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Movie Review

A Mystery Cleverly Revisited

In 'The Cat's Meow,' Peter Bogdanovich looks at the strange death of film pioneer Thomas Ince.

April 12, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the enduring legends of Hollywood has it that William Randolph Hearst mistakenly shot producer, director and studio founder Thomas Ince aboard the newspaper tycoon's yacht when his intended target was Charlie Chaplin, whom he believed was having an affair with his mistress, film star Marion Davies. Rumor has always further had it that gossip columnist Louella Parsons witnessed the shooting and was rewarded a lifetime contract in return for her silence.

Although the late George Eels, one of the best Hollywood biographers and a tireless researcher, concluded in his entertaining "Hedda and Louella" that Ince really did die as a result of acute indigestion, as was widely reported, and persuasively argued that in November 1924, when the incident occurred off the California coast, Parsons, then a fledgling Hearst reporter, had yet to set foot in California.

In "The Cat's Meow," Peter Bogdanovich, who knows his Hollywood history probably better than any other American director, works from Steven Peros' amusing yet poignant script to tell the popular version of the legend in clever and entertaining fashion, loaded with authentic and convincing details. The vintage expression that gives the movie its title is uttered by Ince (Cary Elwes) when he contemplates the revels Hearst (Edward Herrmann) has planned for the producer's birthday celebration aboard the mogul's splendiferous yacht, the Oneida.

At what is now Culver Studios, Ince had pioneered the modern studio layout and system of moviemaking, and was a major director, today sadly neglected. But by 1924 his career was on the skids, and he was determined to try to save it by persuading Hearst to take him on as a partner in Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures, supervising production and at the same time keeping an eye on Davies (Kirsten Dunst), the Ziegfeld Follies beauty Hearst worshipped and turned into a big star.

Countless people who knew Davies attest to her generosity and the steadfast mutual devotion between her and the much older Hearst. It is completely credible that Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), well known as a womanizer, would be attracted to the radiant, unpretentious and talented Davies--and would also be headstrong enough to risk Hearst's jealous rage. In Bogdanovich's account, Chaplin, also a guest, attempts to seduce Marion at every opportunity, but she fends him off with as much humor and candor as she can muster, even though the attraction is mutual.

Also among the guests is Ince's mistress, aspiring actress Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), who strives to keep Ince focused on her despite his urgent need to concentrate on lassoing Hearst. Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) comes on gauche and gushy to the point of caricature, but in time reveals the shrewd, confident woman underneath. There are an assortment of other guests and staff, including a couple of razzmatazz flappers, and none other than a popular British writer of a certain age and aristocratic status, Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), whose racy novels were fodder for Hollywood movies. She is best remembered for having declared that Clara Bow possessed "it," which Madame Glyn was none too specific in defining but which everyone understood to mean sex appeal of the first magnitude. Glyn is the film's knowing observer, and "The Cat's Meow" unfolds from her point of view.

Bogdanovich is terrific at evoking the desperate gaiety of the Roaring '20s, which hit Hollywood just as it was experiencing the full impact of its worldwide power and influence. Hearst, whom look-alike Herrmann portrays as a smart but childish man, and his guests are depicted as tremendously vulnerable in their risky pursuit of fame and fortune.

Hearst, a great one for leading a Charleston, limits his guests to one glass of illicit champagne at dinner, but once out of W.R.'s sight, the bootleg booze flows (this was during Prohibition), as it reputedly did at San Simeon behind closed doors. The atmosphere aboard the Oneida is heady and reckless, and it's easy to believe just about anything could happen.

Not every actor resembles his real-life counterpart as well as Herrmann, but Bogdanovich's people are so alive with personality and dimension it doesn't matter. Izzard in fact looks far more like one of Bogdanovich's heroes, Orson Welles, yet he suggests the brilliance Chaplin surely had and a self-awareness as well. Dunst's Davies is lovely, endearing and wise beyond her years. Not even on her best day did the strong-jawed Glyn look as stunning as Lumley, but the actual Madame Glyn was most likely as acute an observer of Hollywood follies and foibles as Lumley portrays her. Elwes, Harrison and the various other players are spot-on, right down the line.

By and large, "The Cat's Meow" is relatively accurate as a period piece, looks great and boasts a bevy of vintage numbers, some original recordings and others performed in an authentic manner by Ian Whitcomb and His Bungalow Boys.

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