Category Archives: 1934

The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)

The Black Cat has a lot going on. It’s the story of two American honeymooners–David Manners and Julie Bishop–who, for whatever reason, decide Hungary is better than Niagara Falls. It’s also the story of a recently freed Hungarian soldier Bela Lugosi, who went into the war a happily married psychiatrist, only to lose his family after being imprisioned for fifteen years. Finally, it’s the story of Boris Karloff’s Austrian “architect,” who used to command Lugosi’s regiment, but sold them out to the Russians so he could escape to run off with Lugosi’s wife. Oh, and Karloff’s a big Satanic priest. Because the Austrians are Satanists and the Hungarians are either cute or loyal.

Aside from Karloff’s satanism? He kills women and keeps them hung up, preserved, in his dungeon. He built his giant, Art Deco house atop the fortress he betrayed to the Russians.

Through coincidence, Manners and Bishop find themselves in Lugosi’s questionable–but generally benevolent–company. Through bad luck, they find themselves part of Lugosi’s quest to avenge himself upon Karloff. Only Lugosi doesn’t even know how much avenging he’s going to need to do upon Karloff. He’s only got a rough idea.

Most of Ulmer’s direction is excellent. The first act has this shaky camerawork–“courtesy” cameraman John J. Mescall–but eventually those hiccups stop. He does pretty well with the actors. Bishop doesn’t have much to do except scream and pass out from fear, but she’s effective. Manners is in the awkward spot of not being the lead, but looking like he ought to be the lead. Meanwhile, actual lead Lugosi gets a character arc he chaffs against; while Peter Ruric’s script doesn’t favor anyone, Lugosi gets the harshest treatment.

The script’s rather xenophobic–look at these strange Eastern Europeans with their Satanism and so on–and Lugosi gets caught in a lot of it. Otherwise, he’s beyond sympathetic. His nemesis isn’t just a traitor, he’s a traitor who stole his family, murders random women to embalm, and is a Satanic priest.

In that part, Karloff’s okay, not much more. He looks the part–though the height difference between him and Lugosi (Lugosi’s much taller) is disconcerting. Lugosi does better. He doesn’t do great–he suffers from intense ailurophobia (fear of cats) and Karloff has apparently an endless supply of black cats around to creep Lugosi out.

The set design is a big deal, with the Art Deco house overpowering the boring dungeon. Maybe because the dungeon seems too cramped and its geography is confusing, but not in a good way. The third act takes place almost entirely in the dungeon, which doesn’t help things; it’s also when all the character problems and incongruities come to a head.

Solid editing from Ray Curtiss, especially during the first act and then the Satanic ritual. Great music from Heinz Roemheld.

The Black Cat runs just over an hour. Its present action is a day and a half or so. It shouldn’t slog but it does. The setup of the characters then of Karloff and his nightmare house (despite it being bright and Art Deco) all goes well. But Manners and Bishop’s parts get reduced a little too much in the second half; Karloff getting more to do isn’t better. He’s effective at being threatening but there’s not a lot of danger in the script. It’s too spare. There are only four real characters. It can’t spare them.

The film’s pre-Code, so the Hays Code can’t be blamed for the finish, just common morality. Still, The Black Cat’s a reasonable success, with some excellent moments for Lugosi in particular. And Ulmer’s direction can carry it. Most of the time.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay by Peter Ruric, based on a story by Ulmer and Ruric; edited by Ray Curtiss; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Vitus Werdegast), Julie Bishop (Joan Alison), David Manners (Peter Alison), Egon Brecher (The Majordomo), Harry Cording (Thamal), and Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig).


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Tarzan and His Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons)

For a film called Tarzan and His Mate, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan doesn’t get much to do. He spends the film rescuing Maureen O’Sullivan (which is one of the more frustrating aspects of the film–she doesn’t exhibit any jungle survival skills until the finale) from a variety of animals. These sequences are often exciting, especially since the film doesn’t have any music. It’s just the sound of the jungle battle, expertly cut together by editor Tom Held.

The film opens with Neil Hamilton and Paul Cavanagh as ivory hunters mounting an expedition. Hamilton’s O’Sullivan’s ex, Cavanagh is his blue blood gone poor best friend. Cavanagh’s delightfully scummy, though director Gibbons makes the audience sorry for enjoying it once they meet up with Weissmuller and O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan’s been living in wild Africa for a year (since the previous film) and she’s left the world of high society and so on. She runs around the jungle in skimpy (but functional) attire and, after spending at least twenty minutes objectifying O’Sullivan (from Cavanagh and Hamilton’s perspective, the film’s actually rather complex in how it presents her), Gibbons is able to get over it to some degree. He and O’Sullivan (and Weissmuller) sell it. Maybe the nude swimming scene just overwhelms enough.

Except then O’Sullivan (and Weissmuller) fall out of the plot and the excellent wildlife effects take over.

Neither the finish (or her scripted helplessness) do justice to O’Sullivan’s performance. Its handling of the extant sexuality, however, is as impressive as its action.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Cedric Gibbons; screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, Leon Gordon and James Kevin McGuinness, based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directors of photography, Charles G. Clarke and Clyde De Vinna; edited by Tom Held; produced by Bernard H. Hyman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Paul Cavanagh (Martin Arlington), Nathan Curry (Saidi) and Forrester Harvey (Beamish).


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The Hearts of Age (1934, Orson Welles and William Vance)

The Hearts of Age is a funny short film. It’s weird funny, but it’s also funny funny. The weird has these grotesquely made up people–the film centers on an old woman, sitting on a bell, being pulled from below by this servant (in blackface). People pass her, going down these stairs. She watches them.

Then the creepiest of the creepy people shows up and convinces the servant to kill himself.

All the while, directors Welles and Vance cut all around–lots of forced symbolism (the bells, the bells), but the cutting is done to emphasis the obvious strangeness, not focus the viewer on the implied uncanny. It’s like the directors don’t want to have to try too hard with the symbolism.

The end has the action changed to the creepiest man by himself. And it’s when the humor starts coming through. The final sequence is a gag even.

Weird.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Orson Welles and William Vance; written by Welles; director of photography, Vance; produced by Vance.

Starring Orson Welles (Death), Virginia Nicholson (Old woman / Keystone Kop), William Vance (Indian in blanket) and Edgerton Paul (Bell-ringer).


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Brute Wanted (1934, Charles Barrois)

Quite a bit of Brute Wanted is rather funny. The whole idea is funny–dimwitted, failing actor (Jacques Tati) goes for an audition and it turns out he’s agreeing to wrestle a musclebound Russian grotesque. Tati’s got a nagging wife (Hélène Pépée) who also manages him.

A lot of the short is spent on the fight promoters. Tati and co-writer Alfred Sauvy exercise brevity with their exposition when it comes to Pépée and Tati’s situation so the fight promotion scenes just go too long. And so does the wrestling match, with Tati hilariously trying to avoid his opponent.

Barrois’s direction is never on par with the script’s humor, but it’s usually adequate. In the wrestling match, not so much. Barrois loses track of Tati, who’s holding Brute together, and spends it on his scheming friend, played by Rhum.

These problems are tolerable. But the final joke? Cruel and unfunny.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Barrois; written by Jacques Tati and Alfred Sauvy; music by Marcel Landowski.

Starring Jacques Tati (Mr. Roustabat), Hélène Pépée (Mrs. Roustabat), Rhum (Mr. Mérandol) and Kola Kwariani (Krotov the Tartar).


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