Saturday, May 3, 2008

Cats On Film

This is Max the Cat, the owner of Mercurie (I know you human beings think you own us cats, but we cats know the truth). Since Mercurie is under the weather, he asked me to write a blog post for him. Looking through A Shroud of Thoughts, I noticed a very serious oversight on Mercurie's part. He has never written about cats in the movies. In fact, he has not really written much about cats at all! I thought I would correct this injustice, then, with a short survey of cats in motion pictures.

Sadly, cats have not played a major role in very many movies. The exception to this rule are animated shorts, where we cats are always getting the short end of the stick from mice, dogs, and, worst of all, annoying, little yellow birds. I can only figure that the reason that cats have not played many major roles in movies and are always the buffoon in animated movies is simple human jealousy towards an animal who is obviously superior in every way possible. At any rate, I will not be covering any animated movies in this article, but instead will limit myself to the few live action movies in which we have had a major part.

I have no idea what the first movie in which a cat had a major role was, but it seems to me that one of the earliest was the comedy Rhubarb, released in 1951. Rhubarb was directed by Arthur Lubin (who directed many Abbott and Costello films and brought The Addams Family to television) and centred on a cat named Rhubarb who is bequeathed a baseball team by a millionaire. The movie starred Orangey, perhaps the biggest feline star of all time. Orangey was a large, orange tom who played in many movies. In fact, he had a major role in Breakfast at Tiffanys, where he played "Cat (Holly Golightly wasn't very original when it came to names)." He also played Minerva on the TV show Our Miss Brooks (why he consented to play a female cat when he was male I don't know--maybe they paid well). He is the only animal to have won two Patsy Awards, the equivalent of the Oscar for non-human actors. Sadly, he never won an Oscar (for his role in Breakfast at Tiffanys he was wholly ignored when it came to the Best Actor category).

While not many movies have featured cats in major roles, it seems that most of the ones that do have been made by Walt Disney Pictures. The first such film they made was The Incredible Journey, released in 1961. The film was based on the children's book of the same title, by Sheila Burnford. It centred on a cat and two dogs who must trek across the Canadian wilderness to find their humans. The cat in the movie was Tao, a Siamese tom cat who has the least trouble of the three surviving in the wild. The movie was remade in 1993 (more on that later).

Disney was also responsible for The Three Lives of Thomasina, a 1964 movie based on the young adult novel by Paul Gallico entitled Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She was God. The movie centred on a bitter veterinarian and his daughter whose lives are changed by a cat who seemingly returns from the dead. Thomasina was a red tabby, who for some reason was played by two different cats. One of the two was apparently a bit of a prima donna. She held up filming for two days when she refused to perform a stunt (maybe they weren't paying her enough).

Disney also made That Darn Cat, released in 1965. It was based on the novel Undercover Cat by Gordon and Mildred Gordon. The movie centred on a traditional, Seal Point Siamese cat who helps FBI agents (one of whom is allergic cats) track down some bank robbers. The movie was the last one Hayley Mills would make for the studio, having worked for them for six years. It was also the first of many films Dean Jones would make for the studio. The movie was remade in 1997, with a tabby in the lead role and Christina Ricci in the role Hayley Mills had played.

It would be many years before Disney would make another movie about cats. The Cat From Outer Space was released in 1978 and centered on Zunar J5/9 Doric 4-7, a cat from another planet who visits Earth and is referred to by humans as Jake. Naturally wishing to return home, he must obtain the substance Org 12, known to humans as gold. Oddly enough, Jake was played by two Abyssinian cats of different sexes--Rumpler and his sister, Amber. I can only figure the family must have needed money.

One of the more famous movies about a cat would come from Japan. Koneko monogatari, known here in America as The Adventures of Milo and Otis, centred on the friendship between an orange tabby cat named Milo and a pug dog named Otis, as the two travel cross country. It was released in Japan in 1986 and then edited extensively and released in the United States in 1989.

It was in 1993 that Disney released their remake of The Incredible Journey. Entitled Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, some substantial changes were made from the original film. The action was moved from Canada to California. The cat and two dogs were given human voices (why I don't know--I had no problem understanding them in the first movie). And Tao, a Siamese tom cat, was replaced by a Himalayan female named Sassy. Other than that, however, the plot was not too different from the original. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey proved successful enough that they released a sequel in 1996 entitled Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco. The sequel found the cat and two dogs lost in the big city of San Francisco.

Nearly all of the films I have listed so far have featured positive portrayals of cats. Sadly, there is one live action film that doesn't. Cats and Dogs was released in 2001 and postulated a secret war between cats and dogs in which both have advanced technology. The movie was clearly made by cat haters, as the cats are portrayed as the villains. In fact, the head cat is played by a very ugly Persian. Worse yet, the movie perpetuates the myth that all cats hate dogs and vice versa. Nothing can be further from the truth. I love dogs. In fact, a dog helped take care of me when I was little. For humans to portray cats as bad guys and to claim there is a secret war between cats and dogs is then positively scandalous. I can only figure that it is yet another manifestation of human envy towards what is obviously a superior species.

Since Cats and Dogs I cannot think of any movies in which cats have been major characters. As I said earlier, there have not been many. I am hoping that some day humans will realise that this is a grave oversight and make more movies in which cats are the main characters. In fact, I hope there comes a day when there will be movies in which every major character is a cat and humans only have supporting roles. Unfortunately, given human attitudes of superiority, I doubt that day will ever come.

Friday, May 2, 2008

When Celebrities Die Young

"Too fast to live, too young to die..." ("James Dean," The Eagles)

It has been over three months since the untimely death of actor Heath Ledger. Because of Ledger's passing, there are those who expect Batman: The Dark Knight to be huge at the box office. I must say that I agree with them. In fact, it would not be the first time that an actor's death has propelled a movie or, for that matter, a work in another medium, to the top of the charts.

In fact, in the wake of Heath Ledger's death comparisons were already being made to actor James Dean, who also died young. In some respects the cult that arose around James Dean is surprising, given precisely how short his filmography is. His entire career consisted of around 35 television appearances, around four movies in which he either appeared in uncredited parts or as an extra, and major roles in only three motion pictures (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant).

While Dean's career may have been short, he made an impact that few actors have before or since. This was perhaps largely because of his roles in both East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. In East of Eden Dean played his first major role in a film, that of Cal Trask, the rebellious son of an overly religious father. Teenagers of the era were naturally drawn to the character of Cal, with whom they could easily identify. When James Dean was killed September 30, 1950, it naturally sent shock waves through his many fans. It would also propel his next film, Rebel Without a Cause (released a little less than a month after his death), to the top of the box office. The film, in which Dean played disaffected youth Jim Stark, would become the one with which the actor is most identified. In his final film, Giant, Dean played a character as unlike Trask and Stark as possible. Jett was surly, racist, and fairly selfish. Regardless, Giant was a hit, and there can be little doubt that much of its audience was made up of teenagers who would probably not have watched an epic drama otherwise. In fact, Giant was the largest grossing film in the history of Warner Brothers until Superman: the Motion Picture.

Even in the months following his death, the impact of James Dean's passing went beyond the grosses of his movies. In the year following his death, his fan club had swelled to almost four million members. Warner Brothers continued to receive 4000 letters a day with regards to Dean. He became one of the few actors to receive posthumous Oscar nominations--one for his role in East of Eden and one for his role in Giant. And almost immediately following his death, urban legends would spring up about Dean. One was that he was not killed in the accident that took his life, but was hideously disfigured and in a California hospital. Since then, James Dean's death has only grown.

While the cult that arose around James Dean is unusual, it was not wholly unknown, even in 1955. Some twenty nine years earlier an actor died who also maintains something of a cult to this day. Rudolph Valentino had been playing small parts in films, usually as a heavy, when he was cast as Julio Desnoyers in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The film made Valentino a star and a sex symbol for women across America. His stardom would only rise to even greater heights when he played the title role in The Sheik, the film with which he is most identified. While his career would decline as the Twenties progressed, his death at the age of 31 in 1926 would have a huge impact. At his funeral in New York City around 100,000 gathered on the streets to pay their respects. Windows of the Frank Campbell Funeral Home were broken as fans tried to get inside. His films would be re-released well in the Thirties. Over the years, on the anniversary of his death, a woman in black has gone to his grave with a single red rose to mourn him. Indeed, while it is doubtful most Americans today have seen any of Valentino's films, he is one of the few actors from his era who is immediately identifiable.

Of course, when it comes to celebrities who die young, it is probably rock stars that come to most people's minds. While the cult of Jim Morrison, one time leader of The Doors, may not match that of James Dean, it is probably safe to say that it comes close. The Doors were formed in 1965. By 1967 their self titled debut album was a hit. The single from the album, "Light My Fire," would go on to sell around 1 million records. The Doors were established as one of the biggest bands in the United States. After five albums, a controversial performance in Miami which would ultimately find Morrison convicted of profanity and indecent exposure, and interpersonal problems with the band, Morrison moved to Paris. It was there that he died at the age of 27. Since then the cult of both The Doors and of Jim Morrison himself has grown. As far as musicians of his era, Morrison was not alone in dying young or having a cult arise around him following his death. Both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin also died young, only to have even greater popularity following their deaths.

It is perhaps an unanswerable question as to whether James Dean would have become such a legend had he not died young, or whether The Doors would have continued to enjoy the popularity they have over the years had it not been for Jim Morrison's untimely death. That having been said, it seems possible that dying young in some respects cemented their status as iconic figures. James Dean, Rudolph Valentino, and Jim Morrison never grew old. Their hair never greyed. Their faces never developed wrinkles. In effect, they were frozen in time--they remain perpetually young. Never having grown old, James Dean remains the rebel without a cause in a windbreaker and jeans. Never having been subjected to the ravages of time, Jim Morrison remains the Lizard King--the young, wild, untamed front man of one of the most popular rock bands of all time. In this respect Dean, Morrison, and other celebrities who have died young remain figures with which youth can identify and those who have grown old can long to be. In dying young, such celebrities essentially become symbols of untamed youth for all time.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Answers to the Earth Day Quiz

Here are the answers to the Earth Day Quiz from last week.

1. In what year did Smokey Bear first appear?

He made his debut on August 9, 1944.

2. What was the name of the comic strip created by Ed Dodd and debuting on April 15, 1946, which featured a photojournalist and magazine writer as its hero and dealt with environmental themes?

Mark Trail.

3. What 1962 book is credited with launching the environmental movement in the United States?

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

4. In what year was Earth Day first celebrated.

It was on April 22, 1970

5. What bird is the icon for the United States Forest Service's anti-littering campaign?

Woodsy Owl

6. What Greek letter was used as a symbol for the ecology movement?


7. What President founded the National Park Service?

Woodrow Wilson

8. What year was the Endangered Species Act passed?


9. What 1990 carton aired on TBS featured an environmentalist superhero and his team of five youths fighting threats to the environment?

Captain Planet and the Planeteers

10. What 2006 film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature Film and dealt with global warming?

An Inconvenient Truth

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Twilight" by the Electric Light Orchestra

I am still feeling under the weather and not quite up to a full fledged blog entry. I will then treat you to an ancient music video--"Twilight" by ELO. "Twilight" is from their 1981 album Time. Time was a concept album which told the story of a man from the year 1981 who is stolen away to the year 2095. Ultimately the album would produce six hit singles (one of which, "Hold On Tight" is being used in adverts for the Honda Accord).

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mercurie is Down for Maintenance

If you are wondering why I have not been posting frequently, it is because I have had a particularly vicious bout of sinusitis. It has left me feeling like doing very little after I get home from work. And this weekend I have spent trying to recuperate.

Anyhow, I will leave you with one of my favourite mashups. It is a "trailer" for the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire cut to make the film seem very different from what it really was. It's from the TV show The Soup.