Stereotypically cats have been called aloof, sneaky, and manipulative. In reality, felines are independent, mischievous and self-aware. They are also smart, loving, affectionate and without trying very hard do some of the oddest, funniest things at the most unexpected times. Nothing against dogs, they are loyal, obedient, loving and always happy to see you, jumping around excitedly whenever you arrive back home. On the other hand, cats may lift their head up as if to say, “oh it’s you.” That is unless it is time to eat and you are late coming home. Dogs are anxious to please while cats, well cats play it cool. Want to find the most comfortable chair in the house? Just check where the cat is sitting.
I never had a pet as a kid except for a parakeet that one summer my parents left with my grandmother while we went on vacation. One day my dear grandmother let the bird out of the cage to give it a little flying time. Unfortunately, she forgot one of her windows was open and well, it was bye, bye birdie! I never had a dog or cat, never wanted one. That said, many years later when I met the woman who would become my wife, I soon learned she had four cats, and like a woman with kids, it was a package deal. I quickly found myself living with four little furry felines that to not only my surprise, but to just about everyone who knew me, I fell in love with. I became an animal lover. I could tell you a lot more but I will only add that we still have cats today. This last statement will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited my John Greco Photography facebook page.
With that let us move on.
Cats have sometimes been given a bad rap in movies, viewed as menacing (Eye of the Cat) or associated with the occult (The Black Cat). Then there are the cats who are seen associating with the criminal element. Infamous thugs like the notorious James Bond nemesis Blofeld who always had a white Angora cat snuggling in his lap. That little dude made multiple appearances in many Bond films including “From Russia With Love,” “Thunderball,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Never Say Never Again.” The image of Blofeld and his cat has become so much a part of pop culture it was parodied by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers films with the wicked Dr. Evil and Mr. Bigglesworth, his Sphynx breed kitty. Then there is “The Godfather,” where Don Corleone holds a cat in his lap early in the film during his daughter Connie’s wedding to Carlo. The cat was an unexpected addition to the scene not in the original script. Coppola found the stray on the lot and thought it would make a nice touch. In both these cases the addition of a cat added another level reflecting the opposite poles of the villain’s persona; warmth and affection on one hand, yet like the claws of a cat ready to attack if necessary.
In a better light cats are often viewed as companions in films like “Romancing the Stone” or “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Like dogs, they are part of the family. Let’s face it, and you pet parents have to admit this; how many of you talk to your pets and look at your four-legged family member as a source of comfort and unconditional love.
I have limited this list to movies featuring domestic cats, and real cats, meaning none of the animated ones pumped out by Disney, Pixar and so many others over the years. So don’t look for The Cat in the Hat, Simba, Felix, Figaro, Garfield, Fritz, Puss in Boots or any other ink, pencil or computerized feline. That’s another post.
Cats have been in movies since almost the beginning of cinema. The oldest I could find was “The Boxing Cats” (1894), a vaudeville act from someone named Professor Welton. The film was made by the Thomas Edison Black Maria studio. It’s a harmless, though a bit on the cruel side, scene of two cats in a small boxing ring with miniature gloves on their paws punching it out. The gloves at least stopped either of the cats from getting hurt. The latest movie with a cat prominently displayed is from the Coen Brothers, the recently released, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The four legged star can be seen on the film’s poster being carried by the lead two legged star portrayed by Oscar Isaac.
The five films I selected have significant roles for the feline actors. They are in no particular order and display various feline traits as well as different breeds.
HARRY AND TONTO (1976) Paul Mazursky
Directed by Paul Mazursky this warm and charming “buddy” movie stars Art Carney as Harry Coomes who along with his cat, Tonto, is evicted from their New York City apartment. Struggling with old age and the harsh life of city living, Harry decides to travel across the country, with Tonto always by his side. Making various stops along the way his visits his daughter, a former girlfriend and befriends a teenage runaway before settling in California with his feline buddy. Carney won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. He admitted at the time he did not like cats but also admitted he and Tonto got along well during the making of the film.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) JACK ARNOLD
One of the 1950’s best sci-fi films. Exposure to radiation and insecticide causes Scott Carey (Grant Williams) to slowly begin to shrink. Based on Richard Matheson’s classic novel this existential tale of a man’s battle against made man elements is B-filmmaking at its best. Scott continues to shrink, fighting the elements he once dominated, yet during this journey, which will lead to his non-existence, he becomes spirituality and mentally stronger. One of his threats is his household cat who now towers over him. Scott has decreased in size so much he is now lives in a doll house with the cat now the equivalent size of a prehistoric monster growling at him; sticking a gigantic clawed paw through the doll house window attempting to capture his now mouse like size prize. The cat is played by Orangey, the award winning Red Tabby and the only cat to win two PATSY awards (animal version of the Oscars). He first won the award for his performance in “Rhubarb” (1951). His second award was won for our next film on the list.
BREAKFAST AT RIFFANY’S (1961) BLAKE EDWARDS
Orangey is given the unimaginative name of CAT in this Blake Edwards film based on Truman Capote’s novella. Its human stars are Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. By 1960, the feline superstar had already appeared in the aforementioned “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and Rhubarb,” as well as “This Island Earth” and on TV where he played Minerva in the TV show “Our Miss Brooks.” Having achieved this high level of screen success, he continued to expand his horizons with his role in this love story. We have the rain filled ending with Hepburn frantically searching for CAT, his emotional meows, the reunion as she picks him up and soon he is squeezed between Hepburn and Peppard as the couple kiss with “Moon River” playing on the soundtrack. This remains one of the most romantic and touching endings in film. No wonder Orangey won a PATSY for his performance! And let’s face it this was his sexiest part to date. He got to sleep with the lovely Ms. Hepburn. What a lucky boy!
MEET THE PARENTS (2000) JAY ROACH
Robert DeNiro is the tough matriarch of the family and he has a cat, a beloved Himalayan cat named Mr. Jinx. DeNiro, as we all know, played a young Don Corleone, another matriarch in another “family” who in his later years after he morphed into Marlon Brando held a beloved cat in his lap (see above) as he welcomes visitors to his inner domain. Coincidence? What does this mean? Well, nothing really but the connection just struck me as I am writing this. Anyway, even when Mr. Jinx is not on screen his presence in “Meet the Parents” is felt. There’s a scene where DeNiro’s Jack questions Focker (Ben Stiller) on why he doesn’t like cats. Focker explains, it’s not that he does not like cats, he is just more of a dog person. He goes on to say he likes when you come home how dogs wag their little tail and are oh so happy to see you. Jack’s response? Well, cats aren’t pushovers like that, they make you work for their affection, they don’t sell out so easily like dogs. Mr. Jinx is all over this film. And of course he pees sitting on the toilet!
BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958) Richard Quine
This is an entertaining and charming film thanks to a good cast (Kim Novak, James Stewart Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Ernie Kovacs, Janice Rule and Hermione Gingold) and a beautiful Siamese named Pyewacket who is the real star of this film as Novak’s Gillian Holyrod’s feline buddy. Gillian is a modern day witch living in Greenwich Village who develops a crush and falls in love with her neighbor, James Stewart. As the romance deepens Gillian faces the obstacle of losing not only her witchy powers but her cat who splits the scene as the love between Gillian and her mortal man gets serious. Pyewacket won the Oscar animal equivalent PATSY award that year. Nine different cats actually portrayed Pyewacket so I wonder how the award was split up. Novak, a well known animal lover, must have had a ball working with all these feline friends.