Movie Review: The Cat's Meow (2001)
Peter Bogdanovich has always been fascinated with early Hollywood (cf., “Nickelodeon”), so the scandal-laden death of film pioneer Thomas Ince while he was aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during a 1924 trip down the coast, which included Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Louella Parson (Jennifer Tilly) and Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), well, that’s the cat’s meow.
The result is a fairly straightforward picture, with touches of melodrama in the end.
I first saw the movie shortly after it was released, but 14 years later had pretty much forgotten whodunit. Didn’t Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros leave Ince’s death up in the air?
No, they didn’t.
Orson Welles, piker
Almost everyone boards Hearst’s Oneida with an agenda that relates to Hearst:
- Ince, credited with creating the “cowboy picture,” but with career floundering, wants to strike a deal with Hearst.
- Chaplin wants to woo Davies away from Hearst.
- Parsons wants greater Hearst distribution for her entertainment column.
The rest, mostly girls, just want to have fun.
So what happens? Ince witnesses Chaplin wooing Davies and uses this intel to get closer to Hearst. He keeps feeding him information (innuendo, love letters) until Hearst’s volcanic, cuckolded anger erupts. Except Hearst mistakes Ince—wearing Charlie’s hat, and talking softly with Marion in a stairwell—for Charlie, and shoots him in the head. Ince, in other words, creates the circumstances for his own death.
In the messy aftermath, the murder is covered up, Chaplin and Davies part company, and Parsons, a witness, lands a lifetime contract with Hearst’s newspapers and becomes one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.
How true is all this? Unknown. It’s gossip and guesswork. Apparently Bogdanovich first heard about it from that great raconteur Orson Welles, and in telling Welles’ tale, Bogdanovich actually gets to outdo his idol. In “Citizen Kane,” Welles suggested Hearst was a megalomaniac, warmonger, tyrant, bad friend, and a poor little boy who just wanted his sled—but he stopped short of murderer.
What I never understood while watching? Why these people were on that boat. Why did Hearst invite Chaplin? To spy on him? If so, why in the early going does he seem oblivious? Why invite Ince if he doesn’t want to do business with him? Or did Marion choose the guest list?
Dunst makes a great, bubbly Marion, and Izzard is a good Chaplin, if a bit thick-limbed and graceless. (Chaplin would’ve been all over that Charleston number.) The standout is Edward Hermann’s Hearst: the giant undone by the Little Tramp, and then, post-tragedy, remade by will, wealth and power.
(I’m curious: Did Hearst’s newspapers hound Chaplin after this? Were they part of the “Get Charlie out of the good ol’ USA” line in the late 1940s? Anyone know?)
Another standout is Joanna Lumley as the cold-eyed romance writer and Valentino screenwriter Elinor Glyn, who I knew nothing about before this movie. (Apparently she popularized the concept of It, as in “The It Girl.”) So much of our history just goes. We need to remind ourselves how our archetypes (cowboys, Valentinos) were created and monetized. In the long run, that’s a more valuable exercise than figuring out who killed Thomas Ince. Ince is long dead, but we still have Valentinos. And men are still being elected president of the United States by pretending to be cowboys.