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Its attitude pitched somewhere between Bulfinch's Mythology and the New York Post's Page Six, The Cat's Meow allows Peter Bogdanovich to revisit one of the juiciest scandals in Hollywood history—namely the mysterious death of pioneer director Thomas Ince during the course of a wild weekend hosted by media mogul William Randolph Hearst on his palatial yacht in late 1924.

Hearst's guest list included his young mistress, actress Marion Davies, and her ardent pursuer Charlie Chaplin, as well as aspiring gossip columnist Louella Parsons, popular novelist Elinor Glyn, various corporate flunkies, and assorted party girls. Rich in personalities, rife with cover-ups, and full of unexplained details, the incident has proved a rich field for speculation over the years. Ince's demise was touched on in the 1985 telefilm The Hearst and Davies Affair (with Robert Mitchum as W.R.) and formed the basis for the 1996 mystery novel Murder at San Simeon, co-written by Hearst's most notorious grandchild, Patty. In 1997, the same year that the Steven Peros play adapted by Bogdanovich was staged in West Hollywood, Vanity Fair ran an article suggesting that Hearst had precipitated Ince's coronary by inadvertently stabbing him in the chest with Davies's hat pin.

Eschewing such baroque conspiracy-mongering, The Cat's Meow is most similar to the version put forth in Kenneth Anger's classic scandal compendium, Hollywood Babylon—albeit as comedy. The insanely jealous and pistol-packing Hearst (an uncannily exact Edward Herrmann) suspects the high-spirited Davies (Kirsten Dunst) of betraying him with Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Ince (Cary Elwes), who has his own part to play in the scandal, more or less blunders into the line of fire.

Her royal vivacity: Dunst in The Cat's Meow
photo: Richard Foreman
Her royal vivacity: Dunst in The Cat's Meow

Details

The Cat's Meow
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Written by Steven Peros, from his play
Lions Gate
Opens April 12

Sally of the Sawdust
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Written by Forrest Halsey, from the play Poppy by Dorothy Donnelly
Film Forum
April 14

Human Nature
Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Fine Line
Opens April 12

Based on legend if not history, The Cat's Meow—which is narrated by the humorously imperious Glyn (Joanna Lumley)—is further preordained for being presented as flashback. The party's sense of forced gaiety is contagious. As most of the action is set on a boat loaded with scheming celebs (and the actors who play them), the audience might feel a tad trapped with a gaggle of Agatha Christie suspects—particularly as Bogdanovich needs to promote a bogus mystery regarding the identity of the victim. Everyone on board has an agenda, not least because Hearst, who has his yacht rigged so that he can exercise Mabuse-like total surveillance, enforces his own form of Prohibition by limiting his guests to a single drink per evening.

Well-cast if broadly acted, The Cat's Meow gives Dunst particular room to stretch as the most sympathetic passenger on Hearst's ship of fools (and also as the freshest talent in the hammy ensemble). A lively constellation of worked-out '20s mannerisms, Her Royal Vivacity resolves every sticky situation by calling for an instant Charleston. Izzard's avid Chaplin is less spontaneous, seemingly modeled more on Robert Downey Jr.'s impersonation than the thing itself. Squealing like Minnie Mouse, Jennifer Tilly plays Parsons as the starstruck nuisance of the party, who parlays her knowledge into a lifetime sinecure with the Hearst newspapers to become the most powerful columnist in Hollywood. Herrmann's Hearst has a galumphing pathos, absurdly wearing a jester's cap to a costume party and impotently glowering as Marion and Charlie do the bump.

The Cat's Meow is dramatically convincing, although somewhat cute. Historically, there is far more material to suggest that Davies and Chaplin really were having an affair than that Hearst had anything to do with Ince's death—other than orchestrating a disinformation campaign to forestall any investigation into his hospitality. Although, as noted by Hearst's biographer David Nasaw, the newspaper baron "would be accused of poisoning Ince, shooting him, hiring an assassin to shoot him, fatally wounding him while aiming at Chaplin . . . there is still no credible evidence that [Ince] was murdered or that Hearst was involved in any foul play." Nevertheless, omniscient Olympian that he was, the godlike Hearst should have been involved—and in the world of myth he is.

Crisply designed and carefully scored, The Cat's Meow is, as one might expect, filled with inside references—mainly to Chaplin's recent flop A Woman of Paris, his upcoming The Gold Rush, and an affair with teenage actress Lita Grey that left her pregnant. The movie may not prove a comeback for Bogdanovich, but his first theatrical feature in nearly a decade is a better-than-competent period evocation that allows the director to flaunt his knowledge (and perhaps vent some of his own bitterness) regarding Hollywood.

A reference to this particular divine comedy was dropped from Citizen Kane's initial draft. Bogdanovich, who has been dining out on his Welles impersonation for years, has managed an odd footnote to his hero's career—filming the anecdote that was considered too scurrilous to make it into Kane.


One of the most famous addenda to the story of "William Randolph's hearse" was D.W. Griffith's remark that all anybody had to do was mention Ince's name to watch Hearst "turn white as a ghost." Griffith's own ghost materializes this week, with somewhat unexpected levity, as part of Film Forum's Sunday series of comic "Re-Discoveries."

The 1925 Sally of the Sawdust was one of two comedies that Griffith, then under contract to Paramount, made with W.C. Fields. The movie adapted the Broadway musical hit Poppy—Fields's first vehicle after featured stints with the Ziegfeld Follies and George White's Scandals—and it is a small irony of film history that the humorless, moralizing Griffith would supervise Fields's screen debut. Playing a boozy carnival con man known as Professor Eustace McGargle, Fields is surprisingly close to his essential persona—albeit a bit trimmer, more spry, and sporting an unbecoming mustache.

Fields gets to fleece numerous suckers and even kick a dog, but his misanthropy is considerably diluted by his affection for little Sally, the orphaned circus girl who grows up to be Griffith's last protégée, Carol Dempster. Sally, who is characterized in her introductory title as "a strange whimsical creature, part tomboy, part woman," is a sort of failed Mae Marsh—coyly forward, impish yet forlorn, prone to hysterical bouts of solo dancing.

Griffith may have infused Sally with memories of his own early career as an itinerant performer, but the movie is far more driven by his trademark sentimentality (and opposition to Americans even more puritanical than he). More a romance—or even melodrama—than a comedy, Sally is minor Griffith, but it demonstrates that, whatever the ostensible genre, he remained (and, pace Steven Spielberg, remains) the master manipulator of human emotion.


More unfunny comedy: Human Nature is an overemphatic, would-be wacky, ultimately tedious sex farce directed by video ace Michel Gondry from a script that Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich, seems to have pulled out of his drawer.

As its title suggests, Human Nature is a movie with big ideas (derived mainly from Rousseau and Freud) about our species's defining drives. Each of the three protagonists is intimately concerned with just what it is that separates us from the beasts. Afflicted since puberty with a surplus of body hair, Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) flees the sideshow for the jungle to become a nature-loving hermit until the miracle of electrolysis allows her to have a relationship with Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a 35-year-old virgin—perhaps named for the former owner of Universal Pictures—who is working out his own childhood programming by teaching table manners to mice. Nathan hates nature, but humors Lila by accompanying her to the woods. There, they stumble upon a naked ape boy (Rhys Ifans, made up to resemble the American Taliban), and bring him back to Bronfman's lab—where he is named "Puff" by the scientist's little French assistant (Miranda Otto).

Nathan civilizes Puff, who learns to appreciate opera, drink wine, and imitate Peter Pan. Still, the ape boy persists in rubbing up against whatever woman wanders within his range. It's either a tribute to or an indictment of the movie that the funniest gag is Puff's refusal to stop grinding against a projected image despite repeated electric shocks administered by training collar. The acid test is dinner at Hooters, after which Nathan acquaints him with the essence of the human condition: "When in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do."

This gloss on Civilization and Its Discontents aside, some elements of Human Nature are recognizably by the author of Being John Malkovich—mainly the sense of rotating relationships. The movie is framed as a murder mystery—it has a few parallels to The Cat's Meow and an even lighter burden of consequence. It also features a fair amount of naked Arquette, although the invisible hair shirt she wears is more disconcerting than Gwyneth Paltrow's body suit in Shallow Hal.

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