The Cat's Meow
A Review by Mark McLeod
August 26th 2002
The year is 1924 and publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) is throwing a weekend long birthday party for struggling producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes). Ince who was once credited with giving birth to five studios has fallen on some hard times with his last few films failing to make any money. Hearst known for being a tad eccentric loves to throw legendary parties and this one promises to be no different. Among the other guests are Hollywood star Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), writer Elionor Glinn (Joanna Lumley) and Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) a young starlet who just happens to be Hearst's mistress. Before the ship can set sail Hearst uses a series of listening devices and peepholes to spy on his guests and no sooner does he do this but he witnesses a discussion that Marion has with Charlie. Being a jealous and insecure man this troubles him very much but he tries to hold it together so that the party isn't ruined. The ship set's sail and the weekend begins. Not long after it becomes clear that Ince plans to use this opportunity to discuss business however Hearst will have nothing to do with it preferring to simply spend some time with a group of his friends. Meanwhile Charlie and Marion keep having secret discussions and it's clear that there is a romantic spark between them. Through shear luck Ince witnesses one of these encounters and begins to use it to his favour attempting to pressure Hearst into a deal. As time progresses and situations unfold Hearst becomes more and more jealous until he can no longer take it.
"The Cat's Meow" marks the return of director Peter Bogdanovich to the big screen after spending a number of years directing made for television motion pictures. Bogdanovich has never been in better shape as he recounts an now infamous Hollywood event where little of the truth is known. Working from a screenplay from Steven Peros, he captures the true essence of the time period as every detail no matter how small comes across as being very authentic. From the music, the costumes all the way down to the set design nothing is left untouched. Another of the film's strengths is that the film places makes it feel as if you were on board the Onita during that fateful weekend in the early 1920's hobnobbing it with Hollywood's elite. The screenplay is particularly involving as the majority of the film is dialogue based as opposed to situation based. Peros must have done an incredible amount of research into the subject and combined the various fragment accounts into one cohesive story. This would prove all the more difficult as no two accounts agree on all the details of the weekend.
A film with a strong screenplay can only go so far as words are important but so are the people who bring them alive. In terms of "The Cat's Meow" director Peter Bogdanovich has done the near impossible by bringing together an almost perfect cast. The performances are so top notch that it's almost hard to choose where to begin. Kirsten Dunst is one of Hollywood's hottest young talents having appeared in the mega hits "Bring it On" and "Spider-Man" as well as smaller features like "Get Over it" and the overlooked gem "Crazy/Beautiful". Dunst has proven that she comes to play and can handle just about any role thrown at her. However until now she's played it pretty safe choosing to stick to teen type roles. "The Cat's Meow" marks her first adult role and it's one of her best performances yet. Dunst's Marion Davies lights up every scene she's in with the true glow of a 1920's starlet. She handles both the comedy and dramatic material with poise and grace. There's no mistaking her for any one of her prior roles as Dunst complete transforms into her character. In what some have called one of the film's more odd casting choices British cross dressing comedian Eddie Izzard plays film star Charlie Chaplin. Izzard brings a different approach to Chaplin then Robert Downey Jr did in "Chaplin" going for the unconventional as opposed to the practical. Edward Herrmann also gives an outstanding and layered performance as publishing mogul W.R. Hearst. Herrmann who is a veteran of many television does fine work alternating between appearing loving and caring and paranoid. Also turning in top rate performances are Cary Elwes, Jennifer Tilly and Absolutely's Fabulous's Joanna Lumley.
"The Cat's Meow" received a modest theatrical release after the similarly themed "Gosford Park" went wide in January of 2002. "Gosford Park" met with both critical acclaim and box office success while "Meow" received critical praise but due to it's release size not the box office dollars it truly deserved. "Gosford Park" was a highly fictionalized tale set in the 1920's dealing with a rich old man and his party guests set in a country estate where "Meow" took the action to the high seas. I felt that Gosford Park while strong filmmaking felt a bit long and was overly populated with characters to the point where it took some effort just to keep them all straight. That film also suffered from pacing problems with the film dragging it's heels in many key places. "The Cat's Meow" on the other hand moves at a brisk pace and doesn't overstay it's welcome. Although the critical event does occur shortly after the one hour point the remainder of the film is still intriguing as we watch how the various characters are kept in the dark.
Some will question the accuracy of the story told as the film does have it's roots in the real life events of one fateful weekend in 1924. Various versions of the story have been told and it seems likely at this time that the truth is long forgotten as the majority of the parties involved have all sworn to secrecy or have since passed on. Director Peter Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros present this version of the story not as if it were the truth but simply as one take on the events. However they are able to make compelling arguments for their points of view. That combined with the performances from Eddie Izzard, Edward Herrmann and especially Kirsten Dunst make this cat purr.
Movie Rating : 8.5/10
VIDEO: Lions Gate Home Entertainment brings "The Cat's Meow" to everyone's favorite home video format with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. I saw "The Cat's Meow" theatrically and really didn't think much about the visual presentation which was fine but certainly nothing special. This DVD edition betters the experience somewhat though the film does have it's own visual limitations. The film while in color is bookmarked by two black and white sequences which look great on this DVD. As reported in various places on the commentary track as well as one of the featurettes Bogdanovich wanted to shoot the film entirely in black and white though this never came to be. So instead of shooting the film in black and white the film has a very limited color palette to give it that sort of B&W feel. The transfer is sharper then I expected it to be and while it doesn't match the glossy and sleek appearance of a modern film it's looks very good. The colors as previously mentioned are made up mostly of muted tones though a few of the state rooms aboard the ship feature more extravagant hues. In terms of problems with the transfer they are few and far between with only some moderate grain appearing during exterior long shots and the black and white sequences. I didn't notice any edge enhancement or pixelation though there are a few minor marks on the print used. All in all this is a fine transfer from Lions Gate Home Entertainment.
Video Rating : 8/10
SOUND:Lions Gate Home Entertainment bring "The Cat's Meow" to DVD with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. I saw the film in a modest sized auditorium in Dolby Digital sound during it's theatrical run and while the sound was good it was certainly nothing to get all that excited about. Lions Gate brings that same mix to the home format and if anything the sound played better in the smaller confines of my room then it did theatrically. "The Cat's Meow" is very much a dialogue driven film and as such audio activity for the majority of the film is limited to the front three channels. In what could be considered odd the film doesn't have a composed score so aside from the occasional song there isn't even that much for the left and right channels to do. Sound effects are kept to a minimum as well but that is to be expected in a film that convey's it's ideas and concepts through dialogue. Despite the predominantly front oriented sound mix, the rear channels are given some light work in one or two of the musical sequences as well as by offering some light ambience and off camera voices. Focusing on the dialogue presentation for a second it is easily heard and at a nice level though there are a few times where it sounds just a tiny bit harsh. This occurs during scenes where Hearst raises his voice in anger. This is really a minor nitpick though as for the most part the dialogue is easily heard and problem free. Also adding to the effectiveness of the mix is the fact that off screen dialogue can often be heard from the surround speakers. Lions Gate has done a nice job presenting the film's minimalistic audio mix on DVD.
Audio Rating : 8/10
Although not labelled as such on the box Lions Gate has created a disc worthy of the label Special Edition with their release of "The Cat's Meow".
Sitting down to discuss "The Cat's Meow" is director Peter Bogdanovich a screen legend whose films include "The Last Picture Show", "Paper Moon" and "The Thing Called Love" amongst many others. Having been a big fan of the film itself I was looking forward to this commentary track ever since it was announced hoping that it would provide more of a historical background to the events contained in the screenplay. This however wasn't the case as Bogdanovich focuses on giving a very screen specific technical account of the shooting. Bogdanovich has a very calm and easy to listen to voice but his energy level is not as high as it could be and after a strenuous few days of activities, I found myself nearly falling asleep listening to the track. Bogdanovich spends most of the nearly two hour running time talking about where he filmed each particular shot and how he cut the film together using footage shot on a real boat and in studio. He also spends a great deal of time talking about how due to budget limitations and a cramped shooting schedule scenes were rewritten and dropped so that the film would not go horribly over budget. What I was most wanting to hear him speak about makes up the smallest portion of the track and that's more theories or accounts of the fateful event itself. Bogdanovich barely touches on this aspect of the film and the commentary suffers because of it. Although the track is made up of almost wall to wall comments the addition of screenwriter Steven Peros would have made the discussion less one sided.
Up first is "It Ain't as Easy as it Looks" aka the Making of "The Cat's Meow". Being a film from Lions Gate Entertainment and director Peter Bogdanovich this is a more then capable look at the making of the film and while it contains some electronic press kit type interviews the remainder of the program is highly informative. Unlike many studio produced featurettes which gloss over the actual making of the film by primarily including film clips and interviews, this featurette actually shows on set footage from no fewer then six scenes. The scenes included are a nice cross section of the film and include both interior and exteriors so that you as the viewer can truly get some insight into the making of the film. We also learn vital information on what it was like to shoot the exteriors of the film in Greece where the ship was located and how all of the interiors were shot on a sound stage involving an elaborate boat set. Interviews with various technical personnel like the director of photography, production designer and writer round out the nearly 20 minute long featurette.
If you didn't learn enough about the making of the film from the first featurette then the Sundance Channel's Anatomy of a Scene - "The Cat's Meow" may be more your style. This is the second or third time I've seen an episode of the series included on a DVD and it's always a welcome addition. For those of you not aware of the program it's a show on the on the Sundance Channel that documents the making of one complete scene from various feature films. Past episodes have included "The Anniversary Party" and "The Deep End". The episode on "The Cat's Meow" focuses it's attention on the pivotal second dinner sequence. The documentary consists of four subsections where commercial breaks were most likely placed during it's television airing (though it plays as one continuous piece on the DVD). It contains various interviews with key production personnel including screenwriter Steven Peros who talks about his intentions for this key scene, costume designer Caroline de Vivaise as well as director Peter Bogdanovich and some of the film's cast. One interesting piece of information details how the band that plays the Charleston in the scene originally played a more 1950's arrangement of the song which of course would not fit in with the time period of the film. It's interesting tidbits like that which make this program a movie fan's dream. I would have never had guessed that would need to be done. I'm a big fan of the "Anatomy of a Scene" programs and since they don't air up here in Canada, I have to hope that they make it on to the DVD edition of the film's they are made for.
The Interview section of the disc consists of four separate subsections each dealing with a different aspect of the film. They are entitled "Getting Started" (2:35), "The Characters" (4:08), "Greece" (1:36), "Time Spent Together" (2:10). Participating in the various segments are director Peter Bogdanovich, actresses Kirsten Dunst and Jennifer Tilly as well as actors Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes and Edward Herrmann. The interviews contained within are more like sound bytes taken and geared towards an electronic press kit as each participant only appears briefly in each segment. There is some interesting information contained in the interviews as well as some very funny material from comedian Eddie Izzard. Izzard doesn't seem to take anything seriously as he recounts how he approached the character of Charlie Chaplin. Kirsten Dunst also offers some insight into her take on real life actress Marion Davies. Elwes gives the more predictable answers to the questions while director Peter Bogdanovich reiterates some of his points from the other featurettes. It should also be stated that some of the interview footage contained in the other featurettes comes from these clips.
The remaining extras focus more on life in Hollywood around the period the film takes place. First up is "Behind the Screen" a 1916 short film starring Charlie Chaplin which deals with Chaplin satirizing the Hollywood studio system of the time. The film runs for 15 minutes and is presented with help from the National Film Institute whose motto appears before the feature. Video quality is quite rough but it's an interesting extra to include on the disc. The second extra that falls in this category is also provided by the NFI and is a nearly ten minute Newsreel of various footage of actors and actresses from the time period. The clips are generally unrelated to the film though they do tend to heavily feature actress Claire Windsor a popular actress of the early part of the century.
Also included is the film's theatrical trailer presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Surround sound (2.0). It should be noted that this trailer is in plain sight compared to the normal hidden trailers on Lions Gate's discs. When clicked the hidden company logo on the main menu brings up a one page text advertisement for the soundtrack.
Extras Rating : 7.5/10
Final Thoughts: As a film "The Cat's Meow" will certainly not appeal to everyone. It has it's bases in the Hollywood community and fans of film and the period depicted will make up most of it's core audience. It's sharply written, well acted and a cut above the majority of movies I've seen come out of Hollywood in the past year. Director Peter Bogdanovich has finally found a project worthy of his talent as Steven Pero's screenplay is extremely well researched, detailed and without holes. Lions Gate Home Entertainment's DVD features a fine video transfer, good audio quality as well as some interesting extras. If you haven't seen "The Cat's Meow" then you owe it to yourself to see the film atleast as a rental and while I can't quite recommend this a blind purchase, it does deserve a home in as many DVD collections as possible.
Disc Rating : 7.5/10