never existed to begin with. Unfortunately, we may never know.
The print used for this screening was a beautifully crisp one provided by the Library of Congress. While it definitely shows its age in some places, it is for the most part, wonderfully restored. The film is available on DVD as part of Universal’s BELA LUGOSI COLLECTION, available at most retail outlets http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0009X770E/imdb-adbox/
Following the brief intermission, we were treated to a Betty Boop cartoon short and a short montage of classic monster clips. Soon the “Wonder Morton” played again as we were set to enter James Whale’s OLD DARK HOUSE.
The story behind OLD DARK HOUSE is far less sordid than that of THE BL ACK CAT, but not without historical interest. In 1932, Universal was riding high off the success of both of it’s previous horror outings DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. Pre-Production on OLD DARK HOUSE began in January of 1932 (it wasn’t until late February that Universal would see it’s first horror box office failure with MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE). Though director James Whale’s previous film, THE IMPATIENT MAIDEN, was seen as a misstep by both the Studio and the director, Whale still wielded quite a bit of influence with the heads at Universal. The studio wanted Whale to return to his horror roots. Whale wanted a more personal project than the superficial MAIDEN. An adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s BENIGHTED (filmed as OLD DARK HOUSE to capitalize on the horror boom) was a happy medium. For the screenplay, the studio hired playwright Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sheriff. The cast was decided mainly by Whale, but Universal had one demand, the star of the picture must be the hottest property in the horror game, Boris Karloff.
Karloff is given top-billing for his role as Morgan, the brutish and violent deaf-mute butler. The rest of the cast would be rounded out by Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart (who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1996 for her role in James Cameron’s TITANIC) as the Wavertons and a cast of British stage performers including Charles Laughton, starring in his first Hollywood feature film. Also of note in the cast are Melvyn Douglas, who went on to win two Academy Awards (for his supporting roles in 1964’s HUD and 1980’s BEING THERE), and Ernest Thesiger, who is best known to Universal horror fans as Doctor Pretorius in James Whale’s 1935 masterpiece THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Whale was given nearly 100% creative freedom with the film and he worked in all aspects of it. The sets designed by Charles D. Hall went on to be used and modified for many horror films throughout the 1930s. The production came and went with no major problems and the film opened to mostly positive critical notices. Financially, the film was successful enough to warrant a re-release in the 1940s. Soon after, it seemed to vanish.
In the 1960s, Curtis Harrington, director of many classic Made-For-TV horror films and a close friend of James Whale, began an exhaustive search for a print of the “lost” classic. Universal had destroyed the negative after the rights to the story reverted back to J.B. Priestley. In the early 1960s, Priestly had optioned the novel to Columbia Pictures for a remake to be co-produced with Britain’s esteemed horror studio Hammer Films and to be directed by the P.T. Barnum of genre films, William Castle. Harrington asked Castle about the film and Castle said that not only did he not own a copy, Universal could not supply him with one when he inquired.
Undaunted, Harrington continued his search and finally convinced Universal to search the vaults for a print. In 1968, the search was finally over. A neglected fine grain print was found in Universal’s possession. Restoration was necessary and Universal refused to foot the bill since they would be unable to profit from it. Eastman House of Rochester, New York provided Harrington with the $3,000 necessary to restore the film and it was revived in theaters for a brief run that was met with mostly negative reviews. It seems that the expectations could not be matched by this melodramatic send-up of the horror genre. The film has since become known as a classic of 1930s horror cinema and is today considered among the finest films Universal made in that period.
Like THE BLACK CAT, this print was also beautifully restored by the Library of Congress and is FAR superior to the home video incarnations. For the curious among you, it is available on DVD http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00000ILEU/imdb-adbox/
This tale of two groups of travelers stranded in an old, dark mansion during a heavy storm with a demented butler and a homicidal pyromaniac was a fitting coda to a wonderful night out. This October, I look forward to once again stepping back in time to enjoy other classics at this wonderfully restored movie palace.
Special thanks to Buck Woodward for informing me of the Karloff features being screened at the theater.