The Cat's Meow Review
It is sometimes said that the measure of a man can often be summed up by the number of myths and rumours that surround him. There can be no truer example of this than William Randolph Hearst, the media tycoon and friend to the stars who, from the 1890s to the 1940s, arguably had more power over popular opinion via his newspapers than any other single man in America. The stories and whispers about him are legion, ranging from the merely eccentric to the truly outrageous, like the time he’s said to have instigated a full blown war merely for the sake of selling more newspapers. (Hearst’s editorials were said to be one of the key factors in instigating the Spanish-America War of 1898, with headlines such as “War? Sure!” leaving the public in no doubt what was about to happen – the tale goes that he told an illustrator, who was complaining that his posting to Spanish-controlled Havana was boring, “You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war.”) Of course, in reality there was much more to it than that (the racial tensions existing between Americans and Latin Americans at the time meant that Hearst’s comments were more an echo of popular feeling than a cause) the fact that the legend has lived on, and even inspired the term “yellow journalism”, is a sure sign of the man’s reputation.
His efforts to get Citizen Kane, a thinly veiled biopic of himself by some upstart called Orson Welles, banned are equally legendary. Hearst once told Douglas Fairbanks Snr that the main reason he liked journalism more than the movies was because “you can crush a man with journalism, and you can't with motion pictures” and, in truth, Welles never completely recovered from his battle with the, by then, venerable WR. Hearst, simply by having been in the business for well over forty years, knew everything about everybody, including Welles, and threatened to expose all the scandal he could about the auteur (most notably his left-wing tendencies) if the picture wasn’t withdrawn. In the end it didn’t get that far, but many theatres refused to play it and at that year’s Academy Awards all nine nominations were booed (although Welles had the slight consolation of winning best screenplay). At that time Hearst was nearing the end of his career (and life – he died in 1951) but the incident was the prime example of the ruthless determination that had got him where he wanted, no matter what the cost, a determinism that both fascinated and repelled those around him and were a source of most of the legends, some confirmed and some denied, that he has become known for.
After all, only a man who lived in the mists of legend rather the blunt real world the rest of us do could build an actual castle, named San Simeon (the real life Xanadu). Only a man such as he could romance a starlet thirty four years his junior, the famous Marion Davies, a relationship some have called (carried away, no doubt, by the hyperbole that surrounds the man) as “one of the greatest American love stories”. You can’t turn anywhere without hearing some whisper or innuendo about the man, a rumour that about anyone else just wouldn’t be credible but with Hearst, given his extravagant lifestyle and persona, could just about be believable.
Arguably the most famous of these surrounds the incident on the Oneida. Destined to go down in Hollywood lore as one of the great scandals, to this day no one is really sure what did and did not happen during that fateful voyage on Hearst’s luxury yacht, other than it ended up with the death of one Thomas Ince. Ince was one of the movie business’ earliest success stories, the man credited with creating the Western, but who had at the time of his death hit the doldrums a bit – he had parted company with what was then Paramount/Artcraft and his subsequent ventures had been less than successful (although it could have been worse – at one point he invited Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to join a production company of his). He was invited by Hearst to celebrate his forty-second birthday on board the tycoon’s yacht together with a collection of his friends, a mixture of celebrities and wannabies, most notably including his mistress Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin.
Peter Bogdanovich’s film, taken from the play by Steven Peros (who also wrote the screenplay), is a speculation about the events aboard the vessel that led to the producer’s death. The yacht was a positive cornucopia of intrigue and infidelity – Hearst suspected that Davies and Chaplin were having an affair, and the most popular theory, which is the one the film goes with, is that he shot Ince after mistaking him for the comic before swiftly covering up his mistake. Although the official cause of Ince’s death is listed as heart failure brought on by acute indigestion, the morning following his demise saw newspapers running the headline “Movie producer shot on Hearst yacht!”, headlines that had mysteriously disappeared by the evening editions, replaced by the official heart-failure version.
The disappointing thing about the film is that we never really get into the heart of the characters. Bogdanovich is a noted film historian with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the period (as well as having the undoubted, if ever-so-slightly biased, advantage of having lived with Orson Welles) but he doesn’t bring this insider knowledge to the screen. The people on show are only surface deep – Hearst is a jealous lover, Marion a flighty if talented actress, Chaplin an insatiable lothario – but we never get any deeper than that. Peros’ screenplay isn’t so much a character examination as an Agatha Christie adaptation, complete with all the one-note suspects and casual decadence found in an average Poirot. The first half, before the murder, plays particularly like this: the characters arrive, all stare balefully at each other under a veneer of fun and enjoyment while the viewer waits for the heavy hand of fate to fall on one of the characters.
This Christie-esque feeling extends to the look and feel of the film. Set in the 1920s, there is a certain amount of inevitability in the fact it will feel like a David Suchet episode, but everything about it, from the direction to the music to the clothes to the performances, screams out murder mystery. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s all very enjoyable in a superficial way, watching high society bitch about each other while dancing the Charleston – but it isn’t the story it could have been. These were interesting (if largely awful) people at an interesting time and, even if we can never know precisely what happened, there was rich scope for a much more torrid and insightful drama than the one we get here.
Performances range from the decent to the caricatured. Edward Herrmann as Hearst himself has the bluster, but not the ruthlessness the part needed, his furious searching of Marion’s room and subsequent murderous rage feeling more like the desperate actions of a cuckolded husband than a vengeful lover determined to wrestle back his beloved no matter what the cost. Kirsten Dunst as Davies is better, a light, slightly silly girl who doesn’t really get the consequences of her actions, although I did find her oddly unattractive. The most intriguing performance, however, comes from Eddie Izzard as Chaplin. Although he only goes through the motions here, and is by no means physically similar to the comic, there is a sense that he could be very good in the role, given the right script – he has an element of danger about him, as well as bringing across the comic’s uncontrollable libido and his light movements (a scene in which he plays charades and one moment during the dancing capturing Chaplin’s mannerisms perfectly). Of the secondary characters, Joanna Lumley is a bit of a smug pain as writer Elinor Glyn, but as the real Glyn was apparently like that it’s quite apt, while Jennifer Tilly gives a surprisingly ditzy performance as the soon-to-be-infamous gossip columnist Louella “Lolly” Parsons. The idea is that hiding behind her clumsiness and apparent unawareness was a sharp operator, ready to pounce on a moment’s indiscretion (as she does when she witnesses the shooting and uses it to get herself a lifetime contract) but I wasn’t entirely convinced – her tripping over on boarding the yacht, an accident by Tilly kept in, seeming particularly off.
The look of the film is very good. Despite the fact the action is confined almost entirely to the yacht it never feels claustrophobic, and good use is made by Bogdanovich of the entirety of the vessel, from the secretive meetings in the noisy engine room (ideal for preventing potential eavesdroppers from hearing what was said), to the deck games and inside dining room. It all feels thoroughly authentic, helped by a well-picked soundtrack of the era and the glamourous clothes (all, incidentally, hired for the production) helping to add to the feeling of being there (It’s also worth noting that the actors all throw themselves into the daft-looking dancing). Bogdanovich doesn’t do anything special with the camera – his dissolve from Ince’s coffin to the yacht, of which he was pleased, is in fact an unremarkable segue – but keeps the action moving, and with his long tracking shots manages to immerse the viewer in the action, as though they were there surrounded by it all.
Ultimately, then, this is an enjoyable film but one that doesn’t come close to doing justice to the characters involved. Hollywood scandals come in many shapes and forms and with its key ingredients of passion, infidelity, death and mystery, it’s not hard to see why this is one of the juiciest, yet here it all feels at best vaguely intriguing and at worse completely unremarkable. Neither as flamboyant as its leading character, nor as sleazy as the incident seems to have been, this is a toned down production that, while passing the time in an entertaining fashion, ironically doesn’t really come close to the truth, whatever that may in fact have been, about what happened on that yacht all those years ago - an outcome that, I have no doubt, Hearst himself would have thoroughly approved of.
The film comes on a single dual-layered disk. The main menu has a design mixing the film’s poster with a small window showing the characters dancing, accompanied by a short musical extract from the movie. All extras are to be found on a submenu which has no music and only a still image from the film. The film itself is subtitled but none of the extras are.
Fine. The colours vary a bit between inside and outside scenes, with flesh tones darting between just right and too rich, and there are some suspicions of slight digital artefacting in places, but overall very acceptable.
Unremarkable, although this isn’t the sort of film that requires a bombastic soundtrack. The music sounds as though it comes from an old recording occasionally, but dialogue is always clear.
The disk has two commentary tracks, one from Bogdanovich and one with Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley and Ronan Vibert (who played Joseph Willcombe). I had high hopes for the Bogdanovich track, expecting it to be filled with anecdotes about the people involved and the incidents, but instead he concentrates almost entirely on how he shot the picture. “All fourteen main actors are in this shot, this is all one shot,” is a typical observation in a disappointing track, one of those in which the participant basically just describes what’s happening on the screen.
The second track is one of those vague ones in which the cast sit around and chat about the film without really saying anything about it. In this case the actors are hindered by doing battle with a very loud air conditioning unit which makes them sound as though they’re in a metallic corridor. Soporific to listen to.
The Making Of
Fifteen minute featurette. Only really interesting when it comes to Bogdanovich talking about the material and how he related to the situations the characters find themselves in – “success is often a lot harder than failure” – this is, otherwise, a pretty standard piece. Enlivened by Izzard’s cheeky attempt to bluff the director with a false Hitchcock quote, and dulled by Lumley’s attempts at being insightful.
Charlie Chaplin and Claire Winsor
Two sections run together make up this half hour segment. The first, “Behind the Screen”, is an example of a typical Chaplin short, the Little Tramp finding himself downtrodden, on a film set in this instance, before managing to fight back through a mixture of cheek and luck, and ending up with the girl in his arms. Running at twenty minutes, if you like Chaplin you’ll like this. The transfer isn’t great, however – quite aside from the degradation you would expect from a film of this age, the digital transfer is blocky and full of artefacts. Still a very nice, if oddly random, inclusion.
The last ten minutes features clips from an actress called Claire Windsor (or Winsor, as the menu screen incorrectly identifies her). This is a bit mystifying as, aside from a cameo appearance at the end from Chaplin and Marion Davies, she doesn’t have much to do with the main film. The footage here is often of a very poor quality and, while it’s no doubt utterly precious to have, is not that interesting, as it is presented without context.
Anatomy of a Scene
By far the best account of the making of the film, this twenty four minute piece uses the central dining scene as a jumping off point to talk about all aspects of the shoot. Contains more interesting stuff about the production than the two commentaries and official Making Of combined.
Pretty good trailer that sells the picture well.
The film itself is a light concoction that is perfectly acceptable for a light evening’s viewing, but scholars of the period will be let down. As for the extras, there is a surprising lack of historical perspective – we only catch fleeting glimpses of the real-life protagonists – that should have been essential to this release. Okay for what’s there, but there could have been so much more.