For all its artistic merits, Citizen Kane wasn't a box office success for RKO Pictures. The studio had taken a huge gamble on Orson Welles, a first-time producer and director, by giving him a degree of creative control that a more experienced auteur might’ve killed for. Unfortunately, from a business standpoint, RKO’s gambit failed to pay off, and when Citizen Kane was released in 1941, the daring, innovative movie flopped.
The following year, the studio shifted gears to put a greater focus on low-budget horror movies, beginning with Cat People, a suspenseful masterpiece that made millions for the studio and subversively revolutionized the genre. Here are 11 facts about this hair-raising classic.
1. Cat People began as a title without a premise.
Thanks to Citizen Kane and other expensive bombs, RKO was teetering on the brink of financial ruin in the early 1940s. To help turn things around, the studio decided to emulate Universal Studios, which had found sustained success with lucrative monster films such as Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and their sequels. In 1942, RKO turned to Val Lewton, who had been hired by film producer David O. Selznick as an editorial assistant in 1933, to run the new production unit.
At the time, RKO was headed by Charles Koerner, and, according to Cat People screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, the executive believed “that vampires, were-wolves, and man-made monsters had been over-exploited.” On the other hand, Koerner also felt that “nobody has done much with cats.” So, he asked Lewton to shoot a movie called Cat People.
But while Koerner had supplied the title, the bigwig didn’t come up with a premise to go with it. That was Lewton’s job.
After some thought, Lewton conceived an original story about a cursed woman named Irena who transforms into a murderous panther whenever she feels a twinge of lust. It was a twisted tale that fit the bill perfectly. Bodeen was brought on board to write the final script that he developed alongside Lewton, editor Mark Robson, and the movie's director, Jacques Tourneur.
2. Ironically, Val Lewton was afraid of cats.
According to his wife, Ruth Lewton, “Val hated cats! Oh gosh, I remember once, I was in bed and he was writing—he used to like to write late in the night. There was a catfight outside, and the next thing I knew, he was up at the foot of my bed, nervous and frightened. He was very unhappy about cats. I think it stemmed from an old folk tale he remembered in Russia—that cats were peculiar creatures that you couldn’t trust.” This wasn’t her husband’s only phobia: He also had some very strong misgivings about being touched and even a simple handshake could make him extremely uncomfortable. Many film historians believe that these twin fears inspired Cat People’s plot, at least to a certain extent.
3. Numerous set pieces in Cat People were recycled from other films.
Hampered by a shoestring budget of just over $141,000, Lewton made sure to cut corners when he could. The stone wall from Cat People’s famous bus scene had previously appeared in 1939's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the vast staircase in Irena’s home was originally built for 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’s second movie. And the entire Central Park set was a remnant of a Fred Astaire dance flick.
4. Cat People was one of the first horror movies to use the "jump scare."
The bus sequence is easily the most iconic moment in Cat People, and for good reason. The scene finds Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) being pursued down an empty New York street by a jealous Irena Dubrovna Reed (Simone Simon). In the piercing darkness, Alice can’t see exactly who or what is following her, but she hears the clicks and clacks of oncoming footsteps. And then the noise stops. Terrified, Alice quickens her pace. Pausing at a light post to gather her senses, she looks back with widened eyes. Suddenly, the silence is broken by the hiss of a city bus that plows into view, scaring the audience half to death.
Lewton’s subsequent films were loaded with equally jarring false alarms. In his honor, some horror historians have taken to calling this technique the “Lewton bus.” Today, it’s more commonly known as a “jump scare,” of which the stalking scene in Cat People is among the earliest known examples.
5. Cat People director Jacques Tourneur was nearly fired.
Although Lewton produced Cat People and it was universally seen as his baby, he didn’t direct it. To sit in the director’s chair, Lewton recruited his good friend Jacques Tourneur, who had become a legendary figure in the annals of both horror and film noir cinema. However, four days after Cat People started shooting, Tourneur was almost fired when production chief Lew Ostrow watched some raw footage from the movie. Thoroughly unimpressed, he resolved to hire a replacement director. Koerner didn’t share these misgivings and overruled Ostrow, thus saving Tourneur’s bacon.
6. Several details about Irena's backstory were omitted from Cat People.
As film historian Greg Mank notes on the DVD commentary, early drafts of the script called for the womanizing psychologist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) to learn that Irena’s father had died when she was very young and that when her mother passed away, the dying woman transformed into a panther. Furthermore, Lewton and scriptwriter DeWitt Bodeen thought about opening their film in the Balkan village of Irena’s birth. During an unrealized prologue scene, a Nazi Panzer division was going to be shown invading her community. At first, the Germans would meet no resistance, but come nightfall, they’d be massacred when the villagers morphed into giant felines. Eventually, Bodeen and Lewton scrapped that idea, opting to set the whole of Cat People in New York City.
7. Elizabeth Russell's only line in Cat People was dubbed over by Simone Simon.
For the café wedding reception scene, Tourneur and Lewton wanted to hire an actress with a vaguely feline appearance. This eventually led them to B-movie veteran Elizabeth Russell, who found out about the job opening while she was on a double date. One of the participating men on the date was Peter Viertel, a prominent screenwriter, who told Russell, “You know, I have a friend at RKO who needs a woman for his new movie who looks like a cat. Why don’t you go see him?”
Needless to say, Russell was taken aback. “You mean you think I look like a cat?” she replied. Regardless, that awkward exchange ended up boosting her career in a big way. Viertel’s friend turned out to be Val Lewton himself, who took a liking to Russell and gladly handed her the part. She’d go on to make appearances in many of his other films, including Cat People’s 1944 sequel, The Curse of the Cat People.
The original movie gives Russell a single line of dialogue. Looking Irena directly in the eye, her mysterious character asks “Moya sestra? Moya sestra?” Translated from Serbian, this means “My sister? My sister?” Yet, the voice that we hear isn’t Russell’s—Simon was asked to dub the line.
8. That mysterious shadow in Cat People's pool scene was cast by Jacques Tourneur’s fist.
Alice Moore has a second brush with death when Irena—now in cat form—nearly traps her in a hotel swimming pool. Panic sets in once she notices a shapeless shadow descending the locker room staircase. Tourneur claimed that this was produced by his clenched fist, which he diffused via spotlight.
9. Alan Napier, who played Alfred in the Adam West Batman series, had a minor role in Cat People.
Long before he was cast as the Caped Crusader’s butler, Napier took on a bit part in Cat People as a good-humored co-worker of both Alice and Oliver (Irena’s husband). Napier soon befriended Lewton, and when the producer died young in 1951, Napier gave his eulogy at the funeral.
10. The preview screening of Cat People was preceded by a Disney cartoon.
Cat People was the first motion picture that Val Lewton had ever been put in charge of. So just as you’d expect, he was a little nervous at the first public preview screening. Held inside RKO’s Hillstreet Theatre in Los Angeles on October 6, 1942, the event started off on the wrong foot. Somebody at the studio had decided to amuse the crowd with a tabby-themed Disney cartoon right before the main feature. Lewton was mortified.
“Val’s spirits sank lower and lower as the audience began to catcall and make loud mewing sounds,” Bodeen later recalled. Things didn’t get any better when the words Cat People popped onto the screen. “The picture’s title was greeted with whoops of derision and louder meows,” said the screenwriter. But the laughter wouldn’t last long. According to Bodeen, “when the credits were over and the film began to unreel, the audience quieted and, as the story progressed, reacted as we hoped an audience might. There were gasps and some screaming as the shock sequences grew. The audience accepted and believed our story, and was enchanted.”
Word of the evocative horror picture spread like wildfire, turning Cat People into a hit. Whereas Citizen Kane had earned a paltry $1.5 million at the box office, Cat People raked in $4 million—enough to make it the highest-grossing RKO film of the year. Few people were more delighted by the movie’s success than Lewton’s old mentor David O. Selznick, who wrote in a congratulatory letter, “I know no man in recent years who has made so much out of so little as a first picture.”
11. Cat People inspired some surprising fan mail.
Numerous viewers thought the exchange between Irena and Russell’s exotic cat lady was laced with sexual tension. According to Bodeen, “Some audience members read a lesbian meaning into the action. I was aware that could happen with the café scene, and Val got several letters after Cat People was released, praising him for introducing [lesbianism] to films in Hollywood.”
While Lewton was surprised by this reading of the film, Bodeen privately embraced it: “I rather liked the insinuation and thought it added a neat bit of interpretation to the scene. Irena’s fears about destroying a lover if she kissed him could be because she was really a lesbian who loathed being kissed by a man.”