- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

''Things that I thought might be bad luck turned out to be good luck. Things I thought wouldn't work did work. Actors I wanted, then couldn't get, were replaced by people who turned out to be better choices, after all."

Director Peter Bogdanovich is musing about the serendipitous aspects of "The Cat's Meow," his first feature in almost a decade. Selected to open Filmfest DC, the movie begins commercial engagements in the Washington area May 3.

Mr. Bogdanovich notes in an interview that his last picture was "The Thing Called Love," which he calls "a little picture about a bunch of Nashville singers, with River Phoenix, Samantha Mathis and Sandra Bullock. The studio kept it quite quiet. I'm not sure if it ever did reach Washington."

Although critics gave favorable reviews to "Noises Off," made the year before "The Thing Called Love," it fell through one of the chronic cracks in the distribution system. "It was a funny picture, and it did appeal to most of the people who saw it, but it was also something of an industry secret," Mr. Bogdanovich says. "I'm afraid it was caught in one of those studio-executive shuffles. We were in production during the transition, and [it] ended up as an orphan."

The source material for "The Cat's Meow" is an obscure play. Mr. Bogdanovich hired the author, Steven Peros, to collaborate on the screenplay and estimates they changed 40 percent to 50 percent of the original.

The story reconstructs the enduring mystery that surrounds the death of pioneering silent-film director and producer Thomas Ince, who died in November 1924 while he was a weekend yachting guest of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and actress Marion Davies.

When the ship returned to port from a cruise to Santa Catalina Island off the California coast, Ince was in a mortal condition that was attributed officially to heart failure. Rumors have persisted that he was the victim of a gunshot wound, the consequence of mistaken identity in a darkened passageway. The assailant's target was believed to have been Charlie Chaplin, also a guest and reportedly pursuing a love affair with Miss Davies, Hearst's mistress.

"The first time I ever heard about the scandal was from Orson Welles, 33 years ago. He told it to me in the context of a conversation we were having about 'Citizen Kane,'" Mr. Bogdanovich says. "He was still trying to discourage the idea that Kane should be equated with Hearst or Hearst alone. He always insisted the character was a composite of several press magnates who became prominent in the last decade of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

"As an example of how different the actual Hearst had been, Orson cited this persistent rumor that implicated him in the death of Tom Ince. He said he had heard the story from Charlie Lederer, Marion's nephew and a prominent screenwriter for many years. I met Charlie later, and he confirmed it. So the account we use is pretty much the standard one, which can be traced to Marion's side of the family and presumably derives from confidences she entrusted with intimates," Mr. Bogdanovich says.

"Of course, she mentions nothing of the episode in her memoirs. Chaplin didn't mention it in his autobiography, either. In fact, he maintained he was never on the cruise, although his Japanese chauffeur was waiting for him on the dock and was one of the few people who actually talked a bit to the press."

The production itself was based a long way from Southern California. Interiors and a funeral sequence were shot in Berlin. The seascapes come from Greece. "Why, you might ask? Because the yacht was there," Mr. Bogdanovich says.

"It belonged to a French architect. It was the only one in the world that was the right size and reflected the period authentically. Wait, I take it back. There was another one, but its owner said, 'Not on your life' when approached about loaning it to a movie company."

Mr. Bogdanovich was stuck with shooting the seaborne footage in less-than-balmy conditions. He needed to complete that phase of the production before a "drop-dead" Christmas break that began Dec. 22. "The weather was very tricky. It kept changing on us," he recalls, "and there was nothing for anyone to do when the workday was over. We did a lot of additional writing during the production. The actors came up with excellent ideas about changing and improving things. There was a lot of improvisation."

Mr. Bogdanovich's principal cast members are Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies, Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst, Cary Elwes as Thomas Ince, Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin, Jennifer Tilly as Louella Parsons and Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glyn. The director believes Miss Dunst's portrayal helps restore the image of Davies as a loyal consort and talented comic actress. "Citizen Kane" portrays the mistress of the fictional press lord Charles Foster Kane as a hapless and embittered woman named Susan Alexander.

"That was definitely one of the things Welles regretted," Mr. Bogdanovich says. "He knew it had been a big libel and maybe a crucial miscalculation to let people confuse Susan with Marion. Far from being a failed performer, Marion was a brilliant comedian, and she was loyal to Hearst right to the end. I also believe she felt an enormous amount of guilt for what happened to Tom Ince. We try to show that in the movie."

To help her portray Davies, Miss Dunst "looked at 'Show People,' one of Marion's best silent comedies, and an obscure talkie, also directed by King Vidor, 'Not So Dumb.' It's hard to find that one, although it's based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber that had been very popular in its day, 'Dulcy.' It's a funny, charming little screwball comedy. Those two pictures gave Kirsten plenty to go by when impersonating Marion. One of the curious things is that both Chaplin and Elinor Glyn have bit roles in 'Show People,' playing themselves. That was about four years after the notorious yacht trip."

Born in New York in 1939, Mr. Bogdanovich resumed living there, on the Upper West Side, in 1997. His parents immigrated to the United States shortly before war began to engulf Europe. His father, an abstract painter, was Serbian. His mother came from a Jewish family that had lived in Vienna for several generations. However, his maternal grandfather had moved to Belgrade to run an export-import company.

He recalls his first contact with film. "[It] was in a newsreel. I appeared in a Yugoslav peasant costume with a little girl, similarly garbed. It had something to do with the United Nations, so that must have been 1946 or '47."

Mr. Bogdanovich later became known as a movie buff and the author of several career monographs on John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan and Alfred Hitchcock. He began a directing career in the late 1960s with "Targets" and made the prestigious movie version of Larry McMurtry's novel "The Last Picture Show" in 1971.

He is trying to complete a companion volume to a recent study of directors, titled "Who the Devil Made It?" The follow-up volume concerns famous actors he has known and/or admired, and it will be called "Who the Hell's in It?"

"I'm two years late with the manuscript. I thought it would flow as easily as the first book, but I miscalculated. It's quite a different animal. Very little Q and A. It's mostly impressions of about 30 people, drawn from memory, so it's slower going. I'm trying to bring out aspects that eluded the press and the public, reveal some new angles on the basis of what I observed.

"I try to cover kind of a wide area: John Wayne, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Boris Karloff, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Jack Lemmon, Audrey Hepburn. In my experience all very nice people, or at least nice to me. It's about half-written, but I need to devote myself to finishing it before I commit to anything else."

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