If there is any delight to be found in Peter Bogdanovich’s relatively stiff The Cat’s Meow it’s the irony of Absolutely Fabulous alum Joanna Lumley being forced to skimp on the liquor. Poor Patsy has been transplanted from Jennifer Saunders’s comedy-sphere to newspaper magnate William Randolph Heart’s mystery yacht, where her Elinor Glyn and a bevy of prohibition-era Hollywood power-players and wannabes are forced to reenact a lame game of cinematic Clue. Hearst (Edward Herrmann), whose literal and figurative affinities for rosebuds were waxed Freudian in Orson Welles’s seminal Citizen Kane, plays the fool when his mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst as a baby Jennifer Jason Leigh), begins to carry on with the gawky, physically-endowed Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). In the subjective hands of Bogdanovich and writer Steven Peros, the Hollywood scandal once snipped from Citizen Kane yearns for relevance as found-cinema; David Ince’s death, though, amounts to little more than an unfortunate bout of mistaken identity. Ince (Cary Elwes) learns of the Chaplin-Davies affair and seeks to clue in old man Hearst via one of the Little Tramp’s unsent letters to his maid Marion (the note is left readily available for plucking within Chaplin’s chamber garbage pail). Lumley’s insightful monologues accompany Cat’s Meow‘s fabulous black-and-white sequences, which evoke a Hollywood that is freakishly “just off the planet earth.” Aboard the party boat, Hearst’s pot-stoked guests do the Charleston while chumming up with the colored servants. Though Bogdanovich sympathizes with moneybag Hearst, he’s most interested in how the old lout will always fall just outside the Hollywood radar system. Then there is Jennifer Tilly, doing her usual helium-induced shtick, this time as a graceless writer who discovers her inner-opportunist at just the right time. Lest you forget Hearst is a fool in a businessman’s garb, Bogdanovich goes as far as to make a bumbling mess of the man while he sports a jester’s hat. Cat’s Meow, in the end, is too self-conscious and glib about its scandal to ever carry much weight. Indeed, Lumley’s presence as outsider-observer is so delicately snippy that it shames the rest of the production; you might wish for Robert “Unsolved Mysteries” Stack to ominously open and close this saga.
The Cat's Meow's 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen is preserved on this Lions Gate Home Entertainment DVD release. Blacks suffer in low-light situations but, while edge enhancement is noticeable during some exterior scenarios, colors are gorgeously saturated throughout. Though dialogue does not sound as intimate as anything heard in Gosford Park, the Dolby Digital 5.2 Surround soundtrack is presented with great fidelity.
Some of the supplemental material on The Cat's Meow DVD could have used a timeline or textual introduction. The inclusion of Charlie Chaplin's short film "Behind the Screen" all but makes this DVD a keeper though some historical context would have been nice. Ditto the inclusion of newsreel footage from old Hollywood actress Claire Windsor's clip collection. The Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene" series is the best kind of behind-the-scenes treatment any film could receive. The one recorded for The Cat's Meow is one of the more expertly edited and highly informative entries from the series. It's so good that it calls attention to the redundancy of the "It Ain't as Easy as it Looks" featurette and cast interviews that are also included here. Next to Martin Scorsese, film connoisseurs don't come anymore proud than Peter Bogdanovich. His commentary track is a little on the dry side but his stories and dissections are priceless.
Home video enriches the intimacy of the The Cat's Meow and while this DVD edition is ripe with rich supplemental material, the film itself may feel like an afterthought for fans of Gosford Park.