“ Genre: Comedy / Theatrical Release: 2004 / Suitable for 12 years and over / Director: Peter Bogdanovich / Actors: Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley ... / DVD released 2004-10-04 at Universal Pictures UK / Features of the DVD: PAL, Anamorphic „
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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.
Newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, decides to have a party for Hollywood producer Thomas Ince on board Hearst's yacht. Also present are Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Louella Parsons (a gossip columnist) and famous author, Elinor Glyn. All is going well, but Ince is losing his fame and fortune and wants to put things right by persuading Hearst to let Marion Davies star in his next film. To show his loyalty to Hearst, Ince tells him of his suspicion that Marion and Charlie Chaplin are having an affair - something that Hearst already suspects. Before long, Hearst has worked himself up into a frenzy and is determined to get his own back on Chaplin. With a gun in his hand, he goes to search him out. Does he take a pot shot at Charlie? Or will someone else get in his way?
The Cat's Meow is a sadly underrated film that I believe is a real gem. It is based on a true story, in that someone did die on board Hearst's yacht during a party. However, no-one knows exactly how the death occurred and no-one was ever charged or spilled the beans about what had gone on - some passed it off as a natural death as the result of an illness. This story is one of the most commonly held beliefs about what happened, although obviously it has never been proved. Nevertheless, the fact that it could be true provides plenty of food for thought - and it makes a fantastic basis for this 2001 film. It could have come straight off the pages of an Agatha Christie novel.
Kirsten Dunst plays Marion Davies and I think this is one of her best roles. She is the young, beautiful and successful mistress to a much older man - and although it is clear that she loves Hearst, she is tempted by Charlie Chaplin, whose charm is at full volume. Dunst has to show a whole range of emotions here - fear, happiness, insecurity, love, anger - and she switches between them with ease and a realism that is enjoyable to watch. Her on-screen chemistry with Charlie, played by Eddie Izzard (yes, the stand-up comic) is palpable and beautifully done. I thought Izzard was amazing as Charlie Chaplin. He doesn't really look like Chaplin - the curly hair is the only visual clue as to who he is - yet such is his power of acting that he became Chaplin straight away for me. I hadn't seen Izzard act before I saw him in this role, and I was, and still am, blown away by his performance.
Edward Herrman plays W R Hearst and is excellent in the role. Hearst is a very powerful man, with a huge amount of energy for his age, and a great deal of love for Marion Davies. It's a shame he couldn't have shown the same dedication for his wife, but there we go. Hearst really grows as a character throughout the film and, like Dunst, has to show a huge range of emotion. He is excellent at doing so - he gives a speech at a dinner table that sums up exactly how he is feeling, and it is deeply moving. Gary Elwes is good as Ince, although doesn't particularly stand out - he does his job and that's about it. Joanna Lumley plays Elinor Glyn (and narrates the story at the beginning and end of the film) - she is good, but really seems to be playing herself. Still, she does add a touch of class to the proceedings. A final mention needs to go to Jennifer Tilly who plays gossip columnist Louella Parsons. I wasn't sure about her - she goes from ditzy and panicky to a sure-footed business-woman during the course of the film and the change was just a little too extreme for me.
Probably the most eye-catching aspect of the film is the period costumes, which are truly beautiful - I honestly think the film is worth watching just for them. Director Peter Bogdanovich ordered the lady in charge of the costumes to stick to black and white only - she managed to persuade him to add gold and silver, and the effect is truly beautiful. A costume party involves some of the most exquisite hats on the women that I have ever seen - Kirsten Dunst wears a gorgeous butterly contraption that is actually very tasteful and suits the role perfectly. The furniture and fittings on the yacht are also fabulous - very twenties and sumptuous, fitting with Hearst's wealth. To finish things off, the music is brilliant, including plenty of the Charleston and other songs from the period - 'I'm Just Wild About Harry' for one. The research that went into all this has most definitely paid off.
For all the story is based on truth, it is obviously impossible to know exactly what went on on board the yacht. However, I think the script writer Steven Peros (who also wrote the play on which the film is based) and director Peter Bogdanovich have done a superb job of taking the basics and embellishing them enough to make this film. The pacing is fabulous, because we know from Elinor Glyn's narration at the beginning that someone has died, but we don't know who. Then the characters are gradually revealed to us, but until the actual crime takes place, we don't know who is going to die, or really why - there are a number of possibilities up to that point. Then Elinor's narration at the end finishes everything off as much as it can be - and we get to see how Marion and Charlie's relationship goes. All in all, I loved the script and the way that the story was told - there really is an Agatha Christie feel to it in all but the way the crime pans out - there is no brilliant detective using his 'leetle grey cells' here, which in a way, makes it more realistic.
There are a few extras, which I watched with enormous interest, mainly because I love the film so much. The most interesting was the 'making of' documentary, which went into a great deal of detail about the costumes, setting etc and I thoroughly enjoyed watching. The 'Anatomy of a Scene' is also interesting, although slightly repetitive having watching the 'making of' extra. There's the rather bizarre inclusion of clips of Charlie Chaplin and Claire Winsor - I enjoyed the former, but the Claire Winsor ones seem to have only a rather tenuous connection with the film - the timing and the fact that Chaplin and Winsor were often filmed together. This was to introduce Winsor to a wider audience rather than the fact that she was in a relationship with Charlie - although as Charlie was rather a ladies' man, there is always the possibility that they were a couple at some point! There's a couple of commentaries listed - although either my DVD was playing up or they were just repeats of 'Anatomy of a Scene' - I was expecting the usual director and actors droning over a replay of the film. Finally, there's a trailer.
I adore this film. It has everything I enjoy - good performances, an interesting story, mystery and fabulous costumes - I love the 20s period in general. I can quite imagine that it may be a bit slow for some, but on the whole, I think that anyone who enjoys murder mystery a la Agatha Christie or just likes a good period drama will enjoy watching it. I truly believe that it deserves to be much better known than it is, and Eddie Izzard need more recognition for his performance as Chaplin. Highly recommended.
It is available from play.com for £6.99. I bought my (latest) copy from W H Smith's for £2.
Running time: 114 minutes