The Cat’s Meow (2001) Is the Cat’s Pajamas

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Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow (2001) centers around the mysterious death that took place on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht that occurred either naturally, accidentally, or intentionally (depending on whose spin you believe) and appeared to have been covered up to protect the media mogul.

If you’re into 1920s costumes, this one really hits all the marks; costume designer Caroline de Vivaise pulled together a beautiful array of outfits for the characters in striking blacks and whites with little pops of color here and there to highlight significant plot points; apparently Bogdanovich wanted the entire film to be filmed in black and white, but it was vetoed by the studio — the monochrome color palette in the costumes was a compromise, and I think it works beautifully. The set is stunning — the stand-in for the Hearst’s yacht Oneida was the Maralawhich didn’t launch until 1931, but provides a gorgeous Art Deco backdrop. The attention to detail in the film will appeal to any hard-ass costume historian, despite the occasional gaffe; the most egregious historical inaccuracy is that the American flag flying on Hearst’s ship has fifty stars, rather than the historically accurate 48 (for those not up on American history, Hawaii and Alaska had not yet been granted statehood in 1924).

Eddie Izzard and Kirsten Dunst are fabulous as the clandestine lovers Charlie Chaplin and Marion Davies (who may, or may not, have been engaged in an affair at this point) and Joanna Lumley continues to be my Everything in her role as novelist Elinor Glyn. Jennifer Tilly plays Hearst columnist Louella Parsons, and Cary Elwes is the revolutionary producer Thomas Ince who is experiencing something of a career downturn. Rounding out the principle cast is Edward Hermann as W.R. himself. For all its light-hearted veneer, the dramatic energy in The Cat’s Meow definitely kept me on the edge of my seat the events unfolded.

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Kirsten Dunst as actress and W.R. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies.

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The real Marion Davies. Not a bad likeness, truly.

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Marion wears a cute silk beach pajama suit with a nautical theme. Those are wide-legged pants she’s wearing, but you can’t see them except for a quick full-length shot.

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Elinor in a fabulous black and white coat and white dress with black embroidery at the neckline.

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Can I be best friends with Joanna Lumley? Pretty Please?

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Charlie in a gray three piece suit, striped shirt with white detachable collar, and gray woolen overcoat with a black collar.

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Louella’s coat is amazing, but it’s impossible to get a good shot of it. Her character spends almost the entire film in fussy, ridiculously over-accessorized outfits which compliments her fairly ridiculous personality.

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Louella trips while boarding the Oneida, and you get a split second shot of her gartered hose and knickers. It’s the little details like this that were such a treat!

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Margaret spends the film looking dowdy, which is really strange because the real person that the character is based on was pretty damn glamourous.

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It’s never really explained who Didi & Cecilia are, but they’re apparently there to have a good time!

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Most of the cast, sans Marion & W.R.

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W.R.’s secretary Joe Willcombe in a fabulous black double-breasted pinstripe suit.

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Margaret’s knickers and gartered stockings.

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And her adorable black silk slip/negligée trimmed in white lace.

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I WANT THIS BEADED DRESS.

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Ok, in all fairness, I wouldn’t look as awesome as Kirsten Dunst does in it.

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That beaded necklace… I just love it.

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TFW you’re stuck on a boat with a bunch of annoying flappers and your boyfriend won’t acknowledge you as his mistress.

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I spent a fair amount of time obsessed with Elinor’s hair. The style is perfect for a fashionable older woman who wouldn’t be bobbing her hair — it utilizes long hair and mimics the cropped silhouette of the bob hairstyle without cutting it.

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A good side-by-side comparison of fashionable 1920s hair for women of a certain age and young women. Marion wears her hair bobbed and curled.

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A rare almost full-length shot of Elinor and Marion.

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Another, somewhat lighter image showing Elinor’s hairstyle. She’s also wearing an assuit robe which I covet. Also known as tulle-bi-telli, assuit was an extremely popular textile in the 1920s.

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Claudia Harrison, the actress who played Margaret, demonstrated a fantastic array of “I have no more fucks to give” expressions throughout the film.

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Most of the outfits in the film were authentic 1920s pieces, like this white cotton eyelet embroidered dress worn over a black slip by Louella.

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One of the things the costume designer had the hardest time with sourcing were 1920s hats and headgear, so most of the hats in the film are reproductions.

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THAT POLKA DOT DRESS.

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I NEED IT.

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Dr. Goodman and Joe are looking dapper while waiting for shit to go south.

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Another briefly glimpsed ensemble on Marion. This one read more like lingerie.

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Another fabulous beaded gown for Marion, topped off by that amazing butterfly hat.

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I feel like I’ve seen that necklace somewhere before… Could it be one from Kenneth Jay Lane’s “Let Them Eat Cake” collection?

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Again with the details! Louella is wearing the metal wave clips used to make the iconic 1920s finger wave hairstyles. Also, she apparently wears her hair long and in a chignon at the back, similar to Elinor. Not every woman was willing to sacrifice her hair for the latest fashion!

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At the end of the film, Louella’s less fussy and more restrained in her clothing, which goes along with the character’s development from flighty ditz that no one takes seriously, to someone who means business.

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Lots of polkadots throughout the film.

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I WANT THAT POLKADOT DRESS.

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Margaret’s dress in the final scene she’s in is subdued and elegantly accessorized with a beaded lariat necklace.

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JOANNA LUMLEY IS PERFECTION.

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At one point Hearst has a screening of what I think was supposed to be Marion Davies’ role as Princess Mary Tudor in When Knighthood Was In Flower (1922).

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Kirsten Dunst as Marion as Mary. I tried to find stills from the actual film because I would be fun to compare the two, but wasn’t lucky in turning any up.

What do you think of the costumes in The Cat’s Meow? Share with us in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

13 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I really loved Ms de Vivaise’s blending of actual 1920s garments and her own designs. My favourite was Marion’s butterfly headband.
    One nice point the fashions conveyed was the difference in wealth and Hollywood hierarchy. Marion, Elinor and Margaret wore clothes that said ‘star ‘ while Louella and the starlets were dreesed in appropriate clothing that conveyed their status.

    A historical note. This trip was the making of Louella’s career.

    Reply
  2. Andrew.

    Although it doesn’t fit this site’s criteria, the 1928 silent comedy, Show People, would make a good second feature with The Cat’s Meow. The reason is that you have Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Elinor Glyn, Louella Parsons, (as well as several other major Hollywood figures), all playing themselves and interacting. Marion Davies also plays the young ingenue hoping to make it in the pictures. She had a flair for comedy.

    Reply
    • hsc

      “Show People” is absolutely wonderful, and it shows what a shame it was that Davies for years was thought of primarily as the inspiration for Susan Alexander in “Citizen Kane”– an untalented beauty whose wealthy benefactor tries to buy her a career.

      And those metal wave clips pictured above bring back memories– my maternal grandmother (born in 1888) had a set of those on her dresser, and I fondly remember the way the teeth would spread apart when you squeezed the spring and gingerly clipping them around my fingers.

      Reply
  3. ladylavinia1932

    How do I feel about the costumes? They were the “cat’s meow”! Okay, bad joke. Honestly? They were absolutely gorgeous. And I really enjoyed the story, even if I have a few comments about it.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yeah, the plot is the typical Hollywood “based on a true story” that’s 90% nonsense and 10% actual research. But in this case, I feel like they got the right balance between writing an engaging plot that offers up one possible scenario for Ince’s death that actually doesn’t stray too far from plausibility. Something happened on that yacht and was brushed aside/covered up. It’s not too far of a stretch, considering everything already known about W.R.H., to think that he either had something to do with it or made it all go away to to protect whoever did it. I felt like the way the plot treated his paranoia (factual) and his relationship with Marion Davies (also factual) offered a plausible scenario as to how Ince was shot (questionable) and why (the whole Davies/Chaplin affair, which was also plausible, though unsubstantiated).

      So all in all, I think it did a decent job of trying to adhere to history while not sacrificing it for the sake of an engaging plot. It did have the benefit of an incomplete story to begin with, in that no one knows what happened other than *something* that was hushed up, so embroidering on what little is known works in this situation.

      Reply
      • Donna

        Elements of the same plot (covered up murder on Hollywood mogul’s yacht) are in the film Sunset … a pleasant little romp through movieland in the silent era.

        Reply
  4. fairamir

    Love the site and how much detail/explanation you offer.

    I wonder if you have any recommendations of movies in which more working class fashions of the 1920s are on display/accurate?

    Reply
  5. SarahV

    How marvelous! I just caught this the other day on cable and wondered if the Frock Gals did a write-up of this movie?

    To my delight, you did!!!!!

    I also splurfed by soda all over my screen when I read the line about a “boatload of annoying flappers.”

    Reply

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