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When it comes to four-legged thespians, canines have generally achieved a greater level of fame than their feline rivals. We fondly remember Lassie, Benji and Toto, but cats seem to face a steeper path to Hollywood stardom. Blame it on the lack of good roles.
One role, however—the title character in Edgar Allen Poe’s 1843 short story The Black Cat—offered theatrically inclined kitties a chance to break through. In the story, the cat’s owner plasters him into a wall, along with his murdered wife. Eventually, the animal’s mewing from beyond the grave leads investigators to the woman’s body. The film adaptation, which would appear in the 1962 horror compilation Tales of Terror, adjusted the storyline by weaving in elements of another Poe tale.
Exactly 152 cats showed up for the audition, all of them “considerably less nervous than their owners.” Several were disqualified thanks to white paws or noses, but even for those left in the running, the day left dreams largely dashed. The lead role, it turned out, had already been filled by “a well-known professional cat.” Seven lucky extras, selected on account of having the meanest looking faces, were chosen as understudies.
Their owners, whose ambitions for their pets might just have exceeded those of the pets themselves, couldn’t help but let superstition get the best of them. Although they acted naturally around their own cats, “many took pains not to let any strange black cats cross their paths.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.