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Lions Gate presents
The Cat's Meow: Signature Series (2001)

"What makes you think she needs to be watched?"
- William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: December 23, 2003

Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes
Other Stars: Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly
Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Manufacturer: Crest National
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of violence and brief drug use
Run Time: 01h:53m:51s
Release Date: August 19, 2003
UPC: 031398102021
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+A-A- A-

DVD Review

One of the biggest mysteries of Hollywood has surrounded the 1924 death of director Thomas Ince. All that's known for certain is that he went on a yacht ride with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, his mistress Marion Davies, and other Hollywood notables; that Ince died shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstance; that Hearst carefully made certain that not a word of what really happened got out to the public. Nonetheless, rumors swirled that somehow Ince was killed on the boat, possibly as part of a romantic triangle between Hearst, Davies, and Chalie Chaplin. Although no one knows for certain what happened, this film portrays the events as they are set forth in one of the most persistent rumors about these mysterious events.

In this filmic version, taking place almost entirely on the yacht, Hearst (Edward Herrmann) is very jealous of the affections of lover Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). Although Marion is truly devoted to Hearst, she's also being pursued by Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), who was one of the biggest stars on the screen at the time. Ince, even though he set up Culver Studios, the first in Hollywood, and is credited with developing the cowboy picture, is down on his luck and trying to get Hearst to merge his Cosmopolitan Pictures with his own studio. His angle is that he'll not only be able to get Marion some higher quality pictures, but that he'd also be able to keep an eye on her for Hearst. But Ince overplays his hand a bit too much by disclosing more than he should about Chaplin's interests, with disastrous results.

The cast is really quite good. Dunst is striking as Davies, playing her as essentially faithful but tempted by Chaplin's forceful personality, even though she's a bit young to be playing the 27-year-old woman. Izzard realizes the Chaplin ego quite well, emphasizing his insecurities underlying the image. It's hard to imagine a more imperious Hearst than Herrmann, who gives the man not only his tyrannical due but gives him some complexity in his affection for Marion, knowing that while he can give her anything money can buy, he has a sneaking suspicion that somehow that may not be enough. Elwes plays Ince as somewhat of a huckster; that's probably appropriate if the reported fun being poked at Ince for claiming credit for everything by Buster Keaton's short, The Playhouse, is correct. Also entertaining are Joanna Lumley as established English novelist Elinor Glyn, and Jennifer Tilly as the loudmouthed and brash aspiring gossip columnist Louella Parsons, starstruck but determined to parlay events to her own benefit.

Director Peter Bogdanovich brings the period to life exceedingly well, with copious music of the era, heavy on Al Jolson and on the Charleston, using them to counterpoint the seamy emotions underneath the frivolity. Contrary to the usual procedure, the framing story is shot in black and white, while the central flashback is in color. Even then, however, the color palette is very limited so that the effect is very much like a black-and-white picture with small splashes of color for accent. Bogdanovich rather modestly dismisses a dissolve from Ince's coffin to Hearst's yacht as being obvious, but it's to my mind just as effective and startling as some of Kubrick's cuts in 2001. There's also some fairly dazzling camera work, particuarly in the party sequences. What could be fairly dull is by sheer camera movement given substantial vitality and interest.

If there's a moral to this story, it's probably that even if money can't buy you everything, it can cover up your mistakes pretty well. At the same time, it does humanize Hearst to a significant extent, by making his relationship with Marion not one of possession of her but enslavement by her. There's substantial affection for old Hollywood here, marking a return of sorts to Bogdanovich's beginnings with Targets and The Last Picture Show. It's also one of his best in quite some time and worth checking out for any fan of the period. The attention to detail is terrific and there are plenty of references that devoted fans of Chaplin will enjoy, such as his disastrous picture, A Woman of Paris starring Adolphe Menjou rather than himself, and gags about the writing of The Gold Rush.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture looks terrific. The color is intentionally subdued, but skin tones are accurate, black leves are deep, and detail and textures are clear and crisp. I didn't notice any significant edge enhancement and aliasing is visible only on very rapid pans. Very nice indeed.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The sound is equally good, with a sparkling 5.1 audio track that provides excellent definition and directionality. The period music all sounds brand new without the crackle and noise that has become associated with 1920s recordings and a surprising amount of depth. Dialogue is plain at all times. While there's little opportunity for LFE, this is nonetheless a quality soundtrack.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Peter Bogdanovich
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:53m:51s

Extra Extras:
  1. Chaplin short film, Behind the Screen
  2. Newsreel clips
Extras Review: Lion's Gate provides a substantial yachtfull of extras on this release. Most interesting is director Bogdanovich's commentary. He always has interesting remarks to make, from technical information to script changes, to acting technique, without ever stooping to narration except on occasion to make a particular point. As always, he's knowledgeable and forthright and a fascinating listen.

Also inlcuded are two "making of" documentaries. One for the Sundance Channel is fairly fluff-filled, but another, It Ain't as Easy as It Looks is more substantial, with rehearsal footage from four different scenes compared to the final film. Four little interview segments with the director, Dunst, Izzard, Herrmann, Elwes, and Tilly are broken up on a thematic basis into separate featurettes, totalling about ten minutes in length. This territory is already pretty well covered in the documentaries and tends to be rather duplicative.

In addition to a trailer, there are two period items supplied by the notorious National Film Museum (code for 'unwatchable public domain film'). The first is one of Chaplin's less funny Mutual shorts, Behind the Screen, in an overly contrasted print that is hard to make out; what humor there is dissolves into blobs of black and white. It's not helped any by a terrible score that relies on slide whistles in a vain attempt to generate amusement. Even more unwatchable is an 11m:42s segment of "newsreel" that plays more like home movies of silent film leading lady Claire Windsor. There's only a slight connection, as there is one brief bit in which Chaplin and Davies are supposedly present. But one can make out Chaplin only through the silhouette of his distinctive hair, and Davies isn't readily visible at all. No facial features of anyone (Carole Lombard, Rudolph Valentino, the Talmadges, and others are supposedly present as well) can be made out. As a result, it's pretty much a waste of space.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Peter Bogdanovich bring one of the rumors of the 1920s to vivid life here. The transfer's quite good and there are plenty of extras, though of varying quality, led by a first-rate director commentary.


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