It was 1924, the era of sex, drugs, and the Charleston.
The idols and tycoons of the day included Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst, Louella Parsons, and Marion Davies. They were a merry lot and they enjoyed the high life and the privileges bestowed upon them.
Recreating a chapter from their lives, The Cat’s Meow, a lighthearted waif of a movie, tags along with this colorful crew of characters on a weekend pleasure cruise off the California coast. It also tries to offer a possible explanation of the events leading up to the death of Tom Ince, the 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, he died on Hearst’s yacht while on that cruise and police never questioned the other celebrities on board.
All Hands on Deck
At the center of this tale is the lovely and enchanting Marion (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man).
The owner of W.R.’s heart, Marion was accused of being a gold digger. Hearst was far from an innocent victim though; 34 years Marion’s senior, he was also a married man. Nonetheless, he was so infatuated with Marion that he constantly force-fed images of her on the public through his powerful network of newspapers.
Adding complexity to their scandalous relationship, Hearst (Edward Herrmann, Nixon) became incredibly jealous of Davies’ indiscretions with Charlie Chaplin and many others. During their happy little cruise, with Hearst’s wife left back at the mansion, tensions rose and resulted in a campfire of the vanities. Or so the story goes.
In real life, Hearst was a blowhard, a crackpot, and larger than life. In this film, though, Hearst comes across as a bit incompetent and (shudder) insecure. Herrmann’s rather wimpy incarnation, while perhaps trying to somehow “humanize” Hearst, is difficult to appreciate.
Dunst, on the other hand, brings Marion to giddy life in a delightful and playful performance. That clash in personalities results in weak chemistry between Herrmann and Dunst; there are no sparks between the man and his mistress.
However, some heat does generate between Dunst and Eddie Izzard (Mystery Men); at least they have more charged dialogue with which to generate a spark. Izzard 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, and Chaplin’s more lecherous behaviors are also missing. But at least there’s enough character in the delivery to make Chaplin a good foil for the happy-go-lucky (but no less corrupt) Marion.
As for Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes, Kiss the Girls), he too is merely a caricature as he faces a filmmaking career that is drying up and seeks W.R.’s financial backing. He comes across as pretty dry and borderline psychotic so the magnitude of his loss is never understood within the confines of the film.
At the far end of the grating and annoying side is the portrayal of Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly, The Magnificent Ambersons). Tilly’s approach to the infamous gossip hound is too much Tilly and not enough Parsons.
This who’s-who in 1920s high society have a great story to tell, but The Cat’s Meow doesn’t go far enough with the material and the film simply fails to add up to much.
Following Ince’s death, Hearst, so notorious for his trash journalism and no-holds-barred tactics, ingeniously seeks to circumvent the very media behemoth he created by gently requesting a vow of secrecy from all on board. Irony abounds, but with all the wild parties, illegal alcohol, mistresses, and orgies during their weekend excursion, it was pretty much in everybody’s best interests to keep quiet anyway.
Parsons, though, was able to capitalize on it by getting a lifetime contract out of Hearst. It was the springboard for her becoming the most influential reporter and gossip columnist in Hollywood. This was long before the days of Mary Hart and her million-dollar legs.
The movie gets a lot of the details right, including a reference to Hearst’s regular dalliances to see Davies perform on stage. He’d buy two seats, one for himself and one for his hat.
That attention to detail 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 just like a cat. It’s curious… and it just sits there.