American International Pictures (AIP)
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre
Also Starring: Rhubarb
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Cat Out of the Bag Alert! This review contains some spoilers for this film!
Synopsis: A dark comedy in which a funeral parlor director named Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) strives to drum up business, even when there isn’t any.
Cinema Cat: This film is a major starring role for cat actor Rhubarb (aka Orangey) who holds his own against a bevy of classic film and theatre actors. In this film, Rhubarb plays a female cat named Cleopatra who lives at the funeral parlor. Cleopatra is first seen entering the basement where Trumbull’s lackey Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) is working.
Gillie pulls a rope taut, causing Cleopatra to hiss and then run upstairs. Gillie was actually just preparing to measure some wood for a coffin.
Upstairs, Cleopatra sits at the breakfast table with Trumbull, his beautiful but tone-deaf wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson) and her ancient father Amos (Boris Karloff).
Cleopatra hangs around until Amaryllis starts to sing, at which point she takes off running.
Cleopatra likes to sleep with Amos, but on one occassion goes out with Trumbull and Gillie on the hearse. At the end of their ride Trumbull gets off and basically knocks poor Cleopatra right off the seat!
Trumbull has come up with a plan to kill his landlord Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone), thereby eliminating the debt the man holds over him and making some money on the funeral to boot. Cleopatra comes along as they approach the man’s mansion.
Cleopatra watches as Gillie climbs a precarious rooftop to reach a second story window. She also watches as Gillie comes sliding down later (achieved with some very clever reverse footage).
When they return to the funeral parlor, Cleopatra is sitting on top of the hearse.
Amaryllis sings at Black’s funeral, which causes Cleopatra to cringe (also using reverse motion footage).
Later Cleopatra watches as Gillie and Amaryllis (who have feelings for each other) dance and celebrate while Amos plays the violin. Amos eventually wears himself out and falls asleep on the floor.
The cat actor in these scenes is such a pro that they don’t move an inch, even when Amaryllis and Gillie both step over them.
From this point, Cleopatra is seen only occasionally until the end when a strange series of circumstances leaves Black lying on the living room floor. As the cat sniffs at him, Black sneezes.
The end credits are especially nice, since Cleopatra is given the last credit and is seen licking her paw.
Cleopatra, or rather Rhubarb, then steps through the wreath and walks around the funeral parlor set as the credits role. There are also some nice shots from beneath the coffin (which has a glass bottom) when Rhubarb climbs inside.
At the very end the coffin lid starts to fall and the cat leaps out in the nick of time.
What’s especially notable about this film is the star billing Rhubarb received for his role. He was not only listed in the opening and closing credits but in newspaper listings which included the film’s cast. The casting of Rhubarb was even reported in newspapers. The New York Daily News reported on August 25, 1963, “The role of Cleopatra in American International’s ‘The Comedy of Terrors’ has been bestowed upon Rhubarb, veteran feline character actor.” Someone at the Daily News must not have gotten the memo because the same news was also reported in the gossip column on November 3, 1963, pointing out that Rhubarb is a he instead of a she.
Part of the reason Rhubarb’s casting in this film made news was because the prolific cat actor was returning to film work as a veteran (much the same as many of the human actors in the movie). As The Los Angeles Times reported on January 20, 1964, “Hollywood’s award-winning feline star, Rhubarb, returns to films in ‘The Comedy of Terrors.’ Rhubarb, at the advanced cat age of 18 (which is equivalent to 126 human years), co-stars with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Joyce Jameson, Joe E. Brown and Basil Rathbone in the terror comedy which opens next Wednesday in a citywide run.”
The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, gave Rhubarb a special mention in their review of the film on February 9, 1964, stating at the end, “and an added eerie performance is given by Rhubarb the cat.”
Rhubarb’s trainer, Frank Inn, proudly discussed Rhubarb’s return to film in an article published in The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) on March 10, 1964, when Rhubarb, then 19 years old, was still landing roles. Inn explained that Rhubarb was making $1,000 a week and was much in demand even after already making 500 movie and television appearances.
This “return” to film seems a bit confusing when you take into consideration all of the acting roles that seemed to be done by Rhubarb, who also went by the names of Orangey, Rusty and Minerva (all of whom were credited as being trained by Inn.) Did Rhubarb really retire and then return to acting after an absence?
What is rarely discussed (although we have touched upon it many times on this site) is the fact that cat actors are usually played by teams of cats. As Inn explained in the same article for The Evening Sun, “No single cat could master all the tricks the writers think up.” Indeed, Rhubarb, Orangey, et al. was actually a team of cats. Orangey was the stand-out star of Rhubarb (and adopted the name Rhubarb on some credits after that time) and it’s possible other members of the team took a more prominent role in later Orangey / Rhubarb appearances, explaining the “return” of Rhubarb. Another possibility is that Inn simply decided to revisit the name Rhubarb to give more publicity to the team’s projects.
There is a wonderful publicity still for The Comedy of Terrors which seems to bear out this theory. It shows a group of nine tabby cats sitting in a coffin. We believe this is one of the only photos of the entire Rhubarb team, and specific cats are recognizable from their roles in films and TV shows over the years credited to Orangey.
Final Mewsings: Cat actors are team players!