Viewed through any lens, Universal's THE BLACK CAT (1934) is a remarkable film. Combining the talents of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and placing them as antagonists amidst the backdrop of a post-World War I Art Deco house of horrors is one of the most visually stunning achievements in not only the golden age of Hollywood horror in the 1930's, but in the entire history of the horror film.
Director Edgar G. Ulmer is largely responsible for both the story and the look of THE BLACK CAT. After getting green-lighted by Junior Laemmle several initial plot synopses were attempted, all of which were discarded. Ulmer took creative control and collaborated on a treatment that would eventually evolve into the shooting script with talented writer Peter Ruric (George Carol Sims, aka mystery noir writer Paul Cain).
Ulmer exerted his unique creativity is all areas of the film, including art direction and costume design. It is not known if he had a hand in Jack Pierce's sinister makeup of Boris Karloff's satanic character, Hjalmar Poelzig, but, considering the rest of the stylized design of the film, it is not outside the realm of possibility.
One thing we do know is that Ulmer designed Boris Karloff's costume. A sleek and sexy black number, Karloff's Poelzig slinks through the film, smooth and cat-like, exuding an air of decadent grace that is both singular and disturbing.
In November, 2009, Karloff's Hjalmar Poelzig 32Wx32L costume went on the auction block. When the gavel dropped, the price was an amazing $89,625.00.
Here are is the official description of the auction lot:
“Boris Karloff's Black Cat Costume. "The black cat is deathless -- deathless as Evil!" purred Boris Karloff in The Black Cat, the darkest and most sinister of all Universal horror classics. Released in 1934, director Edgar G. Ulmer's gruesome, art-deco masterpiece was the first of eight films to feature the two most iconic figures of the genre, Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The actors were pitted against each other as age-old nemeses who face off for an epic final battle with its roots in atrocities committed during the Great War.
Their respective performances rank among the finest of their careers -- Karloff at his most evil as a modern Lucifer (who sacrifices maidens at Black masses), a traitorous ex-soldier turned monstrous architect, responsible for the deaths of thousands; Lugosi at his most unhinged as a a mad psychiatrist (suffering from cat phobia), a haunted hero whose rage and hatred spirals into madness and vengeance. Due to the awesome alchemy sparked by the two stars, The Black Cat cast its wicked spell on moviegoers and became Universal's highest grossing film for that year.
The opening and closing credits and advertising material for the film billed the former as simply "KARLOFF". At the time, Karloff, who'd become an overnight sensation as the Monster in Frankenstein, was the bigger star -- a fact that irritated Lugosi, who had risen to fame first with his performance in Dracula -- hence Karloff's special form of top billing.
Edgar Ulmer personally designed the costumes and later claimed Karloff's primary attraction to The Black Cat was the "out-of-this-world" wardrobe he'd wear as the satanic high priest. This heavy black silk coat with a high collar and matching trousers were worn by Karloff in the movie. They are seen in the sensual, pre-Production Code boudoir scenes Karloff shares in bed with starlet Lucille Lund, and in the deliriously wild climax, as he fights with Lugosi before the latter hangs Karloff on a rack -- and skins him alive! Although stripped to the waist for the skinning, Karloff is wearing these trousers as he suffers on the rack-- a chillingly sadistic scene shot despite the protestations of the censors.
The coat and trousers are remarkably well preserved given their age, in overall Very Fine condition with some mild wear, an appreciable amount of wear to the collar of the coat, and a large area of soiling to the right pant leg. Both pieces have United Costumers costume tags sewn onto them, each with Karloff's name handwritten in black ink.
This is a wonderful relic from one of the most hallowed of horror classics, and from one of Boris Karloff's most brilliantly frightening performances.”