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'Cat's Meow, The'

'The Cat's Meow' is a deadly cruise on the Hearst yacht

Friday, May 03, 2002

By Bob Hoover Post-Gazette Book Editor

It's hard to miss Peter Bogdanovich these days. From a New Yorker profile to TV shows, the onetime (I'm sorry, but it fits) wunderkind of Hollywood is everywhere hyping his comeback film, "The Cat's Meow."

'The Cat's Meow'

RATING: PG 13 for sex and drug use.

STARRING: Kirsten Dunst, Eddy Izzard, Cary Elwes, Edward Herrmann.

DIRECTOR: Peter Bogdanovich

WEB SITE: www.catsmeowthe



Although he was an elderly kind at 32 when he made "The Last Picture Show," it was hard, with Bogdanovich's help, of course, not to compare him to Orson Welles, a mature 26 as he made "Citizen Kane."

The comparison became even more apropos when Bogdanovich's career tanked a la Orson, and the two then embraced each other in the 1980s in mutual sympathy.

At 62, Bogdanovich has been given the chance to make another film, and while he could not in good conscience remake "Kane," he has paid homage to his late mentor by dramatizing a footnote to Welles' masterpiece.

The footnote is known in Tinseltown lore as "The mysterious death of Thomas Ince" and it involves William Randolph Hearst, the controversial publisher whose life inspired "Citizen Kane."

There's much more I could tell you, and perhaps should if you're planning to see this movie which makes the unfortunate assumption that today's audiences know who its characters are.

I'm not insulting you by suggesting that you don't, it's just that most of them don't mean a whole heck of a lot anymore, save Charlie Chaplin. And that's why Bogdanovich's childish plaint to reviewers to avoid mentioning the victim is stupid.

The truth is that while aboard Hearst's yacht for his 43rd birthday party in November 1924, Ince, a major Hollywood filmmaker, had a heart attack and died after he was moved ashore.

The myth is that Hearst killed him accidentally while trying to maim Chaplin who was romancing his mistress, actress Marion Davies. One of the witnesses was a young Louella Parsons (anybody remember her?) who was given lifetime tenure as Hearst newspapers' Hollywood gossip columnist.

Bogdanovich goes for the myth.

When Ince died, sex and drug scandals had been plaguing the hypocrites who ran the film studios (this is where I'm supposed to bring up Fatty Arbuckle and the pop bottle, but I won't).

Hearst was also trying to pretend that he was happily married to Millicent while his newspapers hailed the American morality of Coolidge Republicanism.

News that film types were boozing and making whoopee under the bemused gaze of WR and his floozy aboard a luxury ship wouldn't play in Peoria which is the real reason why the Ince incident was kept under wraps.

(And despite the movie's claim that nothing was reported in the press, the New York Daily News did carry a brief item on the cruise, said Hearst biographer David Nasaw.)

But, "The Cat's Meow" is a movie, after all, so we can suspend reality for nearly two hours.

The incident also gives creative minds a great setting to tell us how corrupt and venal Hollywood was, and I guess, is. This is the underlying theme of "The Cat's Meow" and it's banged home time and again by Elinor Glyn (played with insufferable archness by Joanne Lumley), one of the Hearst cruisers.

You all remember Glyn, don't you? Oh, sorry. OK, she was the Danielle Steel of her day, which had long past by 1924 when she could be found hanging around Hollywood caging party invites on her reputation as a semi-pornographic novelist.

Glyn's other job here is to convince weak Marion (Kirsten Dunst) to resist Chaplin's (Eddie Izzard) advances which would have apparently made her the only actress in Hollywood to turn him down. (They didn't call him "the little tramp" for nothing.)

Ince (Cary Elwes) is also doing his share of shipboard romancing, trying to convince the reluctant Hearst (Edward Herrmann) to be his movie-making partner. He plays on the old man's jealousy of Chaplin to persuade him that Marion needs a handler and he's the guy.

It's the Iago-like fanning of those flames that gets him plugged when an enraged WR mistakes him for Chaplin. Then the Hearst lackeys move in for the cover-up.

Bogdanovich plays the story much like an Agatha Christie plot at sea, with lots of snooping and ducking in and out of cabins. No one bothered to lock their doors in 1924, apparently.

(He does offer another tribute to Welles when he has Hearst wreck Marion's bedroom much like Kane does to his mistress's room when she leaves him.)

Bogdanovich has a smooth, fluid shooting style that coupled with the rich period set and costume design makes this a handsome film to watch. He's also sure-handed with the actors, coaxing believable performances from Dunst, Herrmann and Izzard, although he lacks Chaplin's physical grace. He was less successful with Lumley and the constantly obnoxious Jennifer Tilly who played Parsons.

I enjoyed the film because I didn't need to check my scorecard for reputations and in-jokes. (That's what years of reading biographies can do for you.)

I fear I'm in the minority, though, and must conclude that "The Cat's Meow" will reach only a specialized audience.

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