Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Johnny California: THE CAT CREEPS

 by JB

The Universal Horror Cycle concludes not with a bang, but with a meow.

I cannot describe the excitement I felt when the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome announced that they would be releasing a restored special edition of 1946's The Cat Creeps, which experts acknowledge as the last of the original Universal horror films. This was released barely a year before Universal handed the monsters over to Abbott and Costello, signaling the end of an era.

NIT-PICKERY: Oh, I know The Brute Man was released after The Cat Creeps. Not only was The Brute Man actually filmed first, but it wasn’t released by Universal. Universal sold it to low-budget releasing entity PRC, which gave it a decent Christian burial. (RIP Rondo Hatton.)

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Newspapermen Terry Nichols (Fred Brady) and Pidge “Flash” Laurie (Noah Beery, Jr.) get a hot tip that rich Eric Goran, a recent suicide, may have actually been the victim of foul play. Acting on a mysterious letter, the two stow away on a boat to a far-off island where Cora Williams (Vera Lewis) lives in a mansion. Cora knows more than she lets on. Other visitors to the mansion are all suspicious. Is feline-phobic Connie Palmer (Rose Hobart) the murderer? Is Tom McGalvey (Douglass Dumbrille) the murderer? Is Goran’s daughter, Kyra (Iris Clive) the murderer? Is Walter Elliot (Jonathon Hale) the murderer? Is Ken Grady (Paul Kelly) the murderer? Just because he has “red herring” all but stamped on his forehead doesn’t mean he DIDN’T do it. Could Terry’s best girl, Gay (Lois Collier), have done it? Why doesn’t Pidge have a best girl? So many suspects! WHO MURDERED ERIC GORAN?! Wake me up when the killer is revealed.

TRIVIA: The Hays Office advised the filmmakers not to include the word "witch" in the film, to make sure "there can be no possible confusion with the unacceptable word 'bitch'.” Unacceptable, I say!
RANDOM THOUGHT: I wish my name were Pidge “Flash” Laurie. Pidge is played by one of my favorite character actors, Noah Beery, Jr., the nephew of Oscar-winner Wallace Beery. You might remember Noah as James Garner’s father on The Rockford Files. I remember him as troubled farmer John Stebbins in Inherit the Wind. He had a career that spanned more than 60 years and over 100 feature films. He’s in the original 1920 Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks, 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings with Cary Grant, the original Of Mice and Men with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., 1941’s Sargent York with Gary Cooper, 1948’s Red River with John Wayne, 1950’s Rocketship X-M with Lloyd Bridges, 1956’s Jubal with Glen Ford, 1970’s Little Fauss and Big Halsey with Robert Redford, and 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Burt Reynolds. What a career! Why is his character in The Cat Creeps named Pidge? Apparently, that was Noah Beery Jr.’s real-life nickname!

NOTE: This film is NOT a remake of the 1930 Universal haunted house programmer The Cat Creeps, which itself was a sound remake of Universal’s 1927 The Cat and the Canary. Universal loved to re-use everything (plots, sets, stars, music cues); the 1946 The Cat Creeps is actually a remake of Universal’s obscure 1941 film, Horror Island.
What put the proverbial bee in Universal’s proverbial bonnet to make another haunted house movie? The astounding success of Bob Hope’s 1939 remake of The Cat and the Canary, which only got made because Universal sold the rights to Paramount. Hope’s scary laugh-fest was so very successful that he followed it up with Ghost Breakers, which was also crazy popular. Soon, a parade of comedians threw their hats into the “Scary-Scary-Laugh-Laugh” ring, most notably Abbott and Costello, with their first scare-a-thon, Hold That Ghost.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I fell asleep three separate times, trying to watch this obscure little gem. I don’t know if that’s reflection on this dull, plodding movie or my advanced age. The fact that the film runs a brief 58 minutes suggests it’s the latter.


I have completely run out of patience for 1930s and 1940s era (era) horror films that feel they need a wise-cracking newspaperman hanging about (or, heaven forbid, a whole squad of wise-cracking newspapermen.) They seem designed to advance the plot, provide comic relief, and basically MAKE THE MOVIES LESS SCARY. Sheesh. I have watched so many 1930s horror movies that when this trope raises its ugly head, I shout, “GOD-DAMN, IT’S NEWSPAPERMEN!” and mentally prepare for what will follow. People fondly remember both Mystery of the Wax Museum and Doctor X, but I assure you there are no fond memories of Glenda Farrell or Lee Tracy as the unnecessary newshounds in those two pre-code delights. What is one of the many things the original Dracula and the original Frankenstein have in common?

No God-damn newspapermen!
The Cat Creeps is, unfortunately, crawling with wise-cracking journos. Plus, I already mentioned its stultifying dullness. HOWEVER, I would recommend this new release for FOUR reasons:

1) the gorgeous restoration and transfer;
2) the jam-packed, entertaining commentary track by Kevin Lyons and Jonathon Rigby;
3) a delightful featurette, “Feline Frights,” in which author and critic Kim Newman talks about cat movies and haunted house movies of the 1920s, '30s, and 40s. (Newman’s featurette is alone worth the price of admission. I wish with all of my black little heart that Newman taught an online film course that lasted a year or more.); and
4) to be a COMPLETIST. How can you say you own all the Universal Monsters films without owning The Cat Creeps? How could you sleep at night? I can’t sleep at night, and I actually own this new disc of The Cat Creeps! There is no sleep, only Zuul.


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