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— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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The Cat’s Meow is a lighthearted waif of a movie that details the events leading up to the death of Tom Ince, a Hollywood mogul who started the studio system, pumped out westerns in high volume, and co-founded Paramount Pictures.

His death, which the coroner concluded was from heart failure due to indigestion, is surrounded in Hollywood mystery and lore. After all, the scene of his death was William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. It was 1924. The era of sex, drugs, and the Charleston.

All Hands on Deck

Blockbuster DVD of a mediocre movieThe Cat’s Meow has a great story to tell, but it doesn’t go far enough with the material. Even with a collection of characters from 1920s high society and a mysterious death, the film simply fails to add up to much.

At the center of this tale is the lovely and enchanting Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man). The owner of W.R.’s heart, Marion was accused of being a gold digger mining the man’s riches. (Hearst was far from innocent; 34 years her senior, he was also a married man.) Marion was a player and quite aware of the ways of the world, but she also had a heart and stayed with the tycoon up to the bitter end. Dunst brings Marion to giddy life in a delightful and playful performance.

Even as he leaves his wife at the mansion, Hearst (Edward Herrmann, Nixon) is incredibly jealous of Davies’ indiscretions with Charlie Chaplin and so many others. In this case, though, Hearst ultimately comes across as a bit incompetent and (shudder) insecure. Hearst was a blowhard, a crackpot, and larger than life. Herrmann’s rather wimpy incarnation, while perhaps trying to somehow “humanize” Hearst, is difficult to appreciate.

Eddie Izzard (Mystery Men) skillfully plays the off-screen Chaplin, presenting him as both a romantic and a louse. There’s no funny waddling around with a cane here, but Chaplin’s more lecherous behaviors are also missing.

As for Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes, Kiss the Girls), he too is off-kilter as he faces a filmmaking career that is drying up and seeks W.R.’s financial backing.

Debauchery and Little Else

The film does pay close attention to the details of the true-life characters, which is no surprise since director Peter Bogdanovich (Mask) is a bit of a Hearst expert. He supplied an audio commentary on the DVD release of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ scathing portrait of a power hungry media mogul modeled after Hearst.

But that’s also why The Cat’s Meow is a disappointment. As written by Steven Peros, based on his own stage play, the story paints a picture of the debauchery and scandalous lifestyles of the rich and famous during Hollywood’s early years but does little else. While it recognizes the shallow existence behind the headline makers, the film somehow misses the boat. Regardless of your familiarity with Hearst and his life, The Cat’s Meow is merely a curiosity.

DVD Extras

For a small, art-house film, The Cat’s Meow has been given blockbuster treatment on DVD. Packed with vintage shorts from the era, the DVD puts the film’s story in historical context.

For starters, there’s Behind the Screen, a 1916 film starring and written and directed by Chaplin. It’s a slapstick comedy about making movies that is a nice addition, balancing out Chaplin’s off-screen shenanigans from the movie with his more familiar on-screen shtick.

Additionally, the DVD offers an 11-minute collection of newsreel footage featuring pre-Entertainment Tonight celebrity coverage from 1919. Carole Lombard, Adolphe Menjous, “Rodolfo” Valentino, Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin are among the featured players.

However, the footage can be hard to watch. Even though it was provided by the National Film Museum, the picture quality is often poor (age and lack of proper, timely preservation are to blame). Plus, the vintage background music can be at times annoying.

Modern Extras

Since the film is not an effects-laden spectacular, it’s refreshing to see the “modern” supplements focus on the crafts of acting and writing. The supplements also, for the most part, steer away from the typical marketing materials and hype.

The main attraction is Anatomy of a Scene, an in-depth 24-minute documentary on the making of the film courtesy of the Sundance Channel. Complementing that documentary are an additional 20-minute behind-the-scenes documentary plus 11 minutes of cast and crew interviews.

Unfortunately, those interviews come across as staged, particularly with Dunst, who seems like she’s at a job interview, regurgitating static answers to clinical questions. Izzard, on the other hand, knows they’re doing throw-away interviews for the DVD and tries to make the most of it.

Rounding out the package are a thoughtful, if not dry and monotone, commentary supplied by Bogdanovich; the film’s trailer; and English and Spanish subtitles.

Picture and Sound

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is adequate, bringing nice atmosphere to the more lively scenes, such as the film’s raucous boat party. But, this is a dialogue movie and the finest in sound technology can’t add all that much to dramatic scenes of dialogue set in the cabins of a yacht.

It is disappointing that the picture oftentimes is either dark or grainy, while on occasion turning crisp and perfect. As for the menus, they’re far too dark, plain, and unimaginative.