**/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes
screenplay by Steven Peros, based on his play
directed by Peter Bogdanovich
by Walter Chaw The Cat's Meow is an impossibly distant snapshot of The Roaring Twenties and the mysterious death of movie mogul Thomas Ince, possibly the victim of sinister shenanigans aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht "Oneida" in November of 1924. Orson Welles groupie/scholar Peter Bogdanovich took a long time to do it, but he's finally provided his own broadside at publishing giant William Randolph Hearst by restoring a subplot naturally elided from Citizen Kane.
Edward Herrmann is Hearst, young Kirsten Dunst Hearst's mistress Marion Davies. The Cat's Meow (adaptated from his own play by Steven Peros), featuring such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), and Louella Parsons (the increasingly insufferable Jennifer Tilly), takes place over a weekend cruise celebrating Ince's (Cary Elwes) birthday; spontaneous bursts of The Charleston share time with the kind of parlour intrigues recently carried out with a good deal more grace and skill in Robert Altman's Gosford Park. A love triangle evolves unconvincingly between a philandering Chaplin, a spunky Davies, and a paranoid creep of a Hearst, ending with the tragic slaying of the ex-Dread Pirate Roberts.
The Cat's Meow seeks to elegize its subjects while damning them: this is Bogdanovich's Madonna/whore relationship with mother-cinema rearing its weary, thorned head. The chief problem of the film lies in a confusion between irony and idolization; Glyn's arch narration, superfluous as it is, provides the film its only cattiness, the staid Agatha Christie parlour game functioning as its unusually disinteresting MacGuffin--its "meow." When a coffin in the film's flashback prologue (shades, again, of the structure of Citizen Kane) dissolves into Hearst's yacht at dock, it doesn't take a genius to know that the picture will be told from a superior point-of-view to an audience Bogdanovich underestimates.
Still and all, a few of the performances are good. Herrmann--forced to wear a literal jester's cap while made the cuckold--conveys an expansive strangeness, and Izzard as Chaplin provides an impressive impersonation in what is arguably The Cat's Meow's toughest sell. But the actors are betrayed by a roundelay farce lacking in insightful moments and by Bogdanovich's medium-shot visual scheme that is either too poorly-lit, too pointlessly obfuscating (see especially a long track of Herrmann galumphing through the bowels of his ship), or so terrified of being obtrusive that its very ordinariness becomes distracting. The Cat's Meow lacks momentum and a compelling storyline; its intrigue is as stale as its personalities. Though it might have been imagined as a murder-mystery for movie buffs, what the picture succeeds in being is a flat and slightly off-putting costume drama for director Bogdanovich. Originally published: May 3, 2002.
by Bill Chambers The Cat's Meow is, um, the bee's knees on DVD. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that has barely a strike against it; that the black level of the image is more like dark-brown level seems an intentional evocation of the period rather than some telecine gaffe. An English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, the only listening option for the film's soundtrack, kicks into gear during a tour through the belly of Hearst's yacht--though don't expect the sonic fury of Titanic, especially with a song score consisting of primitive recordings. Peter Bogdanovich contributes a feature-length commentary during which he develops a trying habit of telling us how long a shot lasts and the manner in which they rehearsed it. At least he avoids the incessant name-dropping of his commentaries for other people's movies.
As with their upcoming Frailty disc, Lions Gate includes the Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene" special on the birthday-party sequence from The Cat's Meow (24 mins.), wherein we discover the amusing fact that the on-camera musicians played a version of the Charleston from the wrong period, necessitating much hocus-pocus in post-production. The NFI has restored on video (the freeze-framed titles are a dead giveaway) the passable 1916 short "Behind the Screen" (21 mins.)--featuring Charlie Chaplin as a bumbling stagehand and Edna Purviance as a starlet--and a "Newsreel" that is the very opposite of informative: a compilation of clips from Madam Satan preceded by a shot of Chaplin with Marion Davies. Bogdanovich's daughter Sashy compiled the making-of featurette "It Ain't as Easy as It Looks" (20 mins.), a comparison of rehearsals to finished scenes that offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the weather-plagued shoot. The Cat's Meow's theatrical trailer plus brief interviews with Bogdanovich, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Jennifer Tilly, Cary Elwes, and Edward Herrmann on a range of topics round out the disc. Originally published: September 4, 2002.