On this Day in Movie History, May 3, 1934: The Black Cat Released

It was on this day, May 3 1934, Universal Pictures releases what would be the biggest box office grossing movie of the year. Part of a boom in horror “talkies” following the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, The Black Cat was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) that paired actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The Black Cat exploited the popularity of Poe and the horror genre, as well as a sudden public interest in psychiatry.

Edgar G. Ulmer directed the film; Peter Ruric (better known as pulp writer “Paul Cain”) wrote the screenplay. The classical music soundtrack, compiled by Heinz Eric Roemheld, is unusual for its time, because there is an almost continuous background score throughout the entire film.

Having little to do with Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Black Cat”, though Poe’s name is listed in the credits, the film – and by extension, the character of Hjalmar Poelzig – although thought inspired by occultist Aleister Crowley– refers to someone Ulmer worked with on the 1920 horror picture The Golem. Ulmer hinted he was thinking more of Metropolis’ dictatorial director Fritz Lang.

In the movie, in a castle next to a bloody Hungarian battlefield, Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi) fights the diabolical Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) for the souls of a young couple on their honeymoon. The movie unfolds like a nightmare that involves necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice.

Although the film was well received by critics and the public, it proved a curse for Ulmer. On set, Ulmer fell in love with the script girl, who unfortunately was married to a nephew of the Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. Rather than receiving praise and access to A-level scripts, Ulmer found himself blacklisted, forced to churn out documentaries and B-moves for little known studios.

On the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an average rating from critics of 85%. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its “skinning” scene

1917 – Betty Comden (Cohen) (screenwriter [w/Adolph Green]: It’s Always Fair Weather, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain; actress: Greenwich Village, That Was the Week That Was, Garbo Talks, Slaves of New York; died Nov 23, 2006)

1931 – Joe Layton (Lichtman) (choreographer: Thoroughly Modern Millie; director: Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, The Littlest Angel, Androcles and the Lion; died May 5, 1994)

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