“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

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“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince’s birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in “THE CAT’S MEOW”, Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros’ stage play.

The movie takes place aboard Hearst’s yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst’s longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.

After watching “THE CAT’S MEOW”, I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. “THE CAT’S MEOW” struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic – including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst’s official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros’ screenplay and Bogdanovich’s direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of “THE CAT’S MEOW” was that many of the characters’ agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.

For costume drama fans such as myself, “THE CAT’S MEOW” offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie’s production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos’ work was aided by the art direction team led by Christian Eisele and Daniele Drobny’s set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie’s 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white – as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.

Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. “THE CAT’S MEOW” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince’s frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst’s minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince’s sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.

But in my opinion, the three best performances in “THE CAT’S MEOW” came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst. The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst’s performance so remarkable was that she was the only one – as far as I know – who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies’ true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst’s performance. Cary Elwes gave – in my opinion – the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes’ performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince’s desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst’s nature – sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst’s desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.

I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince’s birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn’s theory about the “California Curse”:

“The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California … so pay close attention, my dear. You see this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace.”

As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms – seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why did she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich’s decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.

But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called “California Curse”. Why? Because “THE CAT’S MEOW” remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after sixteen years.“Hooray for Hollywood!”.

 

Woolton Pie

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Here is some information about an old dish first created during the first year of World War II in Great Britain. I learned about this dish, while watching the “Wartime” segment of the BBC series, “THE SUPERSIZERS GO”, hosted by Giles Coren and Sue Perkins.

WOOLTON PIE

First known as (Lord) Woolton Pie, this savory vegetable pie dish was first created during the early years of the Second World War at the Savoy Hotel in London by its then Maitre Chef de Cuisine, Francis Latry. The dish was one of a handful recommended to the British public by the Ministry of Food during the war to support a nutritional diet, despite shortages and rationing of many types of food – especially meat. The pie was named after Frederick Marquis, 1st Earl of Woolton, who became Minister of Food in 1940.

Woolton Pie consisted of diced and cooked potatoes (or parsnips), cauliflower, rutabaga, carrots and turnips. Rolled oats and chopped spring onions were added to the thickened vegetable water, which was poured over the vegetables themselves. The dish was topped with potato pastry and grated cheese and served with vegetable gravy. The recipe could be adapted to reflect the availability and seasonality of ingredients.
Lacking in any meat, Woolton Pie was not well received by the British public. In fact, it was among several wartime austerity dishes that were quickly forgotten by the end of the war.

Below is a recipe for Woolton Pie:

WOOLTON PIE

INGREDIENTS

1 lb Potatoes
2 lbs Carrots
½ lb Mushrooms
1 Small leek
2oz Margarine or Chicken Fat
2 Spring onions
Salt, Pepper, Nutmeg, Chopped Parsley.
Bunch of herbs made of 1 small Bay Leaf, 1 small sprig of Thyme, Parsley and Celery

PREPARATION

Peel the potatoes and carrots, cut them into slices of the thickness of a penny. Wash them well and dry in a tea-cloth. Fry them separately in a frying pan with a little chicken fat.

Do the same for the mushrooms, adding the finely chopped onions and leek. Mix them together and season with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg and roughly chopped fresh parsley.

Fill a pie-dish with this mixture, placing the bundle of herbs in the middle. Moisten with a little rolled oats, chopped onions, a little giblet stock or water. Allow to cool. Cover with a pastry crust made from half beef-suet or chicken fat and half margarine. Bake in a moderate oven for 1½ hours.

This recipe has been translated from an original flimsy Savoy Restaurant kitchen copy.

The Charlotte

Here is some information and an old recipe for a dessert dish known as the Charlotte:

THE CHARLOTTE

I first heard about the Charlotte or one of its variations in the 1992 movie, “HOWARD’S END”. One of the supporting characters seemed to have a real enthusiasm for the dessert being served to him by his family’s maid. I have never forgotten that particular scene. And when I came across some information on the Charlotte, I found myself inspired to post an article about it.

The Charlotee is a type of dessert that can be served hot or cold and was believed to be created in the late 18th century. It can also be known as an ‘ice-box cake’. Bread, sponge cake or biscuits/cookies are used to line a mould, which is then filled with a fruit puree or custard. It can also be made using layers of breadcrumbs. Classically, stale bread dipped in butter was used as the lining, but sponge cake or sponge fingers may be used today. The filling may be covered with a thin layer of similarly flavoured gelatin.

Many different varieties have developed. Most Charlottes are served cool, so they are more common in warmer seasons. Fruit Charlottes usually combine a fruit puree or preserve with a custard filling or whipped cream. Some flavors include strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear, and banana. Other types do not include fruit but use a custard or bavarian cream. A citrus curd is a more contemporary choice.

There is a lot of doubt surrounding the origins of the name charlotte. Despite the fact that Charlottes are served across Europe, one etymology suggests it is a corruption of the Old English word charlyt meaning “a dish of custard.” Meat dishes that were known as charlets were popular in the 15th century. Some claim that the charlotte had its origin in the dessert, Charlotte Russe, which was invented by the French chef Marie Antoine Carême (1784-1833). Apparently, he named it in honor of Charlotte of Prussia, the sister of his Russian employer Czar Alexander I (russe being the French word for “Russian”). Other historians say that this sweet dish originated with the Apple Charlotte, which took its name from Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of George III – patron of apple growers in Britain.

The various types of Charlotee desserts include:

*Charlotte Russe – a cake is which the mold is lined with sponge fingers (Ladyfingers) and filled with a custard. It is served cold with whipped cream.

*Apple Charlotte – a golden-crusted dessert made by baking a thick apple compote in a mold lined with buttered bread. This dessert was originally created as a way to use leftover or stale bread.

*Chocolate Charlotte – a cake that uses chocolate mousse within its layers

*Charlotte Malakoff – a cake with a lining of ladyfingers and a center filling of a soufflé mixture of cream, butter, sugar, a liqueur, chopped almonds, and whipped cream. It is decorated with strawberries.

*Cold charlottes – made in a ladyfinger-lined mold and filled with a Bavarian cream. For frozen charlottes, a frozen soufflé or mousse replaces the Bavarian cream.

Here is an old American recipe for Apple Charlotte:

“Cut as many very thin slices of white bread as will cover the bottom and line the sides of a baking dish, but first rub it thick with butter. Put apples, in thin slices, into the dish, in layers, till full, stewing sugar between and bits of butter. In the mean time, soak as many thin slices of bread as will cover the whole, in warm milk, over which lay a plate, and a weight to keep the bread close on the apples. Bake slowly three hours. To a middling-sized dish use a half pound of butter in the whole.” – “A New System of Domestic Cookery, Formed Upon Principles of Economy, and Adapted to the Use of Private Families” by Maria Rundell, 1807

Here is a more modern recipe for the same dish:

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter 1 (1 pound) loaf white bread, crusts trimmed 8 apples – peeled, cored and chopped 1/3 cup white sugar 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 tablespoons butter, cubed nonstick cooking spray.

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Grease a 9×5 inch bread pan with 1 tablespoon butter. Press bread slices onto the bottom and sides of pan, making sure there are no gaps.

In a large bowl, combine apples, sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons cubed butter. Place apple mixture in bread lined pan. Cover top with bread slices, and coat with nonstick cooking spray. Cover with aluminum foil.
Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Allow to cool for 15 minutes in pan, then invert onto serving dish. – allrecipes.com