There are countless cases of Hollywood producers meddling with directors’ artistic vision, as the crude demands of commercialism ruin ambitious creative endeavors. But it must be admitted that, sometimes, the push-and-pull between bottom-line moneymen and iconoclastic artists results in fascinatingly rich cinematic texts.
Case in point: The Curse of the Cat People, which was marketed by RKO Studios as a sequel to the 1942 chiller Cat People, though the filmmakers — among them producer Val Lewton, directors Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen — instead created a fantastic world ruled by childlike imagination, as well as a bewitching ode to the power of storytelling.
The 1942 Cat People, atmospherically directed by Jacques Tourneur, follows a Serbian illustrator living in New York who believes that she descends from a race of “cat people” who turn into voracious felines whenever sexually aroused. Based on a story by producer Val Lewton (it was, in fact, Lewton’s first project for RKO Studios), it’s a remarkably fervid and suggestive fantasy bathed in shadow and innuendo.
The “sequel,” released two years later, was meant to cash in on Cat People‘s success, though it has almost nothing to do with it. Lewton and his team were ordered by RKO execs to deliver a sequel with the locked-in title The Curse of the Cat People; but Lewton had creative control over the project and didn’t seem to mind that the movie he wanted to make differed vastly from its predecessor, and had almost no correlation to its title.
It turns out the movie Lewton wanted to make was heavily autobiographical, though its story is told from the perspective of a young girl. There are flimsy connections to Cat People: following the death of Irena (Simone Simon) in the first film, her would-be lover Oliver (Kent Smith) and his colleague Alice (Jane Randolph) have married and moved to Tarrytown, New York, where they have a daughter named Amy (Ann Carter). Six-year-old Amy is introverted and wildly imaginative, shunned by most of her classmates and given to flights of fancy. After spotting a picture of Irena among her father’s belongings, Amy begins to see Irena appearing to her, perhaps as a ghost, providing companionship and reassurance — not exactly what her father meant when he urged her to make new friends.
There is also an elderly former actress named Julia (Julia Dean) who lives in a dilapidated manor down the block, and who is convinced that the woman claiming to be her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), is in fact a spy and impostor. The two parallel storylines sort of intersect near the end, but much is left unexplained, especially after Amy envisions the image of Irena superimposed over Barbara’s feline facial features, begging the question if there are “cat people” here after all. Because RKO demanded reshoots and additions before the film was released, some other narratively crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor, suggesting that the movie wasn’t initially intended to be so ambiguous and vexing; one imagines, for example, that the mysterious subplot involving Julia and Barbara originally had more closure. (Brian Eggert provides a riveting account of the film’s turbulent production at Deep Focus.)
As usual, Lewton played a major role in the screenwriting process (though he didn’t receive writing credit), working with his screenwriter from Cat People, DeWitt Bodeen, and conceiving the visual style throughout the pre-production process. This was Lewton’s sixth film with RKO, and by this point he had accumulated some power among the studio ranks, granting him a modicum of creative control. Through the character of Amy, Lewton provides a veiled self-portrait: he himself was described as an introverted, ostracized, imaginative boy, who grew up around Tarrytown and was obsessed with stories like Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which appears repeatedly in The Curse of the Cat People. When he was young, Lewton even tried to mail birthday invitations through a knotty hole in his backyard tree, as Amy tries to do in the film. (Some biographers and critics have noted that there are also elements of Lewton in the aloof character of Oliver, and one might even see shades of his love for horror and fantasy in Julia’s animated retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”)
The personal intimacy of the story and the careful elaboration of Amy’s character help to explain why The Curse of the Cat People has been so esteemed by child psychologists; the film has been taught at UCLA and the Los Angeles Council of Social Agencies, and even incorporates a quote from The Inner World of Childhood by Frances Wickes, a landmark work in the field. It’s hard to think of other American films from the period that seriously consider the mindstate of children, with the most glaring proof of the opposite tendency being The Bad Seed (1956), which ostensibly probes brain of a child psychopath but does so through excess and melodrama. The Curse of the Cat People, on the other hand, identifies strongly with a six-year-old character who would rather concoct fanciful stories than go through the motions of socializing with her peers. In doing so, it celebrates the artists and outcasts who care little for outward appearances of normalcy.
It also lionizes the power of storytelling, the ability for fictional worlds to unite and transform us. That’s a potentially glib theme that’s been regurgitated in countless movies (Big Fish comes to mind), but The Curse of the Cat People conveys it so subtly and unexpectedly that it carries surprising emotional weight. The very first scene has a schoolteacher thrilling her students with the legend of the Headless Horseman; Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Unseen Playmate” is also quoted. The allure of make-believe is reiterated constantly, from the family butler, Edward (played by Calypso performer and Lewton regular Sir Lancelot), telling Amy that her newfound ring will grant her wishes, to a painting influenced by Goya’s “Don Manuel Osorio,” which tells a haunting story in only one image. Of course, fictional stories are also seen as potentially destructive, as with Julia’s seemingly delusive belief that her daughter Barbara died when she was six years old and was replaced with an impostor; the movie exudes a reverent fascination with the thrill of stories that adds to its fairy-tale splendor. Even the bizarre plot construction, compromised by studio demands and excised scenes, adds to the self-reflexive theme of how and why we tell stories, as the mechanics of cinematic narrative are laid bare by a convoluted production process.
The strained family dynamics between Amy and her father Oliver are paralleled by the tension (only hazily understood) between Julia and Barbara, as the film turns into a melancholy portrait of the bond between parents and children. (The ability for heated relationships to transform us echoes the themes in Cat People, though the relationships this time are familial instead of sexual.) Again, this is an intimate reflection of Val Lewton’s own life, specifically his turbulent relationship with his own daughter Nina, according to writer Gregory Mank. It also sympathizes with the female characters with surprising frankness, as the uptight Oliver is repeatedly rebuked by his wife Alice, Amy’s schoolteacher (Eve March), and even Amy herself, who ends up with all of the power in her relationship with her father, given the freedom to indulge her outsized fantasies. In the last shot, another motherly figure looks on: that of Irena, who is far from the feral wildcat portrayed in the previous film, though she has gained a different kind of power, the ability to nurture and protect a young woman’s creativity.
It’s hard to overstate how unique and surprising this movie is: shrugging off the expectations of RKO Studios and the obligation to create a commercial sequel, Lewton and company instead made an eerie, melancholy fairy tale about the beauty and loneliness of childhood. Much credit is due to young Ann Carter, who gives one of the best performances by a child (particularly in the 1940s) that I can remember; her combination of fear and excitement whenever she goes to visit Julia’s spooky mansion is enormously effective. Of course, she is aided by a singular, thoughtful screenplay; evocative art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller (who reused the sets from an earlier RKO masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, to save money); and Nicholas Musuraca’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, an interplay of light and shadow that makes the world seem wondrous through Amy’s eyes. (Several scenes suggest the presence of an otherworldly spirit in a wooded backyard simply through alteration in light and camera angle, influencing the form of horror movies for decades to come.) It must have baffled critics and audiences when it first came out, but so much the better; if only more mandated sequels had the courage to follow their own conviction.