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Rumours about Hollywood superstars fly thick and fast in this day and age. Anything from secret loves to illegitimate children are fair game to today’s media, and the stars are powerless to stop it. Nothing slips through the paparazzi net; every meeting, every shopping trip, every casual jog is snapped up and reported on by the masses, most of whom belong to those trashy gossip magazines designed solely for the purpose of digging dirt on those in the public eye.

But way back in the 1920’s things were a little different. It was much easier to keep a secret, for starters, and even the truth somehow managed to be skewed, either due to the will of a particular party or just through the unreliability of the grapevine. No matter who was present there would always be many and varied opinions on a particular event, making it much easier to champion one theory as fact and leave the truth way behind as pure speculation.

The nice little menu

The Cat’s Meow perpetuates a long-standing rumour about the fate of film pioneer Thomas Ince (Carey Elwes), who mysteriously came down with a severe bout of abdominal pain on board the boat of media mogul William Hearst (Edward Herrmann). But the word is Ince’s pain wasn’t anywhere near his stomach, rather the side of his head courtesy of a well-aimed bullet.

Hearst, together with his mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), throw a lavish bash on board his yacht as they sail from San Pedro harbour. Among them is a who’s who of 1920’s film and print, including classy novelist Elinor Glynn (Joanna Lumley, of Ab Fab fame), nosy gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and none other than good ol’ Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). It is Chaplin who attracts the most attention from the guests; Hearst suspects he is having an affair with his beloved Marion, Ince tries to use Chaplin’s vulnerable situation for some third-party blackmail and the other guests speculate about the pregnancy of a 16-year old actor from one of Chaplin’s films. The plot thickens...

From there we get to see how everyone interacts, personality clashes and all. Mistresses aren’t uncommon, manipulation is rife and the drugs and bootlegged alcohol flow freely after dark. The film has been likened by some to the acclaimed Gosford Park though The Cat’s Meow is more like a “Howdidithappen” than a “Whodunnit”. While Gosford focused more on the class structures and frustration, The Cat’s Meow looks at love and frivolity, giving the film a far more upbeat and witty feel than the Oscar contender.

The cast is made up of some interesting choices indeed. Dunst as Marion Davies is a strange decision on behalf of director Peter Bogdanovich. Davies was around 24 at the time of the event while Dunst still has a few years to reach that mark, making her seem a little too young for the role in this picture. Still, there’s no doubt she’s already an accomplished actress and lights up the screen at every turn. While she probably doesn’t fit the role as well as some may think I can’t come up with a twenty-something worthy enough to play Davies over Dunst. Anyone?

As for the other cast members it’s pretty much a mixed bag. You won’t recognise Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glynn as she’s a long way from the trashy clothes and massive blonde wig of her television persona. Lumley manages to play the role of sophisticated writer and film’s narrator quite well, though she doesn’t have all that much to do when compared to the other main characters. Eddie Izzard’s Charlie Chaplin is an intriguing choice but I’m not one to comment on its merits as I’ve only ever seen Chaplin once (in the extras section on this DVD, ironically). Still, Izzard is great as a cocky yet vulnerable character who ends up somewhat of a changed man after the events on Hearst’s yacht. Jennifer Tilly’s “Lolly” is magnificently annoying (her trademark voice comes in very handy here) and the girl shows she can really act.

Marion and Charlie

Director Peter Bogdanovich has a decent crack at the difficult task of covering all the main characters and their relative conversations in a confined setting. The dinner and dancing scenes are meticulously shot and give the audience a great sense of exactly where the characters are and why. Some clever shooting techniques and well planned blocking make everything seem to flow so smoothly.  

Film fans who are familiar with this story will appreciate its neat little translation onto film, as will murder mystery fans who are after something a little different. While the inevitable characterisation slows down the first act quite noticeably, it is essential to providing the audience with all the knowledge they need about all the main players on the boat. And when that errant gun goes off is when the guts of the rumour begins to really drive the story.

The 1.85:1, 16:9 enhanced transfer looks quite good on the whole, free from any serious blemishes on the new print. There is a minor amount of aliasing present on troublesome clothing and furniture but none of it is distracting in the slightest. Sharpness is a little lacking in places as the characters and locations are a little soft around the edges but it actually adds a little to the mythical feel of the 1920’s boat ride. Nothing all that brilliant with this transfer but it does the job.

Note also that this disc seems to have been encoded as “all-region” despite being aimed at the Region 4 market. Something to think about for those looking to import from another region.

Included on this disc is a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack as well as a 2.0 track for those still stuck in the world of stereo. Whilst you can’t expect too much from a dialogue-driven film there are enough ambient sounds and effects bouncing around the rears to suffice. The music of the time also sounds quite good as the characters break into a Charleston. My subwoofer slept through the most part but jolted to attention on a couple of occasions, while the dialogue is perfectly clear even amongst all the scheming going on. Again, there’s nothing that will blow your ears off but the soundtrack pumps out the audio quite well.

A nice little extras section accompanies the feature, with the first supplement being the audio commentary with Peter Bogdanovich. The director reveals various pieces of information about the production over a wide range of topics such as the characters, set design and how he managed to cover all the characters in a number of continuous, long takes, something which I hadn’t noticed on first viewing. His manner is somewhat subdued but Bogdanovich does have some interesting things to say.

Next up is The Making Of The Cat’s Meow featurette that is basically your standard promotional fare. The interviews with the cast members are quite interesting, especially Dunst’s take on Marion Davies the person and the character in the film. The usual clips from the movie dominate, making this probably a once-only affair.

Ince and Hearst

Also included are a couple of neat pieces from the time period, the first being a Charlie Chaplin short called Behind The Screen. Here you get to see the little bloke performing his renowned comedy as a stagehand who gets into his fair share of trouble. As I said it’s the first time I’ve seen a Chaplin clip but despite the inevitably sketchy video quality it is well worth a look. The other piece is a 1919 newsreel entitled Seeing Stars an is basically a look at some 1920’s stars in action, particularly actress Claire Windsor. A once only glance should be enough for this one as well.

Moving on there is an interviews section divided into four parts, the first of which covers the casting and the origins of the story, which is where we hear Bogdanovich recall how he heard the story from none other than Orson Welles. The next part is devoted to the characters and what the actors thought of their particular roles. Izzard is funny in all the pieces but has some good things to say here, while Dunst struggles a little to get her point across. The third part of the interviews section deals with the location over in Greece, with Bogdanovich talking about how they had to deal with the erratic weather on location. The last interview piece is on how the cast came together over the course of the production. Bogdanovich, Izzard and Dunst were basically the only ones interviewed properly, while Elwes and a couple of others bob up with clips from other locations along the way. What is said is quite interesting so this is well worth a look.

We seem to have missed out on the Sundance Anatomy Of A Scene piece afforded to the Region 1 disc but we do get the Madman Propaganda section, consisting of six trailers for Til Human Voices Wake Us, The Navigators, The Tracker, Molokai, Satin Rouge and Yi Yi. Fans of non-mainstream cinema will probably be interested in these. And of course there’s the theatrical trailer thrown in to boot. Overall, not a bad little package from Madman Entertainment/AV Channel in terms of extras to keep you busy after the feature is over.

Hollywood's finest

The Cat’s Meow’s appeal lies in the true story about how a bunch of Hollywood’s big names boarded William Hearst’s yacht in the 1920s. Just how much is true after that is debatable, which is exactly how some intended it to be according to this account. The characters involved will keep you entertained throughout, while the extras on the disc will occupy you even further once it’s all over. Throw in a video and audio package that does the job quite well and there’s little chance you’ll want to throw this disc overboard. Check it out and you might just be impressed.