APRIL MOVIE THON DAY 11: The Black Cat (1934)

The first of eight films to pair Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, this has so much less to do with the Edgar Allan Poe story and so much more to do with Aleister Crowley, in particular a series of rituals and did with Betty May Loveday.

Loveday was a model, a dancer, an artist and the lover of White Panther, a member of L’Apache Gang, and a fight over him led to her nickname: The Tiger Woman. She once said, “I have not cared what the world thought of me and as a result what it thought has often not been very kind. I have often lived only for pleasure and excitement.”

After marrying Miles Linzee Atkinson — who had access to cocaine as he was a doctor — they both became addicts, a habit she kept into her second marriage.

In 1922, her third husband Frederick Charles Loveday became an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, who considered Loveday his magical heir but condemned his marriage. In her book Tiger Woman, Loveday claimed she found a chest containing men’s ties which were covered with dried blood. Crowley told her they belonged to Jack the Ripper, who he knew, who was still alive and who had been a surgeon and magician who taught him how to become invisible.

Frederick — who also used the name Raoul — was never a healthy person. In her book, Betty May said that Crowley recommended that he drink a cat’s blood. Regardless of the truth of that story, he did drink water from a stream that Crowley had warned him about and he died in 1923.

The entire time May was in Italy with her husband and Crowley, she had been May had been sending reports to the Sunday Express informing the public of what Crowley was up to. Those rituals that she describes appear in The Black Cat. When she returned to England, she sold the rest of her story to the Sunday Express and John Bull, which is where Crowley’s title The Wickedest Man in the World” comes from.

She also mentions that after the death of her husband, she tried to kill Crowley by firing a gun directly at Crowley’s head at point-blank range and missing. He laughed and she shot again. The gun jammed.

Betty May was the principal witness in the suit brought by Aleister Crowley against Nina Hamnett for libel in her book Laughing Torso which led to someone stealing her letters of proof, more libel suits and Crowley being “bound” by the court for two years.

Anyhow…

Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) are on a train en route to on their honeymoon in Hungary, during which they share a car with psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist who spent the last 15 years as a prisoner a Siberian prison camp. Now, he is traveling to visit Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), an Austrian architect.

Somehow, all three end up on a bus which crashes near Poelzig’s home. The foreboding estate sits upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war. It also turns out that the doctor and architect are not great friends, as Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying their side to the Russians, leading to thousands of deaths, as well as stealing his wife Karen and killing his black cat. He might be correct, as Werdegast literally has a collection of dead women on display and Karen is one of them.

Poelzig is quite literally the devil on earth, as he has taken Werdegast’s daughter as his new wife and planning on killing Peter and sacrificing June. Seriously, I don’t want to give away the end of this movie away and I’m amazed that pre-code horror is so grisly and outright filled with darkness. This wasn’t a small independent movie. This was Universal’s biggest movie of 1934.

Poelzig’s chant doesn’t coming from Crowley and is invented Latin nonsense. Thanks to IMDB trivia, it translates as “With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. To err is human. The wolf may change his skin, but not his nature. Truth is mighty, and will prevail. External actions show internal secrets. Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even. The loss that is not known is no loss at all. Heavy thunder. With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. By fruit, not by leaves, judge a tree. Every madman thinks everybody mad. Who repents from sinning is almost innocent.”

Despite this being such a big movie, Edgar G. Ulmer’s career didn’t take off. That’s because he began an affair with Shirley Castle, who would eventually become his wife. At the time, she was married to Max Alexander, a producer at Universal Pictures and nephew of Universal chief Carl Laemmle, who did not look kindly on “outsiders” upsetting his family. The scandal resulted in Ulmer being blackballed from all of the major Hollywood studios for the rest of his career, so he worked on smaller movies about which Peter Bogdonavich wrote “the astonishing thing is that so many of Ulmer’s movies have a clearly identifiable signature despite being accomplished with so little encouragement and so few means.”

He found a home at PRC, the lowest of the low that was Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios, but Shirley stayed by his side, acting as the script supervisor on nearly all of his films as well as writing several of the screenplays. Their daughter Arianne appeared as an extra in his movies. If you’d like to check them out, some of his post-Black Cat films include The Amazing Transparent ManStrange Illusion and The Man from Planet X.

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