CAT'S MEOW - DVD review

...Dunst captures Davies's whimsical charm and spirit...


Lions Gate was once a small company that distributed a lot of straight-to-video titles. However, I believe that it acquired several smaller companies and consolidated many resources in an effort to become a key player in the film distribution business. Now that it's getting big in a major way, Lions Gate has seen fit to re-package some of its products as members of the Signature Series DVD line in order to impart prestige on the chosen films. Personally, I think that it's a great move because it gives consumers a chance to notice films that they may have missed in the past. Also, the design art for the Signature Series DVDs makes them look like the special editions that they are. Peter Bogdanovich's delightful "The Cat's Meow" was lucky enough to be selected for inclusion in Lions Gate's boutique collection.

Widely acknowledged as one of the most important films ever made, "Citizen Kane" used the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst as its source of inspiration. Still, as a work of "fiction", "Kane" could never be as interesting as the turmoil that surrounded its making or as luridly compelling as the events in Hearst's life. Peter Bogdanovich's "The Cat's Meow" focuses on an incident that demonstrated Hearst's power over just about anything that he sought to control. In an age when the Internet calls attention to any hint of a conspiracy or of a cover-up, it's hard to fathom how one man could have so much influence over what the American public did or did not know. However, Hearst was so rich and so feared that he could dictate what he wanted people to believe rather than letting them know the truth.

In late-1924, a Hollywood man by the name of Thomas Ince suffered an unexplained accident and subsequently died. Soon after, gossip columnist Louella Parsons received a lifetime contract from Hearst Newspapers, several people received substantial raises in their salaries, Ince's body was cremated before an autopsy could take place, only 1 person was questioned in a lackluster "inquiry", and the Los Angeles police department declined to investigate the matter. The entire affair reeked of a cover-up, but nothing could be proven. Thus began the rumors, culminating in "the whisper told most often" that inspired "The Cat's Meow".

The events in "The Cat's Meow" take place on Hearst's (played by Edward Herrmann) yacht during one November weekend. Hearst's guests have gathered to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), the studio mogul who invented "cowboy pictures" but has fallen on hard times. Also onboard are actress (and Hearst's mistress) Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), and an assortment of high-society types. Rumors of an affair between Davies and Chaplin have Hearst on edge, and Ince offers to spy on Davies and Chaplin in return for a guarantee from Hearst to save Ince's production outfit. Sometime during the course of the ocean outing, Ince falls prey to a mishap, and the movie offers its version of what "really" happened.

Bogdanovich first heard of the story from his friend Orson Welles, the director of "Kane". However, 30 years would pass before a screenplay based on the rumored incidents appeared on Bogdanovich's desk. The script, written by Steve Peros (and based on his stage play), intrigued Bogdanovich, a film scholar, film historian, fan of "Kane" (he recorded an audio commentary for the "Kane" DVD), and patron of many beautiful young blondes. Undoubtedly, the director saw a few parallels between Hearst's life and his own, and he probably had a desire to rehabilitate Marion Davies's reputation.

In "Kane", the character based on Marion Davies is a horrible actress. Because of Welles's masterpiece, the public remembers Davies as little more than Hearst's marionette. What most people don't realize is that Hearst didn't want Davies to appear in comedies for fear of people laughing "at" her, so he ordered her to act only in stodgy costume dramas. In "Meow", Dunst captures Davies's whimsical charm and spirit, and Bogdanovich strives to make sure that the audience understands that Davies was a much better actress than people think.

"The Cat's Meow" plays like "Gosford Park" on a yacht the way that "Speed" is "Die Hard" on a bus. "Meow" has its share of insufferable boors who fancy themselves to be high-class citizens but who are nothing more than promiscuous vacuities. Everyone tries to bum some money off of the rich old guy, a fellow who hides behind a veneer of serious high-mindedness but is not above being a controlling sugar-daddy to a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. However, "The Cat's Meow" is a much better movie than "Gosford Park" because it doesn't feel the need to tell its viewers repeatedly that "rich people are bad people". "Meow" quietly observes its characters with welcome humor, and the bounce of the period music enlivens the atmosphere despite the cramped settings of the boat.

The pretty 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen video image looks handsome, but it exhibits a few flaws. There are some specks and instances of dirt on the print; fortunately, they don't present serious problems. The smooth transfer offers a film-like experience. Film grain has been kept to a minimum. I especially enjoyed the filmmakers' use of black-and-white footage to bookend the movie. By contrasting black-and-white footage with color film, the filmmakers demonstrate the aesthetic superiority of black-and-white over color.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 English audio track is very front-heavy. Although the front three channels sound wide and spacious, the rear speakers have little to do. The subwoofer kicks in during music sequences but is not a continuous presence. Of course, as a dialogue-driven film, "The Cat's Meow" doesn't need a fancy soundtrack, and the sound mix that it sports suits it just fine.

Optional English and Spanish subtitles support the audio.

First things first, there is an audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich. Conversationally pleasant, Bogdanovich provides a fairly screen-specific commentary. While some of his comments are simply "play-by-play" remarks (narrating what's happening onscreen), he does provide interesting anecdotes about the history behind the story as well as details about the production.

Next up are two "making-of" featurettes. Both are much better than the usual promo fluff pieces that you see on other DVDs. (While the filmmakers obviously enjoyed working with one another, they don't gush platitudes about how everyone is a "genius".) The first featurette, "It Ain't as Easy as it Looks (...a.k.a. The Making of ‘The Cat's Meow')" offers behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals, crew members building the sets, and on-location shots of the production dealing with bad weather in Greece. The second featurette is the Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene: ‘The Cat's Meow'". Basically, it approaches the movie by analyzing what takes place during one sequence (namely, the dinner party on the night of Thomas Ince's birthday). This featurette repeats a lot of the information and footage that you get with the audio commentary and the other "making-of" mini-documentary, but it presents materials in a unique, fresh, and accessible manner.

The DVD includes a number of interviews edited into 4 categories: "Getting Started", "The Characters", "Greece", and "Time Spent Together". Eddie Izzard provides the funniest comments as he jokes his way through his answers. You'll get to see more of the cast in these interviews (including Kirsten Dunst, Cary Elwes, and Edward Herrmann) than elsewhere on the DVD since the extras are rather Bogdanovich-oriented.

The DVD reaches a bit into Hollywood's past with the inclusion of a Charlie Chaplin short film, "Behind the Screen", and a vintage newsreel. The newsreel consists of behind-the-scenes clips and footage of celebrities from the 1920s. Most of the newsreel seems to focus on actress Claire Windsor.

Of course, the DVD also offers the film's theatrical trailer.

On the main menu, clicking on the Lions Gate logo will access a promo for the "The Cat's Meow" soundtrack.

As usual with Lions Gate's DVD releases, you won't find a booklet or an insert, but chapter listings are found on the back cover of the DVD keepcase.

Film Value:
"The Cat's Meow" enjoys 2 big advantages over the similar "Gosford Park"--it's based on historical events shrouded in intriguing mystery, and its breezy tone makes it much more enjoyable than Robert Altman's misguided effort. Like "Citizen Kane", HBO's "RKO 281", and the documentary "The Battle Over ‘Citizen Kane'", "The Cat's Meow" offers another fascinating view of the William Randolph Hearst legend. Decades after his news empire lost its influence on the American public, Hearst is still a fixture in cinema. "The Cat's Meow" almost humanizes Hearst, but it shows how much of a self-righteous tyrant he could be when things didn't go his way.

Okay, what exactly distinguishes Lions Gate's new Signature Series edition of "The Cat's Meow" (2001) from the previous release? Well, you get a new handsome clay-red-colored scheme that dominates the cover art and silk-screen art on the disc itself rather than just some black text. There are only cosmetic differences between the two versions; purchasing either one would give you the same substantive experience as purchasing the other. Personally, I don't mind the re-packaging because the DVD was a good special edition in the first place, and I support Lions Gate's efforts to create a branded line of special edition DVDs. An upstart company has gotta move into the big leagues one day, right? :-)


Film Value