The Whisper Told Most Often…
The Cat's Meow is an intriguing velvet cloche hat amidst the bowlers, sombreros, hardhats, and baseball caps in the Hollywood closet. It is stylish, well crafted, and pleasing, but doesn't fit quite right. The film is a nicely acted, polished interpretation of one of the nastiest skeletons in that vast closet. Despite some missteps, it is an engaging tale well worth watching, particularly for fans of film and the mythos surrounding filmmaking.
Facts of the Case
William Randolph Hearst sets off on a merry cruise aboard his luxurious yacht Oneida. Accompanying him are some of 1920s-era Hollywood's biggest names: Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Ince, and a host of columnists, starlets, and studio execs. Their goal is relaxation and debauchery with a little business thrown in. But each passenger is experiencing emotional turmoil that colors the festive nature of the cruise. The most potent cocktail is a love triangle between Hearst, Davies, and Chaplin. Before long, these tensions collide and one of the passengers is killed. Atypically, no scandal follows the death and we are left to ponder the ramifications of the events on the yacht.
The Cat's Meow is about a murder and cover up, but it is not a murder mystery. It has romance, but not romance that is prolonged or focused enough to call it a romance. It portrays W.R. Hearst, but is not an epic character study like Citizen Kane. The Cat's Meow does not neatly fit into any niche, which by nature should appeal to film lovers.
So what is The Cat's Meow? Though it behaves like a murder mystery at times, a romance at others, and a character study in part, it is really a fable about Hollywood. It is made by Hollywood, about a dark secret from Hollywood's history. The characters in the movie talk about Hollywood non-stop. And the end of the film is a thinly veiled political statement by Hollywood to Hollywood about Hollywood. I think this is why film buffs, historians, and critics respond so well to The Cat's Meow, while those who care nothing about neither film history nor the politics and glamour find The Cat's Meow anticlimactic.
As viewers, we have to remember that this movie is an intricate speculation. As such, it is juicer than the juiciest gossip, twice as naughty and much more thrilling. It doesn't have the authority of history behind it like Titanic, because we know it is made up. And the meta-currents in the film always read as rumor and socio-political commentary. This film is elaborate, well-scripted, well-acted, well-shot gossip. If you frown on such things, you will likely not enjoy this film, but those of us who engage in gossip might find The Cat's Meow engaging.
There is no doubt about the care and effort that went into the making of The Cat's Meow. The film begins with the poignant strains of a 1920s tune set to a black background with white titles. The opening credits continue in stark black and white. The song plays on. The director never tips his hand. I sat in silence, wondering where this was heading. I pondered whether to be bored, but something told me this was all on purpose, these white letters, black background, and melancholy music. Finally, the song began to wind down. Okay, soon we'll see what this is all…BOOM! I was startled by the sound and fury of flashbulbs and car engines. "Gotcha!" the director laughed behind his hand. Little details and cinematic pranks like this permeate The Cat's Meow.
With the caliber of craftsmanship firmly established, the film unfolds. I watched and took it at face value, knowing nothing of the people and events it portrayed. The cinematography drew me in, and the dramatic tension underlying the events onscreen kept me going. Reading the film at face value, I was distracted by the constant self-aware barbs the characters threw at each other, and I soon got a bit confused. First of all, everyone was wearing black and white. Occasionally silver or a splash of color crept in, but everyone was conspicuously clothed in black, white, and gray. Why, I wondered? Will it be explained later? Never mind, just watch. Later, despite the fairly strict attention to period decor, W.R. pulls out a pair of aviator-style sunglasses. That's odd, I thought this was a '20s era piece. None of this is explained. Finally, about halfway through it dawned on me that the style, innuendo, and symbolism were equally (if not more) important than the story being told. The last few scenes left no doubt about it. The Cat's Meow isn't so much about the story as the way the story is told and what the story means to Hollywood. Incidentally, the director's commentary and extras removed all doubt. The clothes were restricted to black and white as purely cinematic convention; it had nothing to do with the story. The sunglasses were an anachronism.
The sound is wonderfully crafted. Dialogue, music, and effects are clear and enhance the experience of the film. The music is always situational, yet the film has a substantial soundtrack; another cinematic trick thrown into the bag. The effects are authoritative. Flashbulbs pop with resonance, the ship's engine throbbed with power. The sub and surrounds did not sit idle.
Visually, The Cat's Meow is rich. It is all about style—the costumes, interiors, and decor make quite a statement. There are many dark scenes, but shadow detail is clear, contrast strong, black level solid. I noticed "crawlies" on the casket in the black and white funeral; not grain, but the perception of movement in what should be a solid area of color. Overall, the image was clean and sharp, with a slight grain and occasional small artifacts.
The extras are plentiful and appropriate. Peter Bogdanovich gives a commentary that is insightful despite the flat monotone of his delivery. He seems quite taken with overlapping dialogue and long takes, which reinforces the cinematically playful intent of The Cat's Meow. He overuses the words "brilliant," "overlapping," and "long cut," but doles out enough nuggets to keep it interesting.
The other extras are enough to keep you busy, though the dialogue tends to overlap. There are featurettes, interviews, newsreel footage, and a Chaplin short. The Chaplin short keeps the theme: it is about a set designer working on a Hollywood production. I can picture nineteen-teens audiences roaring with laughter at shorts such as this, though I find that humor has come a long way since.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
W.R. is obviously attached to Marion Davies in some way. He's old but not deathbed imminent; she's young and stunningly, beautifully vibrant. She calls him "Pops" and treats him like a doddering father. But they kiss in a very familiar way. Is she his lover or his daughter? It turns out that they are lovers, but that isn't made completely clear until later. Many of the relationships are that way. People are obviously moody regarding this, that, or the other, but as an audience we are confused why. If I have a real gripe with The Cat's Meow, it is this: a little more introduction might have served to bring us in more and tell us why we should care. For example, Edward Herrmann portrays Hearst so subtly and vulnerably that it took me 3/4 of the film to realize that he was a man of great power and that people feared him. Perhaps the opening scene could have had the narrator giving a brief, pointed, drama-enhancing bio on each character.
The Cat's Meow is wealthy with acting talent. There is no doubt that each actor carefully projects their characters' personas with deliberate intent. The best example is Jennifer Tilley as Louella Parsons: she was gratingly, unrelentingly irritating. Thus, I am in a quandary what to write. Jennifer, your character was an annoying, unlikable, sniveling weasel. You did such a fine job portraying her that I wanted to fast forward through your scenes. Is that a compliment or an insult?
The aforementioned Edward Herrmann gives a sensitive, unguarded performance as the world's most powerful movie baron. He portrayed the man with such sensitivity that it seemed completely unrealistic when he began acting mercenary later on. I was shocked to learn that this was the same man that Citizen Kane was based on. Again, compliment or insult?
The actor I feel the most for was Eddie Izzard, who had to portray Charlie Chaplin sans slapstick. Who knows what Chaplin was like off-screen? Eddie had a next to impossible task to pull off: portray a man whose off-screen persona is relatively obscure. Even if he nailed it, how would we know? I get the impression that Chaplin was an incorrigible womanizer, but I just didn't feel that from Eddie. He wasn't edgy enough. He reminded me of no one so much as Doc Brown from Back to the Future.
One actor whose performance I can comfortably applaud is Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies. She showed finesse and rosy-faced sophistication. She was luminous and grounded. In short, superb.
As an ensemble, these actors interacted with each other and gave convincing performances. I have no reservations about the acting, only the portrayals that were chosen. The script might have shown us that W.R. was feared; instead we see him coddled by Marion, played by Thomas Ince, and ignored by everyone else. The script might have shown us that Chaplin was a player, but we just watch him pursue Marion with commendable persistence.
Peter Bogdanovich is as even-keeled as they come. He never changes his tone of voice or facial expressions too much. This makes him a great director, but I think his temperament leaked into the story. The plot always moves forward, methodically showing us the events and the reactions of the people involved. The turning points in the film weren't that much different from the other scenes. The film would improve with a more varied tone and more dramatic contrast.
This is a movie that the cast and crew obviously enjoyed making. Critics and Hollywood insiders like it. I found it entertaining and original in a lot of ways. The self-referential banter, the thinly veiled allegory, and the constant cinematic showmanship did interfere somewhat with my appreciation of the story. The Cat's Meow is a solid film, a great DVD, and if you don't mind the speculative take on the events it is well worth your time to check out. I recommend reading up on the story before viewing, or else you'll need a repeat viewing to catch the nuances of the film. It might be worth a second viewing just to catch all of the cinematic trickery employed.
The actors are acquitted. The director is free to go as long as he makes a funny face and a sad face in the courtroom, since these are the fundamentals of drama. Hollywood is sentenced to five years of intensive therapy, where it is directed to study itself and find the true self within. Court is adjourned. Meow!
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