Three August Movies

The Cat’s Meow (2001) directed by Peter Bogdanovich tells a story about the events which occurred in November 1924 during a cruise on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht The Oneida. The official version of events is that Thomas Ince, silent film producer/mogul and ‘father of the Western’, one of the guests on the cruise, died of a heart attack. Bogdanovich says, in the DVD extras, that the story he heard from Orson Welles (who  got it from writer Herman J  Mankiewicz according to wikipedia) is that Hearst shot Ince in the head mistaking him for Charlie Chaplin, whom he suspected of attempting to take away his mistress, Marion Davies; the murder was then covered up using Hearst’s enormous wealth and influence. What is unquestioned is that Hearst, Ince, Davies and Chaplin were present on the cruise, along with writer Elinor Glyn, Louella Parsons and a number of others.


 For someone fascinated with Hollywood lore, like Bogdanovich, the story is almost irresistible; so when a screenplay, by Steven Peros, arrived on his desk, many years after he had heard the story from Welles, it was almost inevitable that he would film it. The film opens, in BandW, with the funeral of Ince and a voice-over spoken by Glyn (played, with her usual aplomb, by Joanna Lumley) so that the events of the cruise, which occupy almost the whole of the rest of the film and are in colour, are effectively a flash-back, although the viewpoint is not Lumley’s; there is then a brief coda at the end returning us to the funeral. The Cat’s Meow is undoubtedly highly efficient, well-crafted entertainment. However there are a couple of major problems with it. The first is  in the impersonation of  ‘real’ characters. Here the big problems are with Hearst and Chaplin. As far as Hearst is concerned the problem is a peculiar one, in that what the film-maker has to deal with is not any real-life remembrance or footage of Heart himself, but of Welles as Kane. And when you set yourself up against that you are inevitably going to fall a very long way short. In the case of  Hearst here, while Edward Hermann who plays him, can at times create menace, he lacks any sort of charisma; he is just another very powerful man. The study would be interesting if we were not constantly thinking of Hearst as Kane. With Chaplin the problem is of course more direct; how do you convey some representation of a screen icon which convinces? I would have to say that Eddie Izzard while not failing completely, leaves little impression of charisma. Perhaps this is how Chaplin was off-screen but it will always be a problem for audiences to believe it. The film works far better with its female characters, perhaps because they are much less known. In particular Marion Davies, as played by Kirsten Dunst, who is at the film’s heart. Davies’ reputation has suffered very unfairly, partly because of her identification with the Susan Alexander character in Kane – an identification which Welles later said he deeply regretted. The suggestion in this film, which later critical reassessment has apparently born out, is that she was in fact an accomplished comedienne,  and a strong and independent woman who genuinely loved Hearst. Dunst certainly manages to convey all this.

Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies


 The film’s other problem however is to do with its overall project. Bogdanovich in the accompanying material claims that it is primarily concerned with the problems which success can bring, and the film is an examination of that. However it is hard to see how these claims are really sustained. It certainly makes some caustic comments on the habits of the rich; one particularly effective scene occurs when Marion and Louella (a delightful performance by Jennifer Tilly) are playing ping-pong with the balls being picked-up and returned to them by two maids. The ‘game’ is a complete charade and the women seem almost unaware of the maids performing this ridiculous function. In fact, fascinatingly, the film has a number of parallels with Renoir’sRegle du Jeu(see ) : the misbehaviour of the wealthy, a mistaken shooting, a cover-up. I am quite sure that Bogdanovich, with his in-depth knowledge of film, is wholly aware of this and is in his way paying tribute. But The Cats Meow lacks any of the ideological depth (not to mention cinematic genius – for while Bogdanovich is good he is no Renoir) which sustains Regle du Jeu. Perhaps I am once again being over-critical. One of the problems of the mixing of reviewing the works of the great directors with recent movies I have missed, which is the current selection policy for our Lovefilm viewing, is that it is hard to maintain a sense of proportion. The Cats Meow is well-made, carefully crafted (Bogdanovich would have liked the whole film in BandW but was over-ruled by the studio, so he ensured that costumes/decor etc. were as black and white as possible; he explains that it is ‘black and white in colour’ which is a neat description of the film’s considerable visual appeal) and most definitely entertaining.

I am now approaching Godard in a more systematic way which means attempting some sort of chronological order. For this reason I have gone back to his first feature A Bout de Souffle or, as I shall call it, Breathless (1960). The problem with discussing Breathless is attempting to disinter the film itself from the legend and aura which surrounds it. The narrative is very simple – Michel (played by the then unknown Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young criminal who models himself on Humphrey Bogart; he shoots a policeman, comes to Paris and attempts to persuade his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) to leave for Italy with him, while at the same time attempting to collect money that is owed him. In the end Patricia betrays him to the police and he is shot and killed. What makes it so original is, as I understand it, on the one hand the visual style and in particular the jump cuts, and on the other the conjuncture of a Hollywood B-movie plot with long chunks of meandering dialogue, in particular one scene between Michel and Patricia in the latter’s apartment. Both these were at the time revolutionary. And it is  true that the film still strikes one as innovatory. But it is impossible to recapture what must have been felt by audiences in1960.

Belmondo and Seberg in Breathless

And beyond this viewing the film objectively it is in some ways a disappointment (although this may be a function of its legend). There is there feeling of a vast youthful talent running wild in the sweet shop, but where in the case of Kane a similar approach resulted in a work of matchless genius here the adolescence seems too evident, there is too little of real substance. The hypnotic quality of Godard’s work is apparent but ultimately there is a lack of either emotional involvement or political vision which makes the film something of an exercise, albeit a very high quality one,  rather than a satisfying artistic whole. It will of course be fascinating to see how Godard develops as a film-maker from this starting point. I will add one additional note that I came across researching the film, which is the sad career of Jean Seberg. It was Breathless which made her into an iconic star. But her Hollywood performances were limited to roles in Paint your Wagon and Airport. She was highly political, supporting the NAACP and the Black Panthers and Hoover considered her a threat to the American state; her phone was tapped,  she was watched and in 1970 when she was 7 months pregnant the FBI created a wholly false story that the father was a member of the Panthers. She suffered from deep depression and was frequently suicidal, and was abused by her last partner. She was found dead in the backseat of her car in August 1979 witha massive amount of barbiturates and alcohol in her blood and a verdict of ‘probable suicide’ recorded, although questions remain about her death. Her performance in Breathless, which is mesmerising, is her great cinematic legacy.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a very well-made film telling the story of Ed Murrow’s fight against McCarthy and McCarthyism in the 1950’s. I knew nothing of either the story or the man so it was fascinating for me just to learn. But the film was graced with strong BandW cinematography and excellent performances, particularly that of David Strathairn as Murrow himself. The film was very much a personal project of George Clooney who not only co-scripted and directed it but raised the money himself, taking a fee of $1 for all his work. It was made for $7.5 million (which I take it to be a very low sum for a mainstream Hollywood movie), although Clooney hadthe last laugh as it took $54 million world-wide, which indicates that serious films can make money (how much this depended on Clooney’s name – and he acts as well – is of course arguable). The only real flaw I can identify is the fact that the film is utterly male dominated; there is only one woman in the newsroom and she is assigned an inferior role. However I suppose this was an inevitable consequence of the quest for realism. In terms of the politics it was interesting to be reminded of the McCarthy era at exactly the moment that right-wing mobs are attempting to derail Obama’s very modest health-care reforms. 


3 thoughts on “Three August Movies

  1. Dear Nick,

    In two cases I’ve seen the film but it’s a while ago. I am not sure Bogdanovich’s film was titled _Cat’s Meow_ in the US; at the time I was enormously impressed and kept thinking about how I’ve read that Bogdanovich is personally disliked and that’s why his films are ignored by the influential press and become flops. It made an impression of biting irony.

    I liked _Good Night, Good Luck_ and yes it was all men — reflecting perhaps realities at the time. What struck me is how at the time people I knew (not mainstream, basically my father) would say Murrow pulled his punches, was not as brave as he made out and so on. But in the context of the present US without McCarthyism anymore, Murrow seems so left of center it’s poignant. Clooney’s _Syriana_ is also a political flm worth seeing.

    I’ve seen Goddard films and Jean-Paul Belmondo but not this one and not enough of them and especially not recently. I watched films far more naively at one time.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen (and apologies for the delay in replying!) – I can’t find any other title for Cats Meow but it is more than possible. I am fascinated by what you say of Bogdanovich and did not realise this prejudice existed.

  3. Pingback: Some thoughts on Kane « Moving Toyshop

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