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Val Lewton at RKO: Zombies and Cat People

Simone Simon as Irena in Cat People (US 1942)

These notes were produced for a Zoom event during the Covid Lockdown of April 2020. The three films discussed here, Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and The Curse of the Cat People are all available on BBC iPlayer in the UK as part of the collection of RKO titles held in perpetuity by the BBC. See also the notes on Suspicion (US 1941). This is a 3,300 word posting.

Val Lewton (1904-1951)   

One of the heroes of Studio Hollywood, Lewton is almost forgotten now outside the coterie of horror fans and followers of Turner Classic Movies in the US. But he is definitely worth remembering. Born in Yalta he migrated with his family to the US in 1909. He studied journalism at Columbia University in New York and wrote extensively, including a successful novel in 1932 when working as a publicist. But when subsequent novels didn’t sell so well he travelled to Hollywood and got a job as a publicist at MGM and assistant to David O. Selznick. His work with Selznick helped to get him an important job at RKO in 1942 as head of a new ‘B’ Movie Unit.

Val Lewton (left) with Mark Robson, one of his directors, in a screening room

What is a ‘B Movie’?

The term ‘B Movie’ implies that there is an ‘A Movie’ which will be of greater importance. That’s the problem with the term and why it is most often used in a pejorative sense. But ‘B Movies’ do not have to be inferior or ‘low quality’. It’s important to understand why they existed.

‘B Movies’ are a product of the so called ‘studio systems’ of Hollywood and the UK and possibly of other major film industries that existed in the period roughly 1930s-1960s. Though they worked in slightly different ways, both the US and UK film industries, which for most of this period served the two most valuable film markets globally, shared certain characteristics. The most important was that vertically-integrated studios dominated the film business. The ‘Big 5 major Hollywood studios’ made films, distributed them and exhibited them in their own cinemas. This enabled them to reduce costs and to have at least the possibility of avoiding heavy losses if they could keep their own cinemas supplied with ‘product’. They owned the biggest and most important cinemas in the largest cities where ticket prices were highest.

In both countries, studios  planned to offer a full programme of a feature film, newsreel, cartoons and various forms of other short features to make up a complete ‘evening at the pictures’. In the UK this was referred to as a ‘Full Supporting Programme’. At various points in film history, programming two feature-length films together became the norm. In the US this was started by smaller independent cinemas during the 1930s to offer something extra to entice audiences during the depression. The majors then felt obliged to respond. The studios could either make their own second features or buy something in from the smaller studios. Both options were followed because there were some advantages to making a second feature ‘in house’. Thus the birth of a two-tier structure. The majors made around 30-40 ‘A’ features for their own cinemas, buying in a few independent productions, but how would they organise ‘B’ feature production?

The Hollywood majors tended to operate a form of ‘unit production’. The details varied between studios but the basic idea was that a team of producers/writers/directors and contract players would focus on making similar films over a period of time. This allowed a certain amount of cost saving and a build-up of specific expertise. Studio facilities were a fixed asset that needed to be used as much as possible to spread costs. In the classic example of the ‘B’ Western, the unit worked on a studio ranch and delivered a film every few weeks. Other similar units produced detective/crime films. To illustrate the difference between ‘A’ and ‘B’, the Sherlock Holmes films provide a good example. 

20th Century Fox made two Holmes films with ‘A’ budgets and experienced directors. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson were joined in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) by Ida Lupino in a story set in the late 1890s. The film was a commercial and critical success, as was The Hound of the Baskervilles in the same year. Both productions were overseen by the studio’s production chief Darryl F. Zanuck. But then, for various reasons, Fox decided to let their rights to the characters expire and Rathbone and Bruce were eventually persuaded to work on a third Holmes film at Universal. Released in 1942 this then led to 11 more films in a series spanning 1942-46. These were updated to ‘present-day stories’ and were given only ‘B’ picture budgets, which arguably explains their shorter running times (60—70 minutes) and less spend on artwork. Most were directed by Roy William Neill who had begun directing in the UK on the British equivalent of the ‘B’ picture. The budgets would be lower anyway since Universal was a ‘mini-major’ which did not own its own cinema chain and had to sell the films to one of the Big 5 majors to show in their first-run houses. Despite the low budgets, the Holmes films were popular as the long run suggests.

The B picture could also be seen as a training ground for directors, writers and younger actors. Training worked both ways. For the personnel it was a way of learning on the job and trying out new ideas but it also helped the studio by inculcating good practices for efficient production.

RKO and Val Lewton

RKO was the weakest of the five majors, only just ahead of ‘mini-major’ Universal in terms of annual profits. The studio had been successful in the 1930s with the Astaire and Rogers musical comedies and had developed stars like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It was also distributing the films of Walt Disney. But in 1941 it was in even worse shape than usual with heavy losses arising partly from the commercial failure of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre group who made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons which was was heavily cut by the studio. A change in RKO ownership and management then saw Welles depart. Kane and Ambersons were hits with critics, but not big enough box office hits to make profits. (See this other post on the history of RKO.)

RKO management decided to cut their losses by appointing Lewton to head a new ‘B’ unit focusing on horror pictures (and therefore targeting the fans of Universal’s horror films in particular). RKO had a history of focusing more on lower budget films than the other four majors. While Metro, Warners, Paramount and Fox spent over $500,000 on the majority of their features, RKO reversed the ratio and focused on budgets below $500,000. The problem for RKO was that the business understanding in Hollywood assumed that to make big profits you had to spend big. Many of the costs of distribution and exhibition were fixed, so low budget films cost proportionately more to actually screen in cinemas. On the other side, cinema managers and audiences often rejected the idea of films without major stars and lavish sets. Lewton, who was essentially a writer who had recently worked for the independent producer David O’Selznick, was given a difficult brief.

The deal was simple. Lewton received a relatively small salary of $250 per week and had just three instructions from senior management. (1) He would be given the titles of films as selected by the Marketing Department who had surveyed horror fans. (2) All the films must be 75 minutes or less. (3) He was not to spend more than $150,000 on each film. 

Nicholas Musuraca

But Lewton did have some advantages. He had access to a range of RKO contract staff and some of them were exceptionally talented. The cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca is now acknowledged as one of the Hollywood greats who somehow ‘stayed beneath the radar’, partly because most of his long career was spent at RKO, shuttling between ‘A’ and ‘B’ pictures. Born in Italy, Musuraca migrated to the US as a teenager and was working as a cinematographer as early as 1922. In 1940 he photographed what has often been thought of as the first Hollywood film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, a low-budget RKO film starring Peter Lorre. Musuraca defined RKO’s noir style and worked on many similar examples including arguably the greatest noir, Out of the Past (1947). He was the perfect cinematographer for Lewton and shot five of Lewton’s films at RKO.

Just as important, especially on films with low budgets, is an imaginative and experienced art director/set designer. Alberto S. D’Agostino had been working in Hollywood consistently since 1928 and in 1941 after moving between studios he settled at RKO working on Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs. In 1942 no less than 35 RKO releases featured his work including The Magnificent Ambersons and then Cat People. The staircase from Ambersons would then turn up in both Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People (1944). D’Agostino won 5 Oscar nominations for his work.

Jacques Tourneur

The director of both Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie was Jacques Tourneur. Like Musuraca, Tourneur was another underestimated artist in Hollywood. The son of French director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques had made films in France before moving to Hollywood in 1934 (he’d also  been in America as a teenager, getting access to the film industry when his father worked on silent American films). His Hollywood career from 1936  for the next eight years comprised short films, both documentary and fiction for MGM and eventually four ‘B’ features. He proved very effective and clearly learned how to operate quickly and efficiently within the Hollywood studio system. The shorts unit was not ‘policed’ by the studio front office and he was able to experiment with new production ideas. But perhaps his most significant work was as a second unit director on David O. Selznick’s A Tale of Two Cities (1935). Val Lewton was Selznick’s story editor and producer on the second unit staging the ‘Storming of the Bastille’. Tourneur and Lewton got on very well. Tourneur suggested later that he was the pragmatist and Lewton was the idealist. Lewton recognised the strength of their partnership and hired Tourneur for his first two productions at RKO. 

Robert Wise had been first an assistant to sound and film editors at RKO in 1934-5 and then a film editor from 1939 on major films such as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Mark Robson had similarly been a film editor at RKO, starting as an assistant on Kane and Ambersons and then editing three of Lewton’s productions before directing the last five of Lewton’s RKO reign.

Roy Webb worked for RKO as a music composer from the late 1920s through to 1955. He was one of the great music composers of Studio Hollywood, though never as well-known to audiences as the others (he was nominated 7 times for Oscars, but never won). His 1940s work on Lewton’s films and a range of thrillers and films noirs is generally recognised as his strongest work. DeWitt Bodeen worked as writer on two of the three Lewton films discussed here. He had been hired by Lewton when Lewton was working for Selznick on Jane Eyre, released in 1943. DeWitt had written a play ‘Embers of Haworth’ so it was strange that he didn’t work on I Walked With a Zombie. Because Lewton himself was a writer, it must have been quite difficult for the writers he hired. Lewton always worked on the final script and often contributed to the original story. He was very ‘hands on’. 

Lewton made 11 films at RKO before leaving in 1946 after another RKO re-organisation. He made only three further films and died in 1951 aged only 46.

The films

Cat People (1942)

RKO’s new bosses clearly hoped to go back to the kinds of successful horror films made at Universal in the early 1930s. Something like the Wolfman (1941), which had recently updated the earlier 1935 Werewolf of London would have suited them. Lewton knew he had to make something quickly on a low budget and so he crucially decided there would be no ‘cat people’. Irena is a Serbian woman in New York, frightened because an ancient myth suggests that she may turn into a dangerous panther if sexually aroused. But we never see such a transformation. Director Tourneur implies the danger to both Irena and the characters who might trigger such a transformation only by way of sound effects, shadows and a few shots of a black panther. The plot hinges around Irena’s meeting with architect Oliver Reed whose assistant Alice is in love with him.

In a photography studio in Cat People. It isn’t difficult to understand why RKO became the studio most associated with noir lighting and cinematography (here by Musuraca)

Despite its low budget, the film did have a star in the form of Simone Simon. The French star of 1930s films such as Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938) had made it to the US but was finding life difficult in Hollywood so she did not command a large salary. Tourneur brought the film in on time and under budget and it was released on Christmas Day 1942. At first the reviews were mixed and RKO were not sure the new experiment had worked. But the film had ‘legs’ and it moved into profit (it was screened as an ‘A’ picture in some locations). Figures are notoriously difficult to verify from the 1940s but some reports suggest that the film eventually made $4 million in North America. Others have suggested that Lewton’s unit helped RKO to move back into profit in 1943.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

This is arguably the most ambitious production of the three and perhaps the most striking example of Tourneur’s use of camerawork and Webb’s music (plus sound effects). Musuraca was not available for this shoot and J. Roy Hurt, a veteran of RKO ‘B’ pictures, was the cinematographer. This appears to be a good indication of how a studio style can be developed and applied by contract personnel. 

Again, there is a deliberate attempt to move away from the expectation of a conventional horror film. The script picks up carefully on the origins of the ‘zombi’ stories from Haiti in which local people could be ‘zombified’ to act as compliant workers in the sugar cane fields. These legends have received some attention by scholars of various kinds and they are explored in the recent French arthouse film Zombi Child (France 2019).

James Ellison and Frances Dee on the atmospheric set of I Walked With a Zombie

The island of St. Sebastian is fictitious and was created in the RKO studio and on the beaches of Southern California. There is a suggestion that it is/was a British colony and the original lead was to have been the noted British actor Anna Lee who was working in Hollywood but became unavailable. Francis Dee was cast as Canadian, preserving some of the ‘Britishness’. Tom Conway, brother of George Sanders, plays the plantation owner and Sir Lancelot is the local calypsonian. The British angle also fits Lewton’s attempt to persuade the writers to think of the story as inspired by the idea of a prequel to Jane Eyre – pre-dating Jean Rhys and The Wide Sargasso Sea by 20 years. Ironically, the screenwriter Lewton selected was Curt Siodmak, brother of the director Robert Siodmak and the writer of The Wolf Man. Lewton seems to have moved Siodmak into different territory on this script.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Expressionist lighting for this 2-shot of Simone Simon as Irena and and Ann Carter as Amy Reed in The Curse of the Cat People

This film stands out as the production on which Lewton ‘broke’ the rules set up for the unit. This time he moved as far as possible from the set title. The film is a sequel only in the sense that the three central characters return from Cat People. Oliver and Alice are now married with a little girl, Amy. Irena is dead but her ghost appears to Amy who accepts her as her imaginary friend. An intriguing casting decision sees Sir Lancelot appearing as the house servant for the Reed family. His beautiful diction and all round demeanour provides a stark contrast to the representation of African Americans in Hollywood at the time.

The story is about Amy, an introverted child whose imaginary friend is a great comfort. This is a concern for her parents as Amy has little contact with her schoolfriends. But she does have contact with an older woman who lives in a dark and mysterious house and who has a difficult relationship with her own grown-up daughter. The film is essentially a psychological drama focused on Amy. It isn’t a horror film at all, though it might be categorised as a fantasy. 

The story is set in Tarrytown, New York State which features the area known as ‘Sleepy Hollow’, the location for a gothic story written by Washington Irving and published in 1820. Sleepy Hollow is renowned for ghosts.

Lewton worked extensively on this story which was influenced by his own background. He had an imaginary friend as a child and he grew up close to Tarrytown and was fond of ghost stories. He also had problems with his first director, the debutant Gunther von Fritsch who had completed only half the film when the allotted studio time ran out. Lewton then turned to another début director, Robert Wise who completed the film successfully but it was now considerably over budget at $212,000. Studio bosses were not pleased with the final film and it got some negative reviews and poorer box office results than Cat People. However, it did have supporters and its reputation has grown over time. It is now recognised as one of Lewton’s best films. 

The legacy

These three films and others in the Lewton portfolio have been re-released several times and have been an inspiration to filmmakers in many parts of the world. Cat People in particular has been used as a study guide for creating suspense through the use of shadow and sound effects.

Perhaps the biggest tribute to the impact of the films came from MGM in the form of the Vincente Minnelli melodrama, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). This prestige picture (it won 5 Oscars) is about a notorious Hollywood producer who treated various people very badly in his rise to the top. In one scene he is shown working on a ‘B’ picture about ‘cat men’ and demonstrating to the director how they can make an exciting film for next to nothing. The producer (played by Kirk Douglas at his hardest and most dynamic) uses all the ideas found in Cat People.

Cat People has been preserved by the Library of Congress and it was remade in 1982 by Paul Schrader with Nastassja Kinski as Irena. The story was changed significantly. Schrader said he didn’t think much of the 1942 version. His version wasn’t successful.

What happened to ‘B’ pictures?

‘B’ pictures were dropped by the majors in the early 1950s for several reasons. Firstly, when they were forced to give up their cinema chains by anti-trust actions (the ‘Paramount Decree’, 1948) they decided to focus on fewer but more expensive films. This was also a response to loss of audiences to TV and other attractions. The studio system was beginning to collapse and increasingly the majors were funding independent producers to make pictures. Finally, the smaller studios themselves were making more and more expensive films themselves.

Many of the studio ‘B’ units became the basis of new TV production companies (some owned by the majors). ‘Desilu’, the TV company founded by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, eventually bought the sound stages of RKO Pictures in Culver City in 1957.

Lewton was perhaps ahead of the game since it looks as if many of his films were released at the ‘top of the bill’ – i.e. as ‘A’ films. A ‘B’ picture might be sold at a fixed price whereas an ‘A’ picture made more money when more people came to see it.

Background Reading

This web essay about Nicholas Musuraca is a very useful resource:

https://ascmag.com/blog/johns-bailiwick/nicholas-musuraca-cat-people-and-rko-film-noir

An essay on Cat People from The Criterion Collection

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4228-cat-people-darkness-betrayed

Fujiwara, Chris (1998) Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, Macfarland and Co. Jefferson NC and London

Roy Stafford   30/4/20