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CAT’S MEOW (director: Peter Bogdanovich; screenwriter: Steven Peros; cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel; editor: Edward G. Norris; music: Ian Whitcomb; cast: Edward Herrmann (William Randolph Hearst), Kirsten Dunst (Marion Davies), Eddie Izzard (Charlie Chaplin), Cary Elwes (Thomas Ince), Jennifer Tilly (Louella Parsons), Joanna Lumley (Elinor Glyn), Claudia Harrison (Margaret Livingston), James Laurenson (Dr. Goodman), Claudie Blakley (Didi), Chiara Schoras (Celia), Victor Slezak (George Thomas); Runtime: 112; Lions Gate Films; 2001)
For better or worse, my impression of Hearst is reinforced by this magnificent film in the way it shows both his playful and dark sides.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fascinating gossipy film with an air of mystery and a scorching account of celebrities, Hollywood performers, and the very wealthy and powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. This small-budget 6 million dollar film shot in 31 days in Greece and Germany is directed with flair by Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show“/ “What’s Up, Doc?“/”Paper Moon“), who has had an up and down career. It has been 30 years since any of his films were big box-office. In recent times he has been relegated to doing TV movies and an acting role in a cable TV series called “The Sopranos,” but in this film he certainly shows that he’s quite capable of shooting a beautiful film on such a low budget. The film is adapted from a play by Steven Peros. It refers to a mysterious death aboard Hearst’ yacht. This film says there was a cover-up and that Hearst was a murderer who used his influence and his crafty skills to distort the truth from ever becoming public knowledge. Supposedly Orson Welles knew the murder story and in “Citizen Kane” even shot a scene indicating that, but cut that scene to his later regret. If he left it in, he believes Hearst would have denied Kane was about him and therefore saved himself a lot of trouble with the publishing tycoon and bought himself silence.

The film offers a fun peek at those looking to get their jollies off aboard the Oneida, Hearst’s luxurious yacht that set sail in November 1924 from San Pedro Harbor in California. The purpose of the excursion was to celebrate the 42nd birthday of Thomas Ince, a noted Hollywood producer who was in a downward cycle and was desperately trying to make a business deal with Hearst.

Also on board, were Marion Davies (Dunst), the dimpled, charming, bubbly young actress and mistress of Hearst; a young, nervy, vulgar and ambitious Louella Parsons (Tilly), who later became a venomous gossip columnist for Hearst’s chain of newspapers and was able to secure a lifetime contract for her silence over what she witnessed; the comedy genius but self-absorbed Charlie Chaplin (Izzard) who was also having an affair with Marion Davies and had just finished directing a box-office bomb “A Woman in Paris” and was about to film his masterpiece “The Gold Rush”; Ince’s mistress, the aspiring actress Margaret Livingston (Harrison); the narrator of the tale, Brit novelist Elinor Glyn (Lumley), and many starlets, jazz musicians and media notables.

The film opens at the funeral of Thomas Ince, as Elinor Glyn uses her dry wit to narrate in flashback the events of that hushed-up murder. The generous but imposing host is Hearst (Edward Herrmann), who is viewed as a portly commanding figure not to be messed with. Hearst’s a lonely, paranoic man who bugs his guests’ rooms with hidden microphones in order to eavesdrop on their conversations. He’s also an extremely jealous man who is fully absorbed with Marion and has a fit when suspecting that Chaplin is pursuing her. Marion is not seen so much as an untalented actress and lame brain and gold digger as she was as Susan Kane in Orson’s Citizen Kane, but someone who is articulate and feels secure in the arms of the blustery Willy and remains loyal to him despite his controlling nature (the film never covers his reputation as a yellow journalist). Hearst shows his love by drowning her in jewels and making sure she gets good parts in the movies, and by crying out for her love in a pathetic but very real way.

The snake-like Ince endures the slurs Hearst casts his way as he voluntarily reports to him about Marion and Chaplin being together, as his calculated efforts are to get further in the good graces of Hearst and thereby get back into making big-time pictures by initiating a merger between their two studios. This strategy works because Hearst fumes at seeing his mistress with Chaplin, who had a reputation as a ladies’ man and who recently made a 16-year-old actress from his last film pregnant.

The close-quarters of the boat invites a sneaky atmosphere, where in the corridors and in the staterooms a lot of secret doings are taking place. The guests convey a feeling of fake gaiety, as they dance the Charleston in the banquet room whenever the conversation becomes a burden. The seafaring journey has all of the following things happen: several blonde starlets are seen groping the Negro saxophone player; Hearst fires his pistol at the seagulls; booze is drunk but measured out carefully on Hearst’ orders and grass is smoked as some of the female guests intermingle with the musicians; the servants chase after Ping-Pong balls for the guests; and, Hearst’s flunkies cater to all his needs and keep him informed about any news that might concern him.

When Hearst finds Marion’s brooch in Chaplin’s room he goes berserk and after Ince poisons his mind further with jealousy, Hearst comes upon Marion talking intimately with Chaplin and shoots him in the head. But it was a case of mistaken identity, as it was Ince who was shot while wearing Chaplin’s derby. The shooting was witnessed by Parson, but the cover-up begins with Ince taken off the boat in San Diego by a private ambulance and taken to his own house to die two days later. Ince’s wife was told to say it was an ulcer attack to avoid a scandal. The body was quickly cremated and no autopsy was performed. The boat guests were sworn to secrecy and no one ever talked publicly. The cops were intimidated by Hearst’s power and never fully investigated, calling the death officially a heart attack. It is interesting to note that there was no guest list of the passengers, that Chaplin told friends he was never on that voyage, and Ince’s mistress also claims she was never on that yacht. Though there were guests aboard, including King Vidor’s wife, who said they were sworn to secrecy. But why do this if it was a natural death?

Glyn has the most thoughtful line in the film as she comments that “the yacht people are dancing away their life but can’t stop, because if they stopped they’d have nothing.” This is a keen observation from a film that certainly caught the flavor and mood of that flappergirl age. There are also many Al Jolson songs in the background, which warmed my heart. The acting was particularly sharp. Edward Herrmann set the tone as the buffoon-like Hearst who in a time of a crisis became as sly as a fox. Kirsten Dunst caught the proper frivolity of her character. While Izzard might not exactly resemble the diminutive Charlie, but caught his mannerisms and narcissistic tendencies. Cary Elwes as Ince gave a disarmingly eerie portrayal that caught the dark side of Tinseltown and how easy it was for a desperate person to become a sleaze. Tilly’s Louella Parson portrayal shows the biting woman as she probably was and how cunning she could be when given the opportunity.

I have little doubt that people such as Hearst get away with serious crimes because of their station in life, however I can’t tell you if this version is the absolute truth since there have been many different rumors about what happened and no overwhelming evidence to support any version. But this version was compelling and the one most often repeated. For better or worse, my impression of Hearst is reinforced by this magnificent film in the way it shows both his playful and dark sides.

REVIEWED ON 5/19/2002 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”