The phrase the cat’s meow is 1920’s slang, more often than not left out of contemporary dictionaries, although one authority does offer the cat’s ass as a current colloquialism meaning much the same thing, if less gracefully: cool, great, the last word, groovy. Pick your decade.
Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Mask), returning to the director’s chair after an absence of eight years, delivers an entertaining, if uneven, period piece based on a screenplay by Steven Peros. Peros takes the never-solved mystery of the death of Hollywood producer Thomas Ince on William Randoph Hearst’s lavish yacht in November, 1924 and spins a fictional speculation as to what might have happened on that birthday party-cruise.
In this story, Ince (Cary Elwes) has fallen on tough times in the business and is seeking an alliance with Hearst (Edward Herrmann), suggesting a combination of their film studios with a promise to promote the career of Hearst’s long-term lover, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). As the hard partying goes on, Hearst is elusive and noncommittal. Ince, aware that Hearst is jealous of Charlie Chaplin’s interest in Davies, plays Iago to Hearst’s Othello and plants first suspicion, then evidence that Davies and Chaplin are involved.
Since it is known from the start that Ince will be killed, a degree of suspense is generated by motivating more than just Hearst as a potential murderer. Ince has had difficulty with hismistress, actress Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), who therefore might be suspect. If Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) knew of Ince’s interference, he, to would have a motive, as would Davies.
The picture’s problem is not that suspense is missing, but that it can’t seem decide between two other modes. It starts out satirically, with characters exaggerated, and lots of quippy lines. Hearst himself is made out to be domineering, autocratic, and unreasonable, showing his deep insecurities only to Davies, spying on his guests through peepholes and with hidden microphones. He shoots sea gulls for sport and, since prohibition is on, guests are rather arbitrarily limited to one drink. (Whether these behaviors are drawn from real life or are purely fictional matters not; a choice was made to show them.) Of course, the guests have brought their own to supplement the alcoholic provisions of their host.
Joanna Lumley plays writer (and narrator here) Elinor Glyn, an elegant lady of a certain age, face stiff with makeup, dressed to the nines in over-the-top black and white ensembles, and dropping snobby bons mots about the others. Jennifer Tilly plays Louella Parsons as a clumsy, gauche clown who wears her ambition like a feather in a flapper’s headdress. A very proper and very married guest, Mrs. Barham (Ingrid Lacey), is utterly shocked at the very idea of a lover or a mistress. It’s all rather fun because Bogdanovich has invited the audience to the party as observers, immune from the fun he’s making of all the other guests. The Charleston and lots of 20’s music keeps spirits high.
Then, as Ince’s plotting progresses and Hearst grows ever more furiously jealous, the laughs stop, the character flaws take over, and the killing takes place. It’s rather sad, as presented, a tragedy of errors, except without the profundity of genuine tragedy. Had Hearst been painted here as bigger than life, there might have been gravitas to the subsequent events, but he’s been presented as a joke. The subsequent coverup and power plays by key players are nasty and not funny at all. Bogdanovich plunges his audience from the frivolity of a commedia dell’arte into the darkness of mean-spirited melodrama. The former doesn’t smoothly segue into the latter, but rather dilutes its effectiveness; the inconsistency in mood and tone detracts from the overall presentation.
Still, the actors are fine, within Bogdanovich’s direction which leads them to caricature. The clothes and the gloriously deco yacht are splendid and for a while it’s an amusing party. Imagine having maids to chase your missed ping pong balls!