Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In Memoriam: Thomas Ince

Silent movie producer Thomas Ince died on this day in 1924. His death was shrouded in mysterious circumstances, but Hollywood has tried to guess at what happened, in the interesting 2001 movie The Cat's Meow.

The action takes place aboard a yacht owned by the famous William Randolph Hearst (here played by Edward Herrmann). He's got members of Hollywood's glitterati there for a days-long cruise/party, from thespians (both his great love Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin were there) to producer Ince (Cary Elwes), to writers like Louella Parsons. All during the party, there were rumors that Chaplin was trying to carry on a relationship with Davies, an idea which enraged Hearst. So, Hearst tried to get his revenge by.... Well, I won't tell you exactly what happens next, as that would give the story away.

It's an interesting story, although nobody is going to have any idea how much it hews to reality. As a result, the movie (like Girl With a Pearl Earring) can be looked at pretty much as a completely fictional story. In that regard, it's not bad. Herrmann's Hearst comes across as both domineering and lonely, a man who, having reached the top, finds out that it's not all he's bargained for. Kirsten Dunst plays Davies, who seems to be both smarter than she's generally given credit for, and a bit chafing about being somewhat under Hearst's thumb. The highlight of the characters is Eddie Izzard's portrayal of Chaplin. This Chaplin isn't the Little Tramp, but an obnoxious, supercilious man who is convinced of his own genius and thinks the world should bow before him because of it. I've always felt that Chaplin is overrated amongst the silent comedians when compared to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and this characterization gives me even less sympathy for him.

The other nice thing about the movie is the portrayal of 1924. The movie is a trip back in time, with the cars, the fashions (wow, those hats!), and the culture of the time -- part of the reason for the party was so everybody could get rip-roaring drunk, legally, in international waters. Although the studio system had a lot going for it, one of the advantages of modern films is that they are generally much better at portraying the look of history (even if they're just as bad at getting what actually happened correct).

The Cat's Meow is available on DVD, although it's not for everybody. The subject material is certainly not for younger people, and the characters, other than Chaplin, may be a bit of a slog for those who don't know much about the movies. I must admit myself that I had never heard of Ince before seeing this movie.

No comments: