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Friday 8 August 2014

A Lazy Cat? - Review of "The Cat's Meow"

Marion Davies
Marion Davies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "The Cat's Meow"
Cover of The Cat's Meow
 It is 1924, at the height of the jazz age, where the Charlston is all the rage, Prohibition is en force and silent cinema has made Hollywood. On 15 November newspaper publishing magnate W R Hearst (Edward Herrmann) leaves San Pedro, California on a cruise to San Diego with his luxury yacht filled with a veritable who's who of Hollywood. These include his mistress, the up-and-coming actress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), the world famous comedy actor Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), the English novelist and scriptwriter Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), Hearst's film critic Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and movie mogul Tom Ince (Cary Elwes).

The cruise and its onboard partying have all been arranged in honour of Ince's birthday. However, Ince is after a bigger present than a luxury cruise and some cake. His film business has been in steep decline for the past five years and he sees this as his opportunity to convince Hearst to go into partnership with him. Meanwhile Chaplin has his eyes on Hearst's starlet mistress who longs to play comedy roles instead of the stuffy period dramas her lover pushes her into. She and Ince are not the only one trying to climb the ladder to the career of her dreams, as Heart's film critic is desperately trying to get foothold in somewhere.

All the while Elinor Glyn watches. With careers at significant turning points for all concerned, Ince's machinations are set to have life-changing results for most and a life-ending result for one...


I hired "The Cat's Meow" on the basis of what I felt would be an imaginative and fun bit of alternative or what if history telling. Having no knowledge of the urban legend that the events of November 1924 cruise of the Oneida brought about, I just thought this was an imaginative piece of writing bringing together famous historical figures of the jazz age. Look up the names mentioned in my plot and you will see how much of a huge impact they individually had over western or even global culture. For example, WR Hearst inspired both Ayn Rand's character Gail Wynard in her novel, "The Fountainhead" and, more controversially, Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welle's film, "Citizen Kane". I later discovered that the incident depicted in the film was based on Steve Peros' play of the same name (he also wrote the screenplay for this picture) that was possibly inspired by "Murder at San Simeon" written by Hearst's granddaughter, Patricia Hearst, and all of it stemming from what amounts to celebrity conspiracy theory.

Despite this sensationalist angle and the very colourful collection of characters the film moves along at a restrained pace. Awkward moments are often punctuated by the mass hysteria of the Charleston and the story then returns to intimate sub-plots as each of the characters fight with their personal and inter-personal problems. We have seen much of this before and it can provide a very entertaining drama, especially when the characters are real historical personalities and the writer speculates about what drove them. Unfortunately this isn't the case with "The Cat's Meow". Most are superficial caricatures of their popular images and yet are also surprisingly dull.

The only characters that really come alive are Dunst's Marion Davies and Izzard's Charlie Chaplin. Our attention is prone to drift through most of the other events when these two aren't around. I appreciate that this might be because the roles they are playing are those with the most youthful energy, but this shouldn't mean the rest of the performances make the home DVD viewer consider breaking out the coffee.

For example, despite the onscreen time and gentle pace of the film, the evolution of Parsons into the most feared gossip writer of her age is not very convincing. A lot of this is probably down to Peros's writing and here I have to concede that despite my love of many film adaptations of plays we find a fundamental problem. With a play we have an almost set-in-stone depiction of events, which prevent much flexibility and deviation by the director and actors. In fact, matters are perhaps made even worse with the writer of the play also being the screenplay writer, as they are in "The Cat's Meow". Having said this, Tom Ince being portrayed as something of an Iago who seeks to use Chaplin and Davies's affair to ingratiate himself with Hearst does provide a good dramatic device and is mildly entertaining.

Aside from Izzard, who I argue does do justice to the role of Chaplin without looking in the direction Robert Downey Jnr's iconic portrayal and Dunst's fine performance, the film's other main attraction is its soundtrack. The jazz music, particularly the playing of the Charleston, is at the film's very essence and core. Its presence as method to convey the wilful madness all the characters indulged in during that cruise.

All in all, "The Cat's Meow" is definitely not a film without its charm and is certainly worth seeing for its novel value. It is, as one critic sited, some of a tonic when compared to other more gimmick-laden pieces that were growing in prominence at the time of its release and more present now than ever. As a speculation of an historic event about celebrities for some quirky reason it brings to mind Ken Russell's "Gothic". However, Russell's film did a better job of drawing you into the collective madness of his romantic literary circle of Regency era poets than director Peter Bogdanovich's small cruise into the heights of Hollywood escapism.
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