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review added: 8/16/02



The Cat's Meow
2001 (2002) - Lion's Gate

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Cat's Meow

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/B+

Specs and Features

112 mins, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:36:58 in chapter 22), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by directory Peter Bogdanovich, Sundance Channel Anatomy of a Scene, "making-of" featurette, Seein' Stars newsreel footage, 1916 Charlie Chaplin film short Behind the Screen, cast and director interview segments, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (24 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned


Volumes have been written about the eccentric life of bazillionaire-extraordinaire William Randolph Hearst, his outrageous fortune and his publishing empire. His life was famously fictionalized on celluloid in Orson Welles' seminal classic Citizen Kane. In the press notes for The Cat's Meow, director Peter Bogdanovich mentions that it was Welles who first divulged to him the story of the death of influential Hollywood producer Thomas Ince. The accounts of his sudden illness on board Hearst's yacht and subsequent death vary wildly. Even newspaper reports on the subject couldn't agree. Officially, the cause of death was a heart attack brought on by an acute case of indigestion. The Cat's Meow studies the long-rumored notion that his death was the cause of something more malevolent in nature: Hearst's jealousy and suspicion over his mistress' relationship with Charlie Chaplin.

Hollywood, 1924 - Hearst (Edward Herrmann) throws a party for struggling producer Ince (Cary Elwes) on board his extravagant yacht and invites some of his closest friends and business associates (though even the guest list is debated). Among those in attendance: actress and Hearst mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), motion picture idol Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), gossip columnist and Hearst employee Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and writer Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley). Hearst's suspicious eye is immediately privy to the lover's glances between Marion and Charlie. As his guests pass the time drinking moonshine and smoking pot, he spies on his young lover through unopened curtains and peepholes in the floor. Ince attempts to profit from his vulnerability and hits Hearst up for financial backing for future films. But confusion gives way to tragedy when Hearst's passion for the young Starlet smothers any ability to see beyond his insecurity.

Steven Peros' absorbing screenplay (adapted from his own stage play) is effective in its ability to immerse the viewer into a very specific era of old Hollywood glamour. He spent several years researching the subject matter, and the script pays close attention to the music, personalities, politics, gossip and business of Hollywood in the early 1920's. Along those same lines, perhaps the film's most obtrusive weak point is Bogdanovich's fondness for the era. Even one scene of the partygoers doing the Charleston is pushing it, and we get a full two doses of the period boogie along with a couple characters in full flapper girl garb. But his expert ability to facilitate the process of crafting believable characters from his actors shows in every performance on board The Cat's Meow.

Kirsten Dunst, who has done well for herself over the past decade in younger, less studied roles, is good as Hearst's longtime mistress. She throws herself into the role, and her assured performance should make her transition to more adult-oriented roles an easy feat. Edward Herrmann is an ideal choice for Hearst and wholly embodies Hearst's insecurities and odd idiosyncrasies over his relationship with Davies. What's great about his performance is that he also conveys a real sense of sympathy for Hearst and his defenselessness against his own paranoia. In the end, his performance, along with Peros' and Bogdanovich's attention to detail, takes The Cat's Meow above its potential to be mere Hollywood gossip and make it something more reflective and sobering.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic image provided by Lion's Gate's DVD release of The Cat's Meow is an accurate representation of its theatrical exhibition. The color palette is intentionally limited to mostly blacks and whites to reflect that era in filmmaking. Contrast is well defined, and there's no trace of edge enhancement to spoil the image. Shadow detailing is also precise, although there is a fair amount of digital noise in a handful of the darker scenes that presents itself as grain. The image retains adequate levels of detail that are afforded by newer releases, and flesh tones are also good. The film's relative low budget is not evident in its picture quality, and the image quality should not disappoint for its DVD presentation.

Audio is a modest 5.1 mix that is keyed down to let the dialogue do the talking. As is common with many of his films, Bogdanovich used only incidental music to accent the film. The absence of a composed film score is really felt (but that's not an altogether bad thing), and you'll notice it mostly in the surround channels. There's very little in the way of split surround usage, and when they are put to use it's mainly for minor sound effects. Some of the music from the jazz band on board the yacht is filtered through the rear channels, but even this portion of the mix favors the front end of the sound field. The .1 LFE channel doesn't really take an active part of the sound mix, though it manages to counter some of the harsher, more high-pitched portions of the mix. Dialogue suffers occasionally from some dips and peaks that rise above the rest of the audio track, but it mostly serves the movie well.

The DVD packaging does not indicate that it is a special edition, but it surely could pass for one. There are plenty of extras on this disc, and they cover nearly all the areas you'd want a set of features to touch on. I'm glad to see that the Sundance Channel's Anatomy of a Scene series is finding its way to DVD. Fox's release of The Deep End also carried an episode from the series, and it was my favorite extra on that disc. The same applies here. It dissects nearly every angle of the birthday dinner scene, from the work that went into creating an accurate period piece, to adapting the script to fit Greece's unpredictable weather and the costume designer's job of meeting the director's exacting demands for the actor's clothing. Film buffs will surely enjoy this segment, and I hope episodes from this series continue to make appearances on DVD in the future. Also great is the 1916 Charlie Chaplin film short Behind the Screen. It follows Chaplin's exploits as lowly stagehand David who cannot keep up with the pressures of working for behemoth stage manager Goliath. It's a perfect showcase for Chaplin's legendary comic timing, and I really got a big kick out of it. It's a good introduction to Chaplin's skills, and more than anything else, it made me want to seek out more of Chaplin's work.

The running audio commentary by Bogdanovich is informative and mostly technical in nature. Its screen-specific nature made it easy to follow, and the director's gentle voice makes taking in the full commentary a simple task. Bogdanovich, Herrmann, Elwes, Dunst, Jennifer Tilly and Eddie Izzard all contribute to the four interview segments. They total about 10 minutes and are culled from press junkets and film premiers. They're brief pieces, but worth a viewing for cast insight on the making of the film. For additional information on bringing the stage hit to the screen, there's also a 20-minute "making-of" feature. It's comprised almost entirely of on set video footage. The good stuff's right at the beginning, as we're treated to cast, crew, yacht and a surprisingly calm director being whipped about by a ferocious windstorm on the coast of Greece. Lastly (aside from the theatrical trailer), there is ten minutes worth of newsreel footage of stars of the era, including a few of the film's subjects. Like the Chaplin short, it's a bit worn for the wear, but that's to be expected of 80-year-old film footage. Not bad at all for deceptively slim-looking packaging.

After a long spell series work and made-for-television movies, The Cat's Meow is a welcome return to the big screen for Bogdanovich. He's created cinema classics with The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon and the 1985 Cher hit Mask. The Lion's Gate DVD is packed with great features. Lion's Gate is one of my favorite indie distributors, and if this disc is any indicator, there are good things to come in the near future with their release of this year's brilliant Frailty. If they continue the good work, they should have no problems keeping up with the majors. This disc is a sure recommend for those who enjoyed the film in theatres or anyone who enjoys ensemble pieces. Yes, it's subjective in nature and doesn't necessarily (depending on who you ask) present its material as conjecture, but it works. The source material is certainly captivating, and its strong script and acting are the high points of a sometimes meandering (though ultimately satisfying) film.

Dan Kelly
dankelly@thedigitalbits.com




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