Cat’s Meow: Bogdanovich’s Well Acted Melodrama about Thomas Ince, Starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies

Despite some moments of nasty, old-fashioned fun, The Cat’s Meow, Peter Bogdanovich’s eagerly awaited comeback–his first feature in close to a decade–is a disappointment.

Assuming the shape of a trashy Sunday Night telepicture, it offers a weightless, gossipy account of a fateful weekend in 1924 aboard William Randolph Hearst’s private yacht, during which film pioneer Thomas Ince was critically shot under the most bizarre, never-resolved circumstances.

In one of her strongest parts to date, Kirsten Dunst shines as Hearst’s mistress-actress, Marion Davies, and so does her partner, Edward Herrmann, as the powerful mogul-benefactor. Nonetheless, two players are miscast: British standup comic Eddie Izzard, as a self-absorbed Charlie Chaplin, and a grotesquely caricaturistic Jennifer Tilly, as influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Receiving its world premiere at the Locarno Festival, Cat’s Meow will travel the road of other major festivals, such as Telluride and Toronto, due to Bogdanovich’s stature as a director and the film’s scandalous “inside Hollywood” theme. However, Lions Gate faces an uphill battle in marketing a period picture, which may appeal to movie buffs and older viewers still intrigued by the era’s dramatic persona, but whose subject matter means next to nothing to today’s predominantly young patrons. Prospects in ancillary markets seem brighter for what’s truly a curiosity anecdotal item.

It’s good to see Bogdanovich, a major force of the American Cinema in the 1970s, behind the cameras, after a long absence from feature moviemaking, during which he directed for TV and worked as an actor. A former critic-essayist, Bogdanovich, whose undisputed masterwork is still The Last Picture Show (1971), has written most eloquently about Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, the shadows of which loom large when watching Cat’s Meow, a movie that centers on the obsessive love affair between Hearst, the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s protagonist, and Davies.

The chief problem is Steven Peros’ dissatisfying script, based on his New York play, which can’t make up its mind whether it’s a comic satire of Hollywood’s influential players circa 1924, at the height of the silent era, or a romantic melodrama, structured around the triangle of Davies, torn between two vastly different lovers, Hearst and Chaplin. As a result, the film’s tone changes from scene to scene, vacillating between deep cynicism about tinsel town and schmaltzy melodramatics aimed at eliciting sympathy for the central characters that the movie suggests are “flesh and blood,” just like the audience.

Framed by a black-and white opening and closure, Cat’s Meow begins with Ince’s funeral, in what seems like homage to the noirish satire, Sunset Boulevard. Whereas in Billy Wilder’s 1950 picture, the narrator was a corpse (William Holden, dead in a pool), here it’s Elinor Glyn (Lumley), the popular British novelist, who lived in Hollywood and was a guest of Hearst that weekend. In a sobering voice, Glyn claims that of the 14 passengers aboard the yacht, invited to celebrate Ince’s birthday, only one was interrogated by the police, and that the official report concluded that Ince died in his own bed of “heart failure,” caused by ill digestion. Moreover, no evidence (photos, records) survived the ominous November 15, 1924 weekend, as Glyn says, “everything was told in whispers, and this is the whisper most-often told.”

Switching to color and the main locale, story proper resembles a mystery novel of Agatha Christie’s (And Then There Were None, filmed by Rene Clair in 1945, or Murder on the Orient Express), introducing the individual characters as they arrive at San Pedro Harbor off the Los Angeles coast. Inexplicably, Glyn’s voice-over narration is dropped after she poignantly observes, “I’m not certain if I’m visiting a zoo or am one of the animals,” which sums up the writer’s grubby attitude toward his material. And what a human zoo the yacht is.

If the first reel is intriguing, it’s mostly due to the eccentric, colorful aggregate of guests. Very much in the spirit of the time-the jazzy, swinging 1920s–married producer Ince (Elwes) is there with his nagging mistress, Margaret Livingston (Harrison). Unlike Hearst, who carries an open affair with Davies, Ince is foolish enough to believe that his affair is clandestine, quietly rushing to her cabin in the middle of night.

It takes only a minute to realize that this excursion of “fun and frolic” will actually become the playground for power clashes, unfulfilled romantic yearnings, and both manifest and latent agendas. Arriving with his manager, Ince, realizing his financial problems, comes up with a series of business propositions that are based on wishful mergers with Hearst’s operations.

The film’s most pathetic figure–and the real villain of the piece–is Chaplin, right after the commercial failure of Woman of Paris and in pre-production for The Gold Rush, which will become one of his most renowned comedies. Fighting rumors that he has impregnated his 16-year-old ingnue, Lita Grey, the selfish genius declares love for Davies, following her with film offers, staring at her, and finally getting her into the sack. In what becomes an incriminating piece of evidence, Chaplin writes an intimate letter to Davies, then tosses it in the can, where it’s later found by the insecure, Iago-like Ince.

It’s in these scenes, where the characters are eavesdropping and snooping around their neighbors’ cabins, that Cat’s Meow recalls an Agatha Christie’s whodunit–without the acumen, grace, and playfulness of such mysteries. Not helping matters is the film’s abrupt cutting, which accounts for numerous brief scenes, often revolving around spiteful one-liners, some of which are imitative of the kind Norma Desmond has made notoriously famous in Sunset Boulevard.

The film’s worst portraiture–and most hideous performance–belongs to Louella Parsons, then a young, ambitious columnist, unaware of Hollywood’s rules of the game, prominent between which is “never mix business and pleasure.” Like Izzard, who physically doesn’t resemble Chaplin, Tilly comes up with her own interpretation of the real-life frumpy, fat Louella. According to Peros, over the course of 48 hours, Parsons changes from a timid, uncouth guest and star struck columnist, to a shrill manipulator, demanding at the last scene that Hearst grants her a lifetime contract and expanded syndication as his favored journalist.

Fortunately, the film improves and the third act, which is the best, dwells on the tragic love affair between Hearst, marvelously played by Herrmann (who looks like the mogul) and Davies. However, one again, the performers are defeated by the shallow and trivial script. If one is to believe this version’s accuracy, Davies was not particularly ambitious as an actress and she truly loved Hearst, who, with all his power, was obsessed with her, fearing he might lose her to Chaplin (and other men).

Bogdanovich, always adept at subtle mise-en-scene, accords gravity and dramatic weight, qualities which are missing from the rest of the yarn, to the scenes in which Hearst observes with Othello-like jealousy the flirtatious Chaplin carrying on with his mistress in public. There are wonderful point-of-view shots that convey the obsessive nature of this amour fou that ultimately will result in the accidental shooting of Ince by Hearst, who presumably mistook the former for Chaplin because he was wearing the same hat.

Unfortunately, the few meaningful and touching scenes are surrounded by fluff, futile efforts at witty repartee and double-entendres. Hence, among the passengers are two starlets-prostitutes, Didi and Celia, whose role is to punctuate the story with sex, gossip, and decadence. In its desperate attempt to be smart and bitchy a la Wilder or Mankiewicz (All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa), Peros has given each character theatrical one-liners. (The whole film betrays its stage origins). Hence, when Davies rebuffs Chaplin’s offer to read his love letter to her with, “why don’t you give it to Lita,” the comic charges back, “she’s not old enough to read.” And when Livingston, tired and humiliated of endlessly waiting for Ince to show up at her cabin for semi-successful sexual escapades, is asked to identify herself, she “shockingly” declares, “I’m Thomas Ince’s mistress.”
In its depiction of deceit, greed, and moral bankruptcy, Peros’ coldly-calculated narrative add nothing new to what the public already knows about the Hollywood industry from countless pictures like Sunset Boulevard, Barton Fink, The Player, to mention few of the good ones, though none of which was a huge success at the box-office.

Restricted by his low budget, Bogdanovich has nonetheless given his movie, whose exteriors were shot in Greece and interiors in Germany, a credible period look, assisted by Caroline de Vivaise’s lush costumes and Jean-Vincent Puzos’ sumptuous design.