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IN SHORT: An incredibly satisfying piece of film making. [Rated PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of violence and brief drug use. 112 minutes]
The Cat's Meow is a story in which money, power and sex collide in a time before "drugs" were a given part of the Hollywood equation, that is, if you don't consider alcohol a drug. Any way it goes, the net result is murder -- we're not speaking figuratively here -- and a pretty good sit.
Ah the glory days of those roaring 1920s, when rich men could take their mistresses out on a friend's monster sized yacht for a leisurely weekend on the seas. The cruise recreated in Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow really happened. Its events are well known to anyone who has taken a basic history of film course. By any stretch of the imagination, a major Hollywood scandal should have ensued after the events you see onscreen play out, but didn't. Ah, the power of money, most of which belonged to a man named William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), the same man who inspired Orson Welles to write Citizen Kane. At the time of this story, newspaper magnate Hearst also owned Cosmopolitan Pictures, with which he endeavored to make a star out of his mistress, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). The woman, half his age, was cast, or "stuck," in serious period pieces while at least one major movie star was telling Hearst that her talent was in comedy. That star was Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), whose interest in Davies was much more than professional. Thus is formed our triangle, of a wealthy powerful man, his half-his-age mistress and the star that coveted her.
Chaplin's last production, in which he didn't star, bombed. Ince hasn't managed a hit in years. Hearst has the money to take care of either star, though Chaplin's almost desperate interest is only in Davies. That the star has already impregnated a previous girlfriend doesn't help his case and Davies is not afraid to fling that back in the star's face.
Wait, there's more. Famed movie producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) is on board hoping to get hold of some Hearst cash as, though he's concealed it well, he's strapped. The man who created the cowboy picture will propose (again and again) that he and Hearst team at Cosmopolitan, annoying the stone faced magnate. With Ince is his [business manager] George Thomas (Victor Slezak), escorting the lovely Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), Ince's mistress, on his arm. Tired of the lie and emboldened by the all too public parading of Davies by Hearst, Livingston is ready to let the whole world know her secret. Rounding off the guest list are the British novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), Hearst employee Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilley) and Mr. and Mrs. Barham (John C. Vennema and Ingrid Lacey), who are appalled at the loose morals displayed on board.
Simply put, it turned out to be one helluva boat ride. One which no one on board, including the one that died, ever talked about. Ever. With nothing but whispers to go by, director Peter Bogdonavich and writer Steven Peros piece together a first rate story which, regardless of historical accuracy, is a damned good sit. We, having learned the "real" story in film school, already knew which passenger was going to shuffle off this mortal coil. The question that has come through the ages has always been "Who pulled the trigger?" The answer offered up here, and the reasons behind it, are terrifically entertaining.
We've been asked not to tell who bites the bullet though we think you're all smart enough to figure it out from a general knowledge of who was a star and who wasn't. That being said, no knowledge of film history is necessary to be pulled into this story.
Peter Bogdanovich's direction keeps everything on an even keel -- even when you would think that an emotional and financial tug of war would bring about bigger, more public reactions. We found no problem with that, since Eddie Izzard's Chaplin is a spellbinding piece of work, considering that we've never seen the comedian do a dramatic turn. From his first entrance, this before his character is identified, there is know doubt who "he" is. Kirsten Dunst's Davies begins frenetically but soon settles down to exert the power she held in the situation. As for the murder and the circumstances that led to it, all hypothetical of course, this once upon a time film student was more than happy with the exposition.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Cat's Meow, he would have paid . . .
A good film must be a great movie before it can become a great film. The Cat's Meow hits close to the bullseye on almost everything we can look for though its "quietness" will work against it for anyone expecting more sound and fury.
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