The Cat's Meow (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

William Randolph Hearst. The name used to strike terror in men's hearts. He was a publishing magnate who wielded power on a level which will never be approached by a publisher again. There are those who whispered that he was more powerful than the Presidents of his time, that he personally started the Spanish-American war to sell more newspapers. He is the subject of Citizen Kane, the superlative Orson Welles film which is often at the top of the "all-time best movie" lists.

The best metaphorical summary of Heart's power was shown not in Citizen Kane, but in Citizen Kane II, possibly the greatest sketch ever seen on Saturday Night Live. Hearst/Kane took over the newspaper that would become the foundation of his publishing empire. In his first day in the office, there was no newsworthy story capable of selling papers. He solved the problem by running to the window and unloading a revolver on some innocent bystanders. "Take a headline.", he yelped. "Crazed sniper guns down six. Play up the innocent children angle, and offer a $10,000 reward for the capture of the madman!" A printer ran in almost instantly, with the headline already printed, but Hearst fired him for the unjustifiable delay. Hearst then kept gunning down pedestrians and ordering headline revisions.

That was the legend of Hearst. He wasn't just above the President, he was above the law. And he wasn't about to be questioned by the press, because he controlled that as well. At the time, the general public didn't even knew for sure that Marion Davies was Hearst's mistress. It was widely whispered, but never appeared in print, not even in the tabloids, not even the ones owned by competitors. Such was the power of W.R.

In a sense, the Cat's Meow is about the two key elements of Hearst's life: (1) his ability to control the police and press (2) his inability to control the whispers. The very fact that he existed above everyone else made everyone else talk about him, and simultaneously kept them from having any facts to support their gossip.



The entire film takes place on and about a cruise that took place in November of 1924, on Hearst's private 280-foot yacht, "Oneida". According to some reports, movie producer Thomas Ince was shot on this cruise, but that fact is not known for sure. What is known is that Ince died a couple days later, and he was on that boat for at least some part of that weekend. There was no autopsy. His body was cremated immediately. There was only a cursory investigation. Nobody even seems to know exactly who else was on Hearst's cruise. Gossip-monger Louella Parsons was probably there, and some people say she witnessed the entire incident, but for the only time in her life, the gabby Parsons wasn't talking. She worked for a Hearst newspaper, and her silence assured continued employment. At first, Parsons actually claimed she had been in New York at the time, although witnesses saw her at the studio with Hearst just before the departure.

The most persistent rumor is that Ince was shot on Hearst's yacht. According to Ken Anger, The L.A. Times reported in their early edition, "LA Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht", but the entire story was yanked in later editions. Hearst seems to have pulled a lot of strings and emptied a lot of bank accounts to cover it all up. Although all the facts are not known, it is certain that Hearst was covering something up. The first reports in the Hearst papers claimed that Ince had died of indigestion contracted during a visit he and his family made to Hearst's ranch. Unfortunately for W.R., some people had seen Ince board the yacht. The story then switched. Dr Goodman, a physician and Hearst employee who had been on the yacht, claimed that Ince had died after the cruise on a train back to L.A., a victim of acute indigestion.

This movie assumes that the most persistent rumor was true, and the details went like this:

  • Hearst was a gun lover who took pride in shooting seagulls in front of his guests.
  • Chaplin was trying to seduce Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, not only to make love to her, but to enlist her as his co-star in The Gold Rush. (Davies was a gifted comedienne, even though her attempts at serious acting were greeted with hoots).
  • Ince was trying to resuscitate his own failing career, hoping to merge with Hearst's film productions, by stirring up trouble between Chaplin, Hearst, and Davies.
  • Hearst was in a jealous rage, saw Davies huddled with a guy, and put a bullet in the guy's brain before realizing that it was Ince, not Chaplin. Thus, Hearst shot Ince, mistaking him for Chaplin.
  • Parsons knew everything, and took advantage of the situation to hit on Hearst for her famous lifetime contract, which was signed soon afterwards.
  • Most of the guests were unaware of the incident. Hearst either kept them in the dark or swore them to secrecy.

Certain parts of the film are completely invented and contradict the known facts. For example, although he was the guest of honor, Ince screwed up his schedule and missed the ship's departure from L.A.. He did not board until it docked in San Diego. The movie shows him being killed on the first leg of the trip, from L.A to San Diego, when in reality he wasn't even there!

If the film's version is not accurate, it is quite entertaining. Poor old Hearst is shown as an outcast on his own yacht, sitting in his room listening to the bugs planted throughout the ship, paranoid about how people were describing him. During dinner and dancing, Hearst sat alone, surrounded by gaiety but never able to participate in it. Around him swirled sycophants (Ince and Parsons) and satyrs (Chaplin), none of whom cared to know anything about Hearst except the size of his wallet. Only Marion Davies, his young mistress, genuinely cared for the old man.

The portrait of Hearst is not dissimilar to the one in Citizen Kane. The style of this film is consciously atavistic, as if inhabited by Welles's large ghost. Those facts should come as no surprise if you know that The Cat's Meow was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who had a complex relationship with Hearst's old nemesis, Orson Welles. Bogdanovich was Orson's biographer, friend, confidant, admirer, and apologist. Later in Welles's life, when the genius was shunned by Hollywood, Bogdanovich even gave the the aging raconteur a place to live.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic, 1.85

  • director's commentary

  • various featurettes, interviews, and newsreels

If The Cat's Meow is not the big commercial film that will restore Bogdanovich's own dulled luster, it does serve to show that he can still create a solid, elegant entertainment film, and perhaps that evidence will help him engineer a comeback. The sights and sounds of the twenties are laid out diligently. The Hearst and Chaplin mystiques are presented amusingly. The critical and film festival reactions were excellent. Unfortunately, the box office lagged.

I liked Bogdanovich's choice to rehabilitate Marion Davies's reputation by casting girl-next-door Kirsten Dunst, who created a complex Davies:  sweet, nice, ambitious, but not a gold-digger, a women who strayed occasionally, but really loved Hearst. Although history has sometimes portrayed Davies as an incompetent bimbo, the woman shown here is not only mentally competent, but a genuine comic talent who was forced by Hearst to act in stuffy period drama, at which she had no talent. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4, 2/5

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: grossed $3 million in arthouse distribution (150 screens)


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. A solid period film recounting a gossipy version of an early Hollywood scandal. Bogdanovich feels that he can still make top-notch films, and he may be right. This isn't his big winner, but it might be the stage-setter.

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