More On Val Lewton
Insofar as artistic pretensions went, Val Lewton made Orson Welles look like a piker, so how come VL to survive for eleven pictures as opposed to Welles’ measly three? Possibly it was due to far less noise he made. Lewton (shown here in his projection room) wasn’t one to seek press. Newspapers and popular mags weren’t paying a lot of attention to horror producers in any case. Treading lightly below the radar served him well, but there was slippage evident by late 1943 and The Seventh Victim. We must have been the eighth victim; patrons walked out. Business poor. Some of the kids would not sit through it. This from N.C. Hillburn of the State Theatre in Inman, SC. A lot of exhibitors avoided chillers when they could. Too many complaints of kiddie nightmares and headaches all around. Others limited genre stuff to every third or so month. What they hated most were horrors failing utterly to deliver on the promise of poster art. This is without doubt the most unsatisfactory picture we have any recollection of, said A.C. Edwards (Scotia, CA) re The Seventh Victim. Diminished profits reflected exhibitor hostility. $59,000 in black ink was a long way down from Cat People, this despite reduced negative costs for The Seventh Victim ($130,000). The problem arose from domestic rentals reduced by a third from The Leopard Man, itself down from numbers scored by Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. Marquees trumpeted Tom Conway and little else. For all their moronic scripts and (now) pedestrian sequels, Universal could at least boast of pre-sold horror names in its stables. Often as not, Lewton films were serving as rearguard for rival studio "B’s" --- in the ad shown here, it’s Universal’s Top Man. Meanwhile, Lewton was mapping out an "A" comedy to spotlight Conway as Casanova (imagine the possibilities!), but like any number of proposed projects, it came to naught. Could this have been the point where RKO began negotiating its multi-picture deal with Boris Karloff? Lewton’s masterpiece may well be "The Seventh Victim", declared Carlos Clarens in that groundbreaking 1967 book, An Illustrated History Of The Horror Film (the cover of which shown here). Rarely has a film succeeded so well in capturing the nocturnal menace of a large city, the terror underneath the everyday, the suggestion of hidden evil. Not having seen the film upon acquiring the book, I breathlessly awaited coming TV broadcasts. My bafflement after watching was seeming proof I didn’t breathe the same rarified air as Clarens. Was I was too obtuse to get it? Forty years later, I’m still wondering. Is The Seventh Victim a picture we’re supposed to like as means of demonstrating our grasp of Lewton’s deeper meanings? Play it to general audiences at your peril. Carlos Clarens concluded by referring to The Seventh Victim as a hauntingly oppressive work. 1943 exhibitors might have agreed with him, though for reasons he’d not have imagined.
Val Lewton used second-hand furniture. This much I knew from multiple references to that Magnificent Ambersons staircase in Cat People. Good Lewton sets usually have their origins in someone else’s movie. 1939’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame was cannibalized for a number of them. It was the producer’s policy to dress up one or two backgrounds for maximum effect and stage much of the key action therein. The Ghost Ship borrowed a vessel built for Pacific Liner, a modest-to-begin-with actioner released in 1939. This show as much as any demonstrates the miracles Lewton wrought with low budgets. It may be the only contemporary sea story produced that year (1943) without a single wartime reference. The Ghost Ship made me long for a film noir unit Lewton should have eventually helmed. What magic he’d have made with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Robert Ryan, and the rest. As it is, we have the Lewton imprint on noirs his directing pupils gave us --- Jacques Tournear and Out Of The Past, Robert Wise with Born To Kill, The Set-Up, etc. Much of the look and mood of these can be traced to lessons taught by Lewton. The Ghost Ship provides proof positive of his expertise with subjects other than horror, despite a title promising more of the same. You’d not go far afield calling it the tightest and most efficient in the series. I found those sixty-nine minutes mighty taut going, and wondered if anyone could surpass Richard Dix as the deranged captain. Profits for The Ghost Ship were actually up, as its negative came in the lowest of any Lewton production --- $116,000. Profits of $105,000 resulted from domestic rentals of $272,000 and foreign receipts of $130,000. Clear sailing but for a lawsuit brought by a writing pair who’d submitted a remarkably similar play supposedly received, but not read, by Lewton’s office. The mess could have been settled for seven hundred dollars, but Lewton stood on principle and insisted upon trying the thing out. Twelve men good and true came back with $25,000 for the plaintiffs, which appeals courts let stand despite Lewton’s disavowal of allegations made (the claimants were, by his account, charlatans and extortionists). The fallout was serious. I suspect this, as much as anything, helped put skids under Lewton. Sadder still was the fact his excellent movie had to be withdrawn and buried for generations to come. The Ghost Ship became itself a wraith largely unseen. It was in the C&C Movietime package of RKO features from 1956 into the early sixties, but someone in legal must have eventually checked the file, for by the time United Artists repackaged the Lewtons into a 58 title horror group for May 1963 syndicated release, The Ghost Ship was out. There were a (very) few 16mm prints from older packages floating amongst collectors. Harris Films out of England was U.K. rights holder for RKO, and a number of Ghost Ships ventured our way when Harris shelves were cleared in the late eighties. The issue became moot in any case when an early nineties clearance of rights permitted Turner to finally put it back in circulation. Purchasers of the Lewton DVD box set are likely unaware of what a scarce collectable this once was.
UPDATE 9/16/07: Here's an interesting postscript supplied by Robert Cline. He discovered an August 23-24, 1957 booking for Ghost Ship at the Highway 601 Drive-In in Salisbury, NC, playing a dusk-to-dawn with Lost Women, Fire Maidens From Outer Space, and Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer. Guess some of those RKO prints managed to slip through the cracks after all.
Every appreciation of Curse Of The Cat People begins with an apology for its title. Were it not for that baleful thing heralding the credits, this might be regarded one of the forties’ permanent film classics. Lewton wanted to call it Amy and Her Friend, which might only have hastened his departure off RKO premises, but surely he’d have gotten recognition richly deserved for what many (myself included) consider his very finest work. The child’s dream world depicted here is much like the one a lot of us occupied and shared with this movie during late night viewing in the sixties. The spell it cast was something special after house lights were down and parents abed. Were Amy’s spectral companions so different from those we welcomed on Shock Theatre each week? No other Lewton, indeed no other fantasy film, calls up such intense emotion. I cried with it at thirteen and again today. It’s impossible to imagine such delicate and (yes, damnit!) poetic filmmaking coming from any other major studio (and during WWII!). RKO may have mutilated The Magnificent Ambersons two years before, but redemption was surely theirs for enabling a small masterpiece like Curse Of The Cat People. DeWitt Bodeen maintained the producer junked his writer’s ending due to front office pressures, but from what I’ve read of said finish, it would seem Lewton came to the rescue of what might have been a botched and melodramatic original as conceived by Bodeen (it was the last time these two would work together). James Agee again sang Lewton’s praises, claiming to have sat among hardened Rialto patrons through what he expected would be a film disappointing to them, only to be relieved by a burst of applause at the end. Who says horror fans have no sensitivity? I can’t help believing MGM was watching as well, for what is Meet Me In St. Louis’ Halloween segment but a glossier recap of Ann Carter’s frightful walk through the night? Atmospheric, set-bound parallels between the two features are striking. For the record, Curse Of The Cat People was shot during August and September of 1943. Meet Me In St. Louis followed with production beginning November 1943 and extending into Spring of the next year. Did someone at RKO give Vincente Minnelli a peek at Lewton’s handiwork? Judging by evidence at hand, I’d say they did. And what of the remarkable Ann Carter? Her performance has Margaret O’Brien beat like a drum, but little came of it but decades of wondering what had become of the seven-year-old actress. Never underestimate determination of fans raised on vintage horror, however, for their ceaseless efforts have rooted out players long retired to private life. I didn’t know until today of Ann Carter’s rediscovery, let alone her upcoming interview on a Lewton documentary to be shown later this year on TCM. Imdb’s page on the former child actress tells of her whereabouts. Curse Of The Cat People was the sixth release in Lewton’s RKO horror group. It also performed the poorest of any thus far. The first of the chillers to pass a negative cost of $200,000, this required $212,000 to finish, a figure not likely to endear Lewton to his employers. Domestic rentals ($268,000) surpassed The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship, but profits added up to a paltry $35,000. All six entries in RKO’s recent Tim Holt "B" western season did better. New directions were clearly needed if Lewton’s series was to continue.
Lewton longed to produce "A’s", but sadly got only so far as a pair of oddball non-horrors that lost money for RKO and likely put paid to dreams of graduation from low-budgeters. Ironic that directors he’d mentored would move up prestige ladders while Lewton ran in place. Jacques Tournear’s Experiment Perilous was reward for that director’s outstanding work on Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, and The Leopard Man, and the studio’s borrowing of MGM heavyweight Hedy Lamarr assured concentrated effort toward bookings better than any of Lewton’s offerings might receive. Trade support for Experiment Perilous confirmed its position as one of RKO’s top 1944 releases. Lewton’s Youth Runs Wild fell into line with juvenile delinquency melodramas being turned out en masse by not only the mini-majors, but straight-out exploitation producers as well. Columbia offered Youth On Trial. State’s Rights distributors peddled Youth Aflame for those who preferred teen problems more explicitly dissected (minus a Code seal, these cheapies delivered on baser promises). Where Are Our Children? and Are These Our Parents? would seem to have answered similar lines of inquiry. Why see them both? Indeed, why see Youth Runs Wild, especially with a title that would, by comparison, confer dignity even upon I Walked With A Zombie? RKO took the post-production scissors route. Lewton called that which remained a stinker. Youth Runs Wild had a negative cost of $291,000 (the prospect of an audience beyond kids having loosened RKO purse- strings), but JD problem pictures made little impression on foreign markets already hobbled by the war, thus overseas rentals were a low $50,000. A final loss of $45,000 couldn’t be blamed on Lewton, for this market was nearly as glutted with teenage troublemakers as theatres would be in the mid-fifties. Worse to come was Lewton’s non-genre Mademoiselle Fifi, with measly domestic rentals of $150,000 (foreign $48,000) against a negative cost of $228,000. The loss this time was worse --- $110,000. It was clear RKO had no confidence in Fifi. Judging by its invisibility in the trades, you’d hardly know it was out there. Accustomed lower berths (of the sort shown here) did not bode well for Lewton’s effort at a more sophisticated product, so it was back to the horror grind, but now with a twist. If Lewton wouldn’t look to Universal for inspiration, RKO would bring Universal to him. Jack Gross was a producing vet at the latter who liked his monsters straight up and uncomplicated. Commercial lure Boris Karloff was brought on to resuscitates the boxoffice. Lewton was adamantly opposed to them both, at least at the beginning. How could he know this partnership would result in the biggest grosser of his entire RKO sojourn; indeed, the only one of the bunch that would give showmen and their customers precisely what they wanted in the way of horror. The Body Snatcher, its gala premiere and success, follows in Part Three.