Six Damn Fine Degrees #62: The Cat’s Meow

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Peter Bogdanovich is probably best known for his early films such as The Last Picture Show or Paper Moon, although to a modern audience his face might be most recognizable as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, the psychiatrist’s psychiatrist in The Sopranos. For all his many accomplishments I am perhaps most fond of his interviews. Books such as Who the Devil Made It or Who the Hell’s in It. His epic three-hour interview with Orson Welles, or the wistful Directed by John Ford. Bogdanovich was not just a filmmaker, he was a lover of movie culture and – notably – of movie lore.

This is perhaps why I have such a soft spot for The Cat’s Meow. It may be based on the 1997 play by Steven Peros of the same name, but it has very clear Welles-ian narrative overtones. And no one is “more steeped in Hearst/Welles/Kane Hollywood lore than Peter Bogdanovich”, as Roger Ebert succinctly observes.

I will not bore my readers by theorizing where the premise may have originated exactly. It has been said that it was in an original script for Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz, but Welles didn’t dare include it in the film. It is recounted in that Prince of Tattle: Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. It is, in short, one of those stories Hollywood likes to tell about itself and which refuses to go away, even if it is highly speculative at best, and slander at worst. In brief it concerns an account of Thomas Ince’s “mysterious death” aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht the Oneida, shortly after Ince’s birthday in 1924.

Bogdanovich liked to tell this particular version of the story, citing Orson Welles as a source, even before he was given the script of The Cat’s Meow. It may well have seemed providential when he received it in 1998.

Embarked on the fateful weekend cruise were none other than Thomas Ince himself (Cary Elwes), comedienne Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), romance writer Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and of course the famous host, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann).

Who was Thomas H. Ince, and why did his untimely death cause such a stir among Hollywood cognoscenti? He was a Hollywood producer before the term was even a job description.

Thomas Harper Ince started out as a director, he even directed none other than Mary Pickford herself in The Dream, but quickly gravitated to Los Angeles, where he took to making Westerns like a duck to water. The genre was already popular, but Ince had a specific vision. For authenticity he wanted to engage actual Native Americans and real cowboys, so to that end the entire 101 Ranch Wild West Show was hired in 1911: Sioux, cowboys, horses, wagons, mules, the whole outfit. They, together with Ince’s managerial talents, went a long way to establish him as a trailblazer in the Western genre. He was convinced the higher overhead could be justified by making films of a higher quality, using more reels. It was customary in those days to cast only white people and Ince’s viewpoint wasn’t popular within the industry, but he wouldn’t budge. When he produced a major hit in the western War on the Plains, he was able to focus on longer films and, inspired by the locale, also took control of the 18.000 acres of land later known as Inceville: starting at the ocean and extending up through Ynez Canyon, up to the Santa Monica Mountains. Significantly he also streamlined his productions. In later days Ince usually had multiple directors working for him, so he needed scripts, and an enumeration of scenes as well as camera positions, a process which wasn’t customary at the time, but has since become standard.

While Ince’s casting choices may seem progressive even now, he was primarily interested in making profitable movies for the viewers he was most concerned with, which is to say predominantly white audiences. So while his views on ‘authenticity’ shouldn’t be confused with a real effort at inclusion, there is no doubt that in many ways he was a pioneer.

Due to multiple developments in the industry and several failed ventures, however, in 1923 Ince was severely overextended. He had since abandoned Inceville, but his efforts to make more profitable movies with unknown freelance actors under the brand “A Thomas H. Ince Special Production” relied too heavily on financial markets. He needed funds, and when Wall Street became more and more reticent, he tried to reel in private financiers. To do this, he also needed to divide the profits he sorely needed in order to maintain control of his assets and his films. Additionally, in the 1920’s smaller properties were continuously being gobbled up by behemoth companies, who started to monopolize all aspects of the movie-making business, leaving little to no room for independents.

In this climate Ince was loath to admit to his many health problems. Loans were contingent on him being fit enough to produce pictures, ensuring financiers a return on their investment. It seems clear though that he was struggling with pretty severe medical issues and had already been entreated by his doctor to mind his lifestyle. It was under all these pressures that Ince entered talks with media mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1924, in order to create a string of starring vehicles for comedienne Marion Davies, who was also Hearst’s mistress. A cruise had been arranged for Ince’s birthday, Sunday November 16, and the deal was to be finalized afterwards on Hearst’s yacht. Shortly after the celebrations, however, Ince was taken to shore and would die at home on November 19, at the age of 44. His death was never officially investigated.

Of course Hollywood wouldn’t be Hollywood if there weren’t a story of betrayal, substance abuse, cover-ups and even murder. The Cat’s Meow dramatizes one of the more saucy theories about Ince’s death, and while its premise is seductive, it is fiction. Even so, the film doesn’t merely dramatize the myth of what might have happened on the Oneida that weekend. It uses the alleged scandal as a prism through which to view Hollywood in the ‘20s. And the parts of it which ring true – or in some cases clearly are true – infuse this ensemble piece with a knowing mischief, and in so doing it gives viewers a big fat wink. You, it seems to be saying, be the judge.

Dunst is lovely as the too often maligned Marion Davies, embuing her with a vivaciousness lacking in the portrayal by Amanda Seyfried in Fincher’s 2020 Mank. Watching Davies’ original movies today, there is an easy charm to her pratfalls which belies the portrayal of the talentless sponge suggested in Citizen Kane, or her rather ethereal presence in Mank. Her gifts are clearly embraced by Dunst, and she even looks a little like Davies as she was in Zander the Great, produced around that time. Izzard plays Chaplin as a self-pitying reprobate who can turn on the charm when he tries, and who has a deplorable penchant for underage lovers. This is correct on the whole, in any case more so than the self-serving portrayal of him in the 1992 biopic starring Robert Downey Jr. It is to Izzard’s tremendous credit that the character remains watchable, even sympathetic in a cringey sort of way. It is hard to gage the verisimilitude of Elwes as Ince or Tilly as Parsons. But they’re both eminently watchable, and Lumley as Glyn hilariously cuts through the hypocrisy of good ol’ Hollywood like a hot knife through butter. We have been conditioned, Bogdanovich seems to say, to think of these people in capitals. Genius. Mogul. Legend. Don’t they all seem rather pathetic, though, in their toe-curling awkwardness, desperately dancing to attendance? Their identities, careers, even their very futures, dependent on perception alone. They indulge in all the predictable vices of booze – still illegal at that time -, illicit drugs and sex. Still, Bogdanovitch also seeks to humanise them, making them rather more relatable than commonly accepted mythology might suggest.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to try and debunk the many myths of What Happened On The Oneida. In view of Ince’s overall health, the truth is probably much more mundane than the stories surrounding it. Ultimately Bogdanovich is a storyteller more than he is a historian, and he tells his tale with gusto. But he also manages to lift a tip of the veil on the Geniuses, Moguls, Legends, and the many other myths Hollywood wants to convince us – and itself – are true. And even in endorsing some of the falsehoods, he cleverly illuminates a bit of the truth. How very… Hollywood.

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