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Chaplin charms, but a cold air kills
The Cat's Meow (DVD)
Member Name: sunmeilan
The Cat's Meow (DVD)
Advantages: Fabulous period drama, based on a true story
Disadvantages: The truth will never be known
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
Summary: Charlie Chaplin, Poirot-style