5 Things I Like About ‘The Cat’s Meow’

I really enjoy watching The Cat’s Meow. It’s not perfect, a lot of people will never have heard of it but I still have a soft spot for it. I don’t even remember how I heard about it. But I have the DVD and have had it for years…your guess is as good as mine. To educate (or something less condescending) those of you that have never seen/heard of The Cat’s Meow here are five things I like about it (in the order that best makes sense for reading this, not in my preferred order):

1. History/Story

The film is based on the play, of the same title, written by Steven Peros (who also wrote the screenplay) which, in turn, is based in fact. Based. The fact being that, in 1924 a mysterious death occurred in Hollywood and that death was never seriously investigated by the authorities. The play is based on common gossip at the time – there will never be a distinctive solution to the death (keeping it quiet so it can “surprise” you if/when you watch the film).

So, there’s the beginnings – murder mystery in the 20s. As a huge Agatha Christie fan my enjoyment of the film is making more sense, isn’t it? And what else do you need in a murder mystery? Suspects. This story’s got plenty: William Randolph Hearst, the highly influential publisher; Marion Davies, the silent actress and W.R.’s mistress; Charlie Chaplin, movie star; Elinor Glyn, author of erotic fiction; Thomas Ince, film producer; Louella Parsons, movie columnist; Margaret Livingstone, actress and Ince’s lover; to name just some key players. So not only are they an eclectic group but they are a famous, wealthy and influential eclectic group. Interested yet? Good. Now I’m not going to intentionally ‘spill’ the beans here so you’re safe to watch the film later or read Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger – fascinating for fans of salacious Hollywood gossip of days gone by.

I like the idea of merging fact and fiction in such a glamorous surrounding – a birthday party on a yacht. (Personally, I do it all the time but I guess not everyone does.) As long as you take the story with a pinch of salt, I think there is some enjoyment for everyone. Well, maybe not hard-core Michael Bay fans.

2. Costumes

These are the first costume that these three characters wear. Marion is throwing the birthday party for Tom with W.R. and here she is playing the ‘role’ of sailor. She can treat the yacht as hers so the whole costume is a nice little nod to her humour and her place within this group. She is probably the onlt female attending who could get away with it – she’s untouchable. Elinor is very classic. Everything is perfect and she knows it. She belongs to this group and this is in contrast with Louella. She is new to the group. She is trying to fit in, to ingratiate with these people and everything about her costume screams trying too hard. Everything is over embellished.

I am drawn in by costumes. Always. But then as my degree is in costume that’s not too surprising. The costumes in The Cat’s Meow are interesting for more than just being beautiful and, you know, successful as a character extension. Peter Bogdanovich, the director, had wanted to shoot the film in black and white but the film studio wouldn’t allow it, so he ordered Caroline de Vivaise, the costume designer, to dress the cast in only black and white as a way of “shooting in black and white”. This, in itself, can be a bit overused as a design technique. Vivaise begged to be allowed to include gold and silver in the spectrum because many of the vintage evening wear pieces used were trimmed with them. The softening that was allowed through the gold, silver, tones of grey and cream mean that the ‘black and white’ effect isn’t too jarring.

A nice little nod to the sailor costume with more detaling of Davies’ top revealed. George Thomas is Ince’s business partner and, as such, remains in the background of the industry for a lot. His light brown three-piece suit is fitting for the era and also for being overlooked – there is nothing showy about it. Margaret is ‘hiding’ under the rpetence of being Thomas’ date for the party so that word of Ince’s affair doesn’t sully any chances of a deal for Ince. She is nearly completely covered up – gloves, cloche hat, high necked blouse, knitted coat. Whereas Ince, as the birthday boy, is wearing a snazzy bowtie with his striped cream three-piece suit with a polka dot pocket square. Nothing subtle about it. He doesn’t need to hide.

This is the way we first meet Charlie. He’s wearing a grey three-piece suit, his tie has a tie pin, he’s got a pocket square and the chain of a pocket watch. I’m sold. Clearly time and effort has gone into this look but it is still more restrained than Ince’s. I think there was also the instinct to stay away from blak for a day suit lest it be too ‘Tramp-ish’. And formal.

Here is W.R.’s costume for greeting his guests. A navy blue wide lapelled double breasted jacket worn with a cravat and tie pin. There’s another pocket square – very important for the 20s. The costume keeps with Marion’s ‘at sea’ look. It sets them as THE power couple on the yacht.

Just a look at how important it was for the costume designer to be allowed to use silver and gold. The costumes would have looked flat and lifeless. And unrealistic. The sheen gives them life.

Just a quick glance at the “fancy dress” birthday dinner. A very important scene within the film. And the simplest fancy dress.

The ‘fun’ W.R.

3.  Cast

Straight into it – I like Kirsten Dunst. I always have. Even before her Melancholia win at Cannes. Her performance as Marion Davies lets the audience see a more mature Dunst (this was filmed in 2001), in a role that could easily have been demonised or a caricature. Davies has the potential to be seen as a gold-digger – this seems unlikely to be true and the film and Dunst do a good job of portraying that. Even without her speech to Ince. Davies genuinely seemed to feel a fondness for Hearst and this is clearly reflected in the film.

Another strong performance comes from Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin. This was the first ‘straight’ acting performance I’d seen from Izzard and it helps move your mind away from Charlie ‘The Tramp’ Chaplin to just Chaplin. When you’ve heard about Chaplin’s womanising past, some of which is referred to here, you understand that he needed charisma. Izzard is both likable and despicable as Chaplin and, having not seen Downey Jr’s Oscar-nominated turn in Chaplin (I know, HCGI), is the only interpretation I have seen. (And I haven’t seen much of Chaplin’s work either…)

Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst is wonderful. I can’t help but love Hermann because he’s Richard Gilmore! (That’s right. I like The Gilmore Girls. Go ahead and judge me.) Hearst is instantly powerful – helped by the fact that Herrmann’s quite an imposing figure anyway (6’5”). You can see the love and affection for Davies, the jealousy towards Chaplin, how he enjoyed to lord his wealth and power over Ince and there is also his anger. You can feel threatened just watching. Let alone being a seagull. (That’ll make sense when you watch it.)

I’ll stop just going through the cast but here are some other worthy mentions: Cary Elwes as Tom Ince (yes, Westley from The Princess Bride), Jennifer Tilly as Louella Parsons (determination, full of determination) and Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glyn (gleeful and bitchy, gleefully bitchy).

4. Music

So, we know I love Some Like it Hot. When’s it set? What do I love about it? 1920s jazz. Charleston, So enjoyable. The little dancey scenes might be cringeworthy but part of you just wants to Charleston along with them anyway. In a flapper dress.

5. Era

OK, so this one’s pushing it a bit. It HAS to be in the 20s because of the story it’s telling. This doesn’t mean I enjoy the era any less. There’s an unspoken decadence that goes with this time in America’s history where prohibition is still in force (and yet everyone drinks) and the country is on the brink of depression. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited by Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The Jack Clayton version was very “Ralph Lauren”/70s to me (obviously, being that it was filmed in the 70s). Luhrmann is known for the excess  in his films and I think The Great Gatsby is a great use of that. Wealth is so important to the subtext…but I digress. To sum up: I love the 20s.

I just want all of her costumes. Particularly that headpiece. Not that I’d have an appropriate place to wear it.

So there you go. Five things I like about The Cat’s Meow. Am I completely wrong? (It’s highly likely.)

All of her costumes.

S x

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One thought on “5 Things I Like About ‘The Cat’s Meow’

  1. Pingback: 5 Different Costume Interpretations of the…1920s | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

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