It is not often that one person I’ve written about has been played by another. In this case, extremely early Celebrating the Living honoree Kirk Douglas (within a month or so of the start of that column and still alive!) played Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful. Now, Shields has any number of obvious differences that mean he’s not entirely Val Lewton. On the other hand, one of the movies he’s making over the course of the film is clearly The Cat People, the first film Lewton produced. To the point that anyone who’s seen it would have to have known, when it came up.
Lewton quite obviously did not follow an unpopular father into show business; in fact, his mother left his father in 1909 and emigrated to the United States to live with her sister, actress Alla Nazimova. (Interestingly, Lewton is not mentioned on his aunt’s Wikipedia page.) He came to Hollywood on the success of his book No Bed of Her Own, which became the pre-Code No Man of Her Own. He worked as a publicist and as David O. Selznick’s assistant. He appears to have done some uncredited script doctoring on Gone With the Wind, including creating the iconic scene in which Scarlett sees row upon row of Confederate soldiersat the Atlanta train station.
In 1942, Lewton became the head of horror at RKO. Under the terms of his employment, his movies had to be short and cheap (under $150,000 and under 75 minutes), and his bosses would supply the title. The first title he was given was Cat People. Lewton, himself an ailurophobe, worked with director Jacques Tourneur to create a chilling film completely different from what the studio heads had frankly been hoping for. They wanted a Universal-style monster film, which is assuredly not what they got—but what they did got made the studio quite a lot of money and allowed Lewton to work with less interference.
Lewton only has fourteen producing credits to his name, but they included some of the most thrilling horror films of the ’40s. His next film, I Walked With a Zombie, has probably the most schlocky title of the lot, but that is not how it turned out at all. It is, in fact, a movie with twin roots in Haitian zombie mythos and Jane Eyre. I don’t like zombie movies much—I generally find them boring—but this one tops my list as my favourite zombie movie of all time. I legitimately loved it, when I saw it.
Lewton appears to have been a hands-on producer, working with his writers, directors, and so forth to create movies that bore his distinctive mark. For example, he fought against studio pressure to show more of the panther in Cat People, knowing that less of it was more. Universal was leaning into more is more, and that’s why their series tended to dissolve into farce. Try to picture Karloff’s murderous John Gray in The Body Snatcher meeting Abbott and Costello, and you’ll see what I mean.