Wednesday, September 20, 2023

TV-Movie Time Tunnel: Time to "Cat" Around!

One thing we dearly love here in The Underworld is the 1970s TV-movie. There have been many posts regarding these. We love the abbreviated format (often they were 90-minutes with commercials!), the subject matter and, most of all, the parade of names who popped up in them. Today's featured flick was a rather fun one from 1973 called The Cat Creature. This movie is currently available in a pristine print on Tubi, but the screencaps in this post are from for reasons I won't harp on. It was written by notable scribe Robert Bloch (of the novel Psycho) and directed by Curtis Harrington.

The Cat Creature opens at a mountaintop estate where a collector of ancient artifacts has recently died and left his treasures in need of appraisal.

On hand to do so is Kent Smith. He's already assessed items in the main house, but now heads to the basement where a large assortment of Egyptian relics are being housed.

Opening up a sarcophagus, he spies the mummified remains of a long-dead person. Said mummy is sporting a golden amulet with a cat on it, a cat with emerald eyes.

After Kent exits the room to retrieve his tape recorder, Keye Luke emerges to pry the coffin back open and steal the amulet!

Kent's return is fraught with danger as now there is a cat in the room which wasn't there before. It's a cat who apparently wants him dead!

Luke heads to a small sorcery/witchcraft shop and attempts to sell his newfound treasure to the owner. The owner is played by Gale Sondergaard.

Sondergaard is impressed enough with the piece, but has no intention of buying it from him. She seems disturbed at the idea of having it around.

Paws out, claws out!

In the back room, we find Sondergaard's assistant clerk Renne Jarrett.

Sondergaard wants Jarrett to join her for a bite to eat, but the young girl isn't interested. Instead, she accepts the gift of a leather briefcase and heads home. In the director's original concept, Sondergaard was a lesbian, but executives at ABC were aghast at this notion.

Jarrett befriends a stray cat on the way back to her apartment and puts out some milk for it.

But you know what they say... No good deed goes unpunished! Pretty soon, the kitty is giving Jarrett the stink eye.

Then, in an amusing sequence, the cat's eyes begin shining and its mouth begins to part as cougar-like sounds reverberate!

With Jarrett out of the picture, there's a need for another shop-girl at Sondergaard's store...

Amongst all the bric-a-brac at the shop is this bit of Satanic statuary and it seems SO familiar, but I could not place it... I feel like it appeared in an earlier TV-movie or series at some point.

Anyway, Sondergaard is happy to have new help, even if it comes in the form of this inexperienced young lady. Are you ready to find out who it is...?

Would it surprise you to know that the redhead turns out to be the ordinarily blonde Meredith Baxter?! Director Harrington put her in a red wig and green contact lenses in order to make her seem more exotic. The biggest shock of all, though, was finding out that this part had been intended for Diahann Carroll (!), but by the time the project was ready, she no longer had a commitment to ABC.

Next we meet police detective Stuart Whitman and a university professor David Hedison, who are at the site of Smith's murder.

Whitman calls upon Hedison to assist him in looking over the crime scene and offering advice regarding the relics inside, some of which have been stolen.

Hedison points out marks on the front of the sarcophagus which may have been made by a cat.

He also makes note of a drawing on the casket of Bast, a goddess who was capable of becoming a cat. Directly after this, Whitman is given word that Smith was killed by a combination of teeth and claws and that cat hairs were on the body!

Back at the Sorcerer's Shop, a call comes in for Sondergaard. It's someone wondering what has become of Jarrett. The store owner has to leave a pair of clients in order to take the call...

...and these are the clients! Harrington was going to get that lesbian angle in there one way or another.

Just then, Whitman and Hedison stop in to check and see if the amulet thief had attempted to sell his loot to Sondergaard.

Remarkably enough, she is forthcoming about it and tells Whitman all about Luke and his desire to sell her the amulet.

As Baxter is leaving for the night (having just been propositioned by Sondergaard for dinner sometime soon!), she's accosted by Hedison, who has plans of his own.

He takes her out to dinner himself and the two discuss Egyptian religion, chiefly that of Bast. (How this part wasn't essayed by Baxter's real life soon-to-be husband David Birneyis a bigger mystery than anything else in the movie!)

Whitman has been busily trying to track down thief Luke and after Sondergaard positively identifies him, he heads to a seedy motel where he's believed to be living. The place is run by John Carradine. (Allegedly, director Harrington included this midget little-person prostitute in the scene as a nose-thumb to the execs who wouldn't let him have a lesbian in the movie!)

Poor Carradine is the one who has to pay the price, though, since his scant screen time involves having to dodge her fifth of booze in order to be seen!

In any event, Whitman isn't permitted the opportunity to catch or interrogate Luke.

Hedison stops by the black magic store looking for Birney, but she's off that day. Instead, he runs into Sondergaard who's busying herself with a stack of tarot cards.

She's sporting a fantabulous necklace in this scene. It's not quite up to Joan Crawford's in I Saw What You Did (1965), but it's fun all the same, especially with the piled-up wiglet on her head.

Before Hedison knows it, he's having his own tarot cards read. Sondergaard enjoys a bit of cat and mouse with him.

In case you haven't gathered it by now, the project is completely stolen by Sondergaard, who uses her unique persona and weather-beaten face to keep all eyes on her whenever she's on screen.

Hedison finally tracks Baxter down at her elaborate home, though it turns out she's only house-sitting for a couple who is vacationing in Europe.

The two find themselves (predictably) falling for one another.

On the phone is Whitman, who tells Hedison he's located the pawn ticket that Luke used to sell off the gold amulet. He wants Hedison to go with him to identify the piece, but first wants to stop at the morgue.

Okay, first things first... Were they serious when they had the coroner made up this way?! Character actor Milton Parsons looks like Uncle Fester! Maybe this was intended for Jackie Coogan and he declined. Anyway, the man tells them that Kent and Luke were killed by the same cat. And... both men were drained of all their blood! (And he looks about like that himself!)

They arrive at the pawn shop to locate the amulet, but get nowhere fast. The clerk is every bit as creepy as the coroner and can offer them no help at all.

Now Whitman heads to Sondergaard's, suspecting that she knows something about why the amulet was no longer at the pawn shop, but she's not there. Baxter is alone at the store. Whitman declares that she will likely come to the store for money and asks Baxter to keep it open late, with a guard stationed in the parking lot.

The guard winds up not being very effective since he is approached by the cat with the shining eyes!

(This pic is a late addition. A commenter pointed out, so to speak, the "side basket" of the guard and I wanted everyone to know what was being referred to...)

Having already expressed a fear of cats, she has a horrified reaction to its presence.

Hedison approaches an esteemed colleague to help figure out just what in the hell is going on. The professor, played by longtime character actor John Abbott, offers up a theory as to why the mummy was wearing the amulet.

Meanwhile, Baxter is back at her home being positively besieged by a pack of alley cats. If she is some sort of reincarnated cat goddess, then why would she be afraid of cats? And why should they wish her any harm?

Meanwhile, Whitman is also beginning to close in on a solution to the mystery at hand. (Speaking of hands... Um...) As usual, I will not spoil any further plot points in case you'd like to play around in this litter-box of a movie! As I say, it can be seen on Tubi or right here.

Baxter, the daughter of Hazel actress Whitney Blake, had begun as a guest star on popular shows such as The Doris Day Show and The Partridge Family in 1971, soon winning parts in movies, including Ben (1972.) Next came the hit sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie (about a marriage between a Catholic and a Jew) in which she met her husband David Birney. The Top 5 show was nevertheless canceled after one season due to religious protests/complaints. Many TV projects followed until she landed a regular role on Family and later the very popular Family Ties. Still later she emerged as the title character in A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story, which showed her in a whole new light and warranted a sequel. Following three marriages to men, she discovered that she actually preferred pus (okay, I wont!) and married a woman in 2013. She is currently 76 and most recently acted in 2020.

Hedison got his start on the stage before being picked up by 20th Century Fox, working in The Enemy Below (1957) and costarring in The Fly (1958.) Amid the occasional film, he worked on TV, eventually costarring in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. After its cancellation, he declined to play Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch. He later played the role of Felix Leiter in two James Bond films. A busy guest actor on many television series, he worked for a time on The Colbys and then did daytime TV with Another World and The Young and the Restless. In the early-2000s, he made a return to the stage in several productions. He passed away in 2019 at age 92 of undisclosed causes. Trivia tidbit: His daughter Alexandra is the wife of one Jodie Foster.

Sondergaard, born in America to Danish parents, was a busy stage actress who made her film debut in Anthony Adverse (1936.) The result was her winning of the very first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Often seen in exotic parts, she was seen in The Blue Bird (1940) as a slinky, humanized cat, The Letter (1940) as a sinister Eurasian and in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) as Lady Thiang. That last role warranted another Oscar nom, but she lost to Anne Baxter in The Razor's Edge. She famously passed on being The Wicked Witch of the West in 1939's The Wizard of Oz when the decision was made to make the character ugly instead of glamorous. When her husband was deemed a Communist during the McCarthy era, her on-screen career was nonexistent for two decades. As the 1970s were about to dawn, she began getting hired again, remaining busy until 1982 when a series of strokes began. She died in 1985 at age 86. Trivia tidbit: In the daytime serial The Best of Everything, based on the 1959 film, Sondergaard played imperious Amanda, the role Joan Crawford had earlier essayed.  

Shooting on The Cat Creature contained one major surprise for Ms. Sondergaard. When all was apparently finished, she was called back to the set the next day for some close-up retakes. Upon arrival, she was soon greeted by Former SAG president Charlton Heston who bestowed upon her a real and true Oscar statuette to replace the plaque that had been given to her in 1936. Beginning in 1944, Supporting winners had begun to get statuettes instead and the Academy was beginning to offer them to prior winners. Her delight at this was quite palpable.

One of the most tireless actors imaginable, Carradine first won on-screen credit in 1930, but claimed to have made as many as 70 movies before that without billing! A constant presence in both major and minor movies, including The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Ten Commandments (1956) among many others, he also became a fixture on television. He balanced work in movies and TV for many years and several of his sons, most notably David, became actors as well. Already suffering from crippling arthritis, he died in 1988 at age 82. He'd just completed a movie! Thus his career in the cinema spanned at least six decades.

Jarrett worked steadily as a child, including the serial Portia Faces Life, and appeared in many TV commercials. She'd also been given her own sitcom in 1971, Nancy, about the daughter of a US President trying to carry out a romance while the Secret Service is always around. (HYSTERICAL...) It lasted 17 episodes. Although emerging as a frequent guest star on popular shows such as The Mod Squad, Medical Center, The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones and Quincy, M.E., she never really established a foothold as an adult actress and quietly retired after a 1985 appearance on Hotel. She proceeded to raise a family and work on behalf of disadvantaged children. She's currently 77.

Chinese-American actor Luke was a talented artist who painted some of the interior murals of Grauman's Chinese Theatre and even did artwork for the King Kong (1933) press book. Debuting in 1934's The Painted Veil with Greta Garbo, he became very popular as "Number One Son" in a series of Charlie Chan films. Always in demand, he was busy in films then added plenty of TV work to the mix in 1950. Just before this movie, he'd played the Kralahome opposite Yul Brynner in a little-remembered TV series Anna and the King. He was also a semi-regular on David Carradine's show Kung Fu. Though he continued to work on screen, including a guest role on The Golden Girls, he began a highly prolific career in cartoon voice-over work as well. His last film was Alice (1990) with Mia Farrow before passing away of a stroke in 1991 at age 86.

Smith studied and acted at Harvard University before working regularly on Broadway. In the mid-1930s, he moved to Hollywood to give the movies a try. It took a while for him to score, but he did in 1942 with Cat People. (It is no doubt his earlier role in that film as well as its sequel The Curse of the Cat People, 1944, that led to him being utilized here.) Smith was busy with roles in many 1940s and '50s films such as The Fountainhead (1949), The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and Sayonara (1957) in addition to much work on television. In the mid-'60s, he had a prominent role as a persnickety doctor on Peyton Place. Working up until 1978, he died of heart failure in 1985 at age 78.

Smith as he appeared in Cat People.

You can learn all about Mr. Whitman in one of the two posts he's been granted here. There was the initial tribute and then another upon his passing. He was quite humpy in his day! Whitman passed away in 2020 of skin cancer at age 92.

Abbott was a Shakespearean English actor who eventually made his way into British movies and onto the Broadway stage. (It was he who was to star in Broadway's "Harvey," but he departed after a dispute over whether the title character should be seen by audiences. After he left, the author did it, famously, Abbott's way!) Having come to the U.S. in 1941, he received a film offer and remained here thereafter in high demand. My own favorite bit of his was in The Woman in White (1948) in which he played a hilarious hypochondriac to great effect. Like Sondergaard, his livelihood was threatened by the blacklist, but unlike her a producer who thought highly of him was able to get his name removed. (His name had once been used as an alias. He wasn't part of any political movement.) On TV in the 1960s, he appeared on many shows like Perry Mason, The Munsters, Lost in Space and Star Trek. He continued to work, albeit with less frequency, until 1983 but became a reliable instructor to up and comers, reportedly free of charge. He died of natural causes in 1996 at age 90.

One last person to note. The pawn shop clerk was played by self-named Peter Lorre Jr. The German-born man was not related to the famed actor Peter Lorre in any way! Born Eugene Weingand, he used the stage name of Peter Lorie Jr in an attempt to profit from his vague resemblance to the more famous actor. In 1963, he tried to change it legally to Peter Lorre Jr, but was prevented by American International Pictures and a judge. But when the real Lorre died in 1964, Weingard proceeded with his guise anyway. He made less than ten on-screen appearances as such and only one after this. He died in 1986 at age 52.

The director of The Cat Creature, Curtis Harrington, was a film critic and writer turned director. He had a lifelong interest in horror movies, strenuously endeavoring to save the original print of The Old Dark House (1932.) After some cheapies for Roger Corman, he helmed both Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) and What's the Matter with Helen? (1971), both with Shelley Winters (seen with him in the photo here.) He later directed other TV-movies and a variety of episodic television from Baretta to Charlie's Angels to Dynasty and The Colbys. Harrington died in 2007 at age 80 of complications from a stroke.


Dov said...

Gale Sondergaard looks like Beatrice Lilly from Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Dan said...

Looks like deliciously cheesy fun. And what an interesting melange of actors! That building looks familiar, I’m sure I’ve seen it in other things. Chateau Marmont, perhaps? No doubt some of your fans can ID it. Not just John Abbott, but Keye Luke, David Hedison, and Kent Smith also appeared on Perry Mason. In fact, one of our little past times watching old movies is calling out “He’s been on Perry Mason!”

A said...

I had a big crush on Hedison in the 70s.

This sound wonderfully dreadful. I'm going to save it for Halloween. Always love Gale Sondergaard.

Thanks again, Poseidon!


joel65913 said...

I saw this when it originally broadcast during the so-called glory days of the Movie of the Week.

I say so-called because though there were truly diamonds produced during the time-Brian's Song, Something for Joey, The Missiles of October, Duel, Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate, etc.-there was an abundance of middling junk like this hooty pile.

That's not to say I didn't get a kick out of its absurd premise and at times overwrought performances. I wasn't as fully immersed in old film then as I am now so I wasn't overly familiar with Gale Sondergaard so this may have been the first place I saw her. Quite a disconcerting first impression with her masses of hair and heavy makeup. Not that she didn't have a striking appearance in many of her earlier films. Be that as it may she was usually quite memorable, her somewhat chilly demeanor ideal for evil or warped women like the ones she portrayed in "The Letter" or Deanna Durbin's madly twisted oddity "Christmas Holiday".

Now that you mention the fact it is strange that the producers didn't cast David Birney opposite Meredith especially since David Hedison shares many of his qualities and even the same first name!

It is a nice touch that they cast Kent Smith since his first blush of fame came in Cat People. I'm always happy to see him turn up in a film, he's a solid dependable performer but he's from that strange period that included such as Wendell Corey, John Lund, David Brian and that lot who were sort of place fillers for their powerful female costars-Crawford, Davis, Stanwyck, Ruth Roman, Olivia de Havilland and so on-to plow over on their way to center stage. Even when he did get a chance to be the leading man in "Nora Prentiss" he faded into the woodwork whenever Ann Sheridan appeared, hell Rosemary DeCamp upstaged him and her role was small!

Speaking of somewhat interchangeable performers Renne Jarret belonged to the 60's/70's spate of young actresses-Laurette Spang, Ronne Troup, Lane Bradbury, Sian Barbara Allen and such-who had a brief flare of prominence and then faded from the scene nearly unnoticed since they were more of less pallid personalities.

As always I delighted in this trip down memory lane Poseidon! Thanks!!

Bee's Knees said...

"Mummy, mummy my braids are too tight!" Talk about "follicular bric-a-brac!

Also, the "guard" at the 42:43 point has quite the side basket. He was definitely going "commando" in those jeans.

P, I just rediscovered your blog after a losing track of you for a few years. (I was doing a search on Dennis Cole and your blog was listed as a result). Love your analysis especially of shows/movies from the 70's/80's - a time of Sat. matinees with neighborhood friends and nights in front of the tv. We always talk about the MOTW the next day in school during recess and at lunch. The Night Stalker started it off. Sybil also was popular.

Poseidon3 said...

Dov, that's a very apt observation! As Bea was a mysterious/criminal type in "Millie," it's possible she was a visual touchstone. (And let's face it... we KNOW Curtis Harrington saw "Millie" when it came out several years beforehand!)

Dan, I have seen this building, too, in many other TV-movies and shows. I couldn't immediately recall one, but it has a loooonng driveway up to it. and it high on a hill. It was very remarkable looking. Thanks for the "Perry Mason" factoids.

A, I almost saved this for Halloween myself, but more than anything I just needed to get my ass in gear and post something! LOL So I went ahead. Thanks!

joel65913, I enjoy both types of vintage TV-movie. The truly good ones and the tripe. LOL I only request that there be a fun combination of actors tossed together. I've touched on a lot of them over the years. Barbara Stanwyck did some great ones. 'Course she was always terrific in practically anything. I know I've mentioned it before on this site somewhere, but probably my own biggest shock with Sondergaard is when she turned up in one of Richard Harris' "A Man Called Horse" movies. I was seriously like "WHAT? This is the gal that only wanted to play a glamorous witch?!?" I agree that Kent Smith was generally dull. But he was memorably irritating on "Peyton Place." His real-life wife played his wife on the show! (She was also in "Strait-Jacket" with Crawford.) And even though I won't say she was necessarily "bad" or anything, but I'd toss Laurie Prange into that melange of names you mentioned. EVERYWHERE... for a while. Thank you!

Bee's Knees, welcome back! Glad you rediscovered the Underworld. If you've been gone for years then you have some catching up to do! ;-) I am snickering at the term "side basket" and of course I caught it, too. It shows up best in the Tubi version (but I show it more around the 49-50 min mark?) Anyway, I put a new photo in the post for those who might wanna see. You know... I had long ago declared that there would not be a Dennis Cole tribute, but in 2021 I relented and did one! I imagine that's what you saw. In case not:

hsc said...

While Gale Sondergaard definitely resembles Bea Lillie in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, I wonder if she might also be channeling fellow "dragon lady" Ona Munson as "Mother Gin Sling" in THE SHANGHAI GESTURE-- since Harrington cites Josef von Sternberg as his "number one" influence?

I've read a couple of interviews with Curtis Harrington where he addressed the making of this TV-movie, one of them online (in three parts, with this movie mostly discussed in part II) here:

In it, Harrington said that the Sondergaard Character was originally written as a man, and after he got involved in the project, he just shifted it to a woman and offered to her.

I guess the "lesbian" overtones would've originally been written as typical "older male villain lusting after beleaguered female lead" moments-- like the psychologist in CAT PEOPLE or the various high priests in Universal's MUMMY movies.

And while THE CAT CREATURE was "very definitely a tribute to Val Lewton" (Kent Smith, the name "Rena"/Irena), Harrington insists that it was never originally intended by original story writer Robert Bloch as a remake or spinoff of CAT PEOPLE, but its own separate story about reincarnation.

He also discusses the casting of Meredith Baxter, who he was sort of stuck with after refusing the studio executives' first choice of-- *Patty Duke!*

Duke had just done a successful TV-movie, and the execs were eager to use her again, but Harrington said she was too old and too unglamorous to pass as "a very sexy beautiful girl" as written and put his foot down. He said Baxter was at least closer to the right age, but really not the right type, either-- and her performance was just "alright."

When the interviewer asked about the rumored intention as a project for Diahann Carroll, Harrington said, "I wasn't even aware of Diahann Carroll at that point. I did work with her later on Dynasty."

Harrington also says that he has "no idea" who the "little person" performer was, either-- he only knows they found "someone who was appearing in some little club someplace doing a lipsynch routine." (You don't suppose it could've been a *drag queen*?)

Anyway, read the rest of this lengthy interview with Curtis Harrington-- lots of info on other projects, and a bit of celeb "dish" here and there!

This is a great overview of a fun TV-movie, Poseidon! Thanks for posting it and for all you do! I hope everything starts lining up better for you-- stay strong!!

Love to all, and be safe and well, everyone!

Bee's Knees said...

P, I know you're very busy so no need to response.

Just wanted to make a follow up comment about the guard "Donovan" (aka Detective Side Basket"). Did an IMDb inquiry and found out he was played by the late Virgil Frye. His daughter is Soliel Moon Frye. By the way, nice screen grabs off Tubi. Re-watched this clip and he's definitely going commando - saw some movement in there when he readjusted himself against the pole. (Got the vapers for a few seconds but I'm fine now!)

Anyway, look forward to new articles Now back to more catching up on your posts.

Huttonmy710 said...

Surprised no mention (but maybe you weren't aware) that Charlton Heston presented Gale on the set of Cat Creature an Oscar statue to replace the mere plaque she had won way back in 1937 for Anthony Adverse (1936). This according to Gregory Mank's book Women in Horror Films, 1930s (1999).

Poseidon3 said...

Hey, Huttonmy710, I did know and forgot to mention it! Thanks for the reminder. This is destined to be the post that gets as many updates to it as the one for "Winter Kills!" :-P I will add that in, with a photo, this morning!

Gingerguy said...

This was catnip to me. I learn so much here, about classic film, and great trash. This is how I found Tubi, which I love. It's got such a cheesy vibe and reminds me of the old AMC. I will watch this for sure. Lol "paws out". Meredith is flawless in "Betty Broderick" and looks fun here, but my biggest laugh is the leopard print of the hooker's outfit. It's all about the details( and her hat). Not sure but the satanic statue might be from "Look what's happened to Rosemary Baby"?

Poseidon3 said...

Hello pussycat. I could also easily get lost in Tubi. There are so many lesser-known flicks that are fascinating to check out. And often the quality of the prints is terrific. I tried to check out "Look What's Happened..." but I didn't see the statue in it. (However, I mostly scanned. Didn't watch wall-to-wall.) Thanks, as always!

Unknown said...

Reminds me of Michael Sarrazin's Eye of the Cat.