The Cat’s Meow
January 26, 2010

If you enjoy the glamor of old movies, you should check out The Cat’s Meow.

It’s based on a famous mystery of 1920s Hollywood. One weekend, W.R. Hearst (Edward Herrmann) and his mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) hosted some friends on his yacht, including Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard, in his best performance yet), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), and notorious racy novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley). Chaplin was then the most famous man in the world, while Glyn was the one who made “it” a euphemism for sex appeal. She narrates the film, which sets up from the beginning for the viewer to notice how much of what we know depends on who’s presenting it to us.

Hearst, Davies, Chaplin, and Glyn

The intent was to celebrate the birthday of producer/director Thomas H. Ince (Cary Elwes), one of the first studio moguls. By the time the boat docked, Ince was dying, officially of heart trouble. This film instead postulates that Ince knew about hanky-panky between Chaplin and Davies and was shot as a result. Coincidentally, afterwards, Parsons moved from New York to Hollywood and got the lifetime contract with Hearst’s papers that made her a fearsome force for decades. Here, she’s played as a near-groupie, cluelessly obnoxious in her sucking-up to the rich and famous and always saying the wrong thing.

The Cats Meow cover
The Cat’s Meow
Buy this DVD

It’s another of director Peter Bogdanovich’s nostalgic looks back, but it’s got snap, due to the talented all-star cast. Dunst in particular is excellent, showing why these two men would be infatuated with her and suggesting, in her flirtation with Chaplin, Davies’ love of comedy, which Hearst rarely let her indulge, instead staging her in leaden costume dramas. The visuals are also intriguing, since Bogdanovich demanded all the beautiful sets and period costumes be in black-and-white, even though the film is color.

The DVD includes a comprehensive “Anatomy of a Scene” special that includes interviews with the name-dropping Bogdanovich (“I first heard the story thirty years ago from Orson Welles, who’d heard it from …”), the writer Steven Peros, and various cast members. Another behind-the-scenes featurette reveals just how much trouble filming was on the Greek coast, given the weather — at one point, high winds are shown blowing pieces of the yacht away! Additional short cast and director interviews talk about the story, casting, the history, and the location.

Bogdanovich does commentary, as he does so well, pointing out how many long takes were used in the film. To give the flavor of the time, the disc also includes a Chaplin short from 1916 and a 1919 newsreel showing wordless clips of stars of the time as a scratchy period tune plays. Unlike so many DVDs nowadays, I was happy to see that the movie trailer is also included. It’s a nice package that adds just enough to the enjoyment of the film itself.

2 Responses  
Johnny B writes:  

Saw this a few years ago on HBO, loved it. Excellent, well-thought-out flick with a killer cast.


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