Flashback
A look back at this day in film history
May 03
The Black Cat May 3, 1934
The Black Cat released

In 1934, Edgar G. Ulmer, a set designer from Germany, convinced Universal to prolong their horror-film winning streak (based on the success of works likes Frankenstein and Dracula) by making The Black Cat, a macabre tale that would unite Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. While the film took its name from an Edgar Allen Poe story––and even exploited Poe’s name on marketing material––The Black Cat spins a completely different yarn. Here, 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. While the film had little to do with the American writer Poe, it had plenty to do with German expressionism. Poelzig’s name refers back to someone Ulmer worked with on the 1920 horror picture The Golem. Many assumed the main character was inspired by the occult figure Aleister Crowley, but Ulmer hinted he was thinking more of Metropolis’ dictatorial director Fritz Lang. Even the bus driver in the film alludes to F. W. Murnau’s 1924 drama The Last Laugh. One of the film’s great surprises is that Poelzig’s castle, rather than being the usually shadowy gothic lair of horror films, was furnished as a chic deco interior. Ulmer later claimed that his inspiration “was very much out of my Bauhaus period." The film was a smash, becoming Universal’s top grosser that year. But it was ultimately 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.


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