January 21, 2003 -- "The Cat's Meow" is a Hollywood urban legend that can be made into a film now because all of the principle characters are dead and cannot sue anybody for libel. So, what the hey, let's defame the dead. The legend has to do with a murder which supposedly took place on William Randolph Hearst's yacht and involved Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, legendary film star Charles Chaplin and producer-director Thomas Ince.
The legend is described, among other places, in Kenneth Anger's book, "Hollywood Babylon" in a chapter titled "William Randolph's Hearse." It began with a party on Hearst's yacht, The Oneida, on Nov. 15, 1924. The party was held in honor of Ince's 43rd birthday. Ince died shortly after the party and his death was never fully investigated. The official story is that Ince died of a heart attack, but rumors persisted that he had really died of a gunshot wound. The body was cremated. No autopsy was conducted. The matter was hushed up by Hearst, owner of a large chain of newspapers, and a powerful force on the Hollywood scene.
The movie follows the events on board the yacht, as described in Anger's book, with a few minor variations, except for the shooting itself. The shooting scene provides a clever explanation about why Ince was shot by mistake when the target was Chaplin. The only trouble is, the shooting allegedly didn't happen the way it is portrayed in the film (read the book to see another version of the shooting). Hearst is played by Edward Herrmann of "The Emperor's Club." Davies is played by Kirsten Dunst of "Spider-Man." Chaplin is played by Eddie Izzard of "Mystery Men." Ince is played by Cary Elwes of "Shadow of the Vampire." Famed gossip columnist Louella Parsons (who got a lifetime contract with Hearst and expanded coverage of her column in his newspapers, reportedly for keeping her mouth shut about the shooting) is played by Jennifer Tilly of "Bound."
Davies is portrayed in the movie as a woman who is calculating and is in control of Hearst and who is not foolish enough to turn against him by having an affair with Chaplin. She is portrayed very differently in "Citizen Kane." Hearst is portrayed as a very jealous man. Ince is portrayed as a desperate man who needs Hearst's money to prop up his sagging film career. Chaplin is portrayed as a man who has the hots for Davies and is not worried about the wrath of Hearst. It is all an interesting, but not entirely convincing exercise in exposing Hollywood corruption. The characters don't have much depth, except for Davies (who is played very well by Dunst). They are mostly an unsympathetic lot of self-absorbed corrupt dilettantes. It would have been nice if the movie had generated some sympathy for Ince or his family. Instead, Ince is shown to be a weak, devious, scheming sycophant. So when he dies, nobody cares. In real life he was reportedly a much more substantial character. The acting is good and production values are adequate, but the whole project seems thin and superficial, like a TV movie of the week. It rates a C.
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