Still Krazy After All These Years

Of all classic comic strips, George Her­riman’s Krazy Kat was the most bril­liantly formulaic. For over 30 years, the daily installment climaxed more often than not wi1h the strip’s eponymous star taking a well aimed brick on the head. You might call it a “riff” if you were inclined to be musical.

Krazy Kat — which ended as a strip during World War II and has now been anthologized for the first time in decades by the team of Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Have­non — is based on an eternal triangle, a setup that confounds conventional animal (if not necessarily human) behavior. Kat loves mouse and is, in turn, adored by dog — thus establishing an equilibrium based on longstanding obsession and mu­tual misunderstanding.

The strip is a rondo of unrequited love. Ignatz, a spindly splenetic mouse, despises Krazy; his greatest pleasure is beaning the hapless Kat with a brick. For Krazy, however, the brick is proof that Ignatz cares: “L’il ainjil, he has rewarded my watchful waiting,” Krazy beams after being conked. The doggedly faithful Of­fissa Pupp, hopelessly in love with the oblivious Kat, jails Ignatz after each assault. Thus, in a sense, every cliché comes true and all the characters get what they want. Krazy Kat, many commentators feel obliged to observe (as they don’t, for example, of War and Peace), is a fantasy.

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No less than Charlie Chaplin, its only pop rival for the affection of Jazz Age aesthetes, Krazy Kat synthesized a particular mixture of sweetness and slapstick, playful fantasy and emotional brutality. The strip acknowledges life’s school of hard knocks and then negates it. Herriman’s quintessential image is Ignatz crowning Krazy with a brick — the trajectory marked “zip,” then “pow” (or sometimes “bop”) as the missile bounces upwards off the back of Krazy’s head. The image is as visceral as a drawing can get — the monomaniacal mouse is into his Walter Johnson-like follow-through, while Krazy is knocked forward at a 45-degree angle by the force of the blow. A bump is never raised, yet as Krazy pitch­es stiffly toward the earth, a dotted line culminating in a little heart issues from the Kat’s forehead. Usually, the fantastic vista of Coconino County, Herriman’s version of Monument Valley, can be glimpsed in the background.

If Krazy Kat was one strip that never ducked the violence inherent in the term “punch line,” it owed considerable charm to its subject’s personality — the Kat’s ro­mantic optimism, philosophical ram­blings, amiable propensity for ukulele-­accompanied song (“There is a heppy lend, fur, fur a-wa-a-ay”). The strip has no mystery greater than that of Krazy’s sex. Most observers assume it is female. In one 1920 Sunday page, the Kat even carries a banner for women’s suffrage (Ig­natz is thinking he’ll support the movement until he discovers who holds the placard aloft: “I’m for no ‘party’ that has that ‘Krazy Kat’ in it”).

Unlike Krazy, Herriman refused to commit himself. “I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl — even drew up some strips with her being pregnant,” he wrote. “It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much con­cerned with her own problems — like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit — a pixie — free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?” His certainty is less than overwhelming.

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Herriman’s mystical sense of his cre­ation is epitomized by a 1917 Sunday page in which the Kat asks a Ouija board who his enemy is, receives the answer I-G-N-A-T-Z, and refuses to believe it, stomping the Ouija board (which, of course, turns out to belong to Ignatz) into a crumpled accordion. In an often reprinted box at the bottom of the page, Herriman apologizes to the spirits on Krazy’s behalf: “You have written truth, you friends of the shadows. Yet, be not harsh with Krazy. He [sic] is but a shad­ow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him ‘cat,’ we call him ‘crazy’ yet he is neither.” Herriman goes on to conclude that even after Krazy passes into the shadows, “you will under­stand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.” Is Krazy then a sphinx without a secret?

This spirit of Krazy-ness governs every aspect of Coconino County. In marked counterpoint to the strip’s rigorous for­mula is its delirious, insistent flux. Herri­man’s attitude toward his graphic details was one of jazzy insouciance. Not only was the Krazy Kat logo a mutable, unsta­ble design but, in blatant contradiction of the continuous action, panels typically alternate between day and night (the lat­ter often signified by a crescent moon resembling a decrepit mobile fashioned from a warped Frisbee).

Albeit taken literally from Monument Valley (where Herriman spent much time after the mid-’20s), the landscape of Co­conino County was wildly fluid, shimmer­ing more drastically than the most extravagant mirage: One typical strip opens with Krazy and Ignatz talking on a hill­side, the second panel places them in a suburban yard, the third further up the hill, the fourth on a drawing tacked to a wall, and the fifth against some nonde­script horizon. The sixth and final panel finds the pair back in the yard, standing by a wall from which Ignatz meaningfully extracts a brick.

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At once crude and delicate, Herriman’s line seems almost free-associational in its spontaneity. Actually, his drawings are masterpieces of dramatic economy, achieving miracles of individuation and expression through body language and suggestive absences. Less is usually more: Because Ignatz has no mouth, for exam­ple, his eyes become beacons of preter­natural alertness on an otherwise blank face. Like Paul Klee’s, this work often looks like inspired doodling, but don’t be fooled; as much as it celebrates Herri­man’s quasi-automatic drawing, the Abrams anthology emphasizes his canny vulgar modernism. From the late ’30s on, the dailies are full of referential gags — ­characters address their creator, make their own drawings, or use erasers to alter reality. In one 1940 strip, Krazy heaves a brick against the side of the frame — it ricochets like a banked billiard ball up and off the top of the frame to slam her on the head. In another, Ignatz makes strategic use of a black brick, having suc­cessfully predicted the placement of the strip’s all black frame.

In the mid-’20s, Herriman’s fanciful Sunday layouts were standardized to give newspapers greater flexibility in running them. As Herriman chafed under this new formal, the authority figure of Of­fissa Pupp came to the fore; even so, the layouts of the late Sunday pages have the sort of impacted, tightly integrated cur­vaciousness — not to mention burnt, sandy colors — of classic SoCal bunga­lows. Although some of the more extrava­gant Sunday pages are wordless (one 1918 example is an extended, chilling riff on trench warfare), Krazy Kat is as dis­tinctive for its use of language as it is for its other particulars. Krazy speaks with a kind of stage Yiddish accent, tempered with miscellaneous Sam Wellerisms: ‘”Oh what a unheppy ket I am these brickliss days-oy-yoi-yoi!” Offissa Pupp special­izeh in ineptly highfalutin (often self-­pitying) speeches: “Krazy burns a late candle tonight — I trust it attracts neither moth nor mouse.” Only Ignatz, as the reality principle (he’s also a householder with a large family), speaks relatively plain English.

Krazy Kat counted Willem DeKoon­ing and Jack Kerouac among its fans; the strip was always a cult writ large. When Herriman died in 1944, it was only being syndicated in 35 newspapers, as com­pared to the more than 1000 that carried Blondie. Indeed, William Randolph Hearst was Herriman’s incongruous patron; he liked the strip and he kept it going. (According to McDonnell, O’Con­nell, and De Havenon, he even forced Herriman, humble to a fault, to accept a raise.)

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As Herriman ‘s creation is widely held to have been the greatest of comic strips, theories of Krazy Kat abound. Gilbert Seldes’s pioneering 1922 appreciation (reprinted in the Abrams book, it first appeared in Vanity Fair) compared Her­riman to the Douanier Rousseau. For Seldes, Krazy was a combination of Don Quixote and Parsifal (with Ignatz his ma­lign Sancho Panza, if not Kundry). Twenty-four years later, when the strip was posthumously anthologized, e.e. cummings furnished a suitably high-­toned introduction. In his view, the “humbly poetic, gently clown-like, su­premely innocent, illimitably affection­ate” Krazy was nothing less than the spirit of democracy itself struggling against the excesses of individualism (Ig­natz) and the stupidity of society (Offisa Pupp).

More recently, Arthur Asa Berger has seen the strip as an existential parable; by Franklin Rosemont’s anarcho-surreal­ist lights, Krazy Kat is “utopian in the best sense, signifying the imaginative cri­tique of existing values and institutions, and the presentation of imaginary alter­native societies.” There is also a belliger­ent view that Krazy Kat has no meaning. In reviewing the 1946 anthology for Partisan Review, Robert Warshaw saw the strip as inspired nonsense, comparable to Lewis Carroll: “We do best to leave Krazy Kat alone. Good fantasy never has an easy and explicit relation to the real world.” (Although Warshaw admired the strip’s “fresh quality of pure play,” he expressed a decidedly Partisan anxiety over its “complete disregard of the stan­dards of respectable art.”)

The Abrams book provides material for some new theories. Herriman was a notoriously private person and particu­larly vague about his background. (On his death certificate, his daughter main­tained that his parents had been born in France; colleagues used to refer to him as “the Greek.”) With some difficulty, McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have researched Herriman’s background and confirmed the long-standing rumor that he was of African descent: Born in New Orleans in 1880, Herriman was clas­sified as “colored” on his birth certifi­cate, and his parents were listed as mu­lattos in that year’s census.

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Catholic and French-speaking, the so-called “colored Creoles” of New Orleans were a tight-knit, sophisticated elite, de­scended from “free persons of color” who emigrated from the West Indies. Al­though the 10,000 or so who lived in New Orleans in the late 19th century were mainly professionals and shopkeepers, their position rapidly eroded with the in­stitutionalized segregation that followed the end of Reconstruction. Indeed, it was just at this time — around 1886 — that Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles, where his father found work as a barber and a baker. In 1900, George rode the rails to New York City. By 1903, he was on staff at the New York World.

McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Have­non suggest Krazy Kat’s distinctive patois might be a memory from the Creole quarter of New Orleans. That’s scarcely the only aspect of Coconino County the revelation of Herriman’s background throws into new light. One wonders about the folk stories Herriman might have heard as a child, and Krazy’s vaunted Egyptian heritage now seems like some­thing more than a casual conceit. “Re­member Krazy, my child, you are a Kat — a Kat of Egypt,” she’s told by Kleopatra Kat in one 1919 Sunday page, which also gives the origin of the mouse’s custom “to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiment.”

In view of Herriman’s origins, the per­sistent comparison of Krazy Kat to the rhythm and spontaneity of jazz takes on an added resonance. The comics and jazz appeared on the American scene at roughly the same time. But how many comics shared Krazy’s distinctive formal mixture of sweetness and rough-and­-tumble, consistency and improvisation. Jazz, as Franklin Rosemont points out, was full of “crazy cats.” Jelly Roll Morton, another Creole given to fantasy and hyperbole, was only five years younger than Herriman. It was he who saw the riff as both jazz’s background and foundation.

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“Krazy Kat was not conceived, not born, it jes’ grew,” Herriman is quoted as saying. His admission is startling both for its equation of Krazy with Harri­et Beecher Stowe’s Topsy and for its echo of James Weldon Johnson’s state­ment about the ori­gin of “the earliest ragtime songs.” Johnson, another Herriman contem­porary, published his novel The Auto­biography of an Ex­-Colored Man two years after Krazy’s spontaneous debut. In fact, Krazy Kat did jes’ grow out of the cracks of anoth­er Herriman strip, The Dingbat Family (a/k/a The Family Upstairs, for the Dingbats’ unseen nemesis). The strip published on July 26, 1910, contains an incidental gag: the Dingbats’ cat had his bean honked by a brick-wielding mouse. Eureka!

The relationship between this cat and that mouse soon became a sort of sub­strip beneath the main action; in late 1913, they were spun off into a comic strip of their own. Thus, the Kat was an eruption from below — not just from the underworld of The Dingbat Family and the lower depths of American popular culture but also from Herriman’s uncon­scious. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo — ­which is dedicated to, among others, “George Herriman, Afro-American” — ­uses that concept of Jes Grew as a meta­phor for jazz (and popular culture in general).

From the first, Herriman’s comic strips revolved around compulsive eccentrics — ­one wonders if he wasn’t the most com­plex of them all. His love for Monument Valley, his identification with indigenous Indian culture, his fondness for western Stetsons — not to mention Krazy’s sexual ambiguity and unrequited passion — take on a certain poignancy in view of what must have been an ontological insecurity regarding his own identity. Herriman’s most African feature was evidentally his tightly curled hair — it’s striking that, in virtually every photograph, he’s wearing a hat.

Does Krazy Kat then exorcise the sort of gut-twisting anxiety and guilt engen­dered by passing for white in a segregat­ed culture? Are these brickbats signs of love? Is Coconino County an American utopia? Denial, raised to the sublime, is what Krazy Kat is all about.❖

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat


Newsies: Homeless Boys Singing!

Disney, an entity notorious over decades for its negative view of labor organizing, has created a pro-union musical. To be exact, it has produced a stage version of Newsies (Nederlander Theatre), its 1992 movie about a historic incident in labor history, the New York newsboys’ strike of 1899. In our current political atmosphere, that constitutes an intriguingly ironic and equivocal fact. Perhaps inevitably, the result is an intriguing, equivocal show. Full of bright, entertaining moments and youthful energy, Newsies mingles those virtues with peculiar flat moments and shifts of tone that leave a thoroughly mixed impression, as if the big corporation were trying to turn a smiley face toward newly riled-up workers and consumers, but with deep reluctance in its corporate heart.

Heart, anyway, is what Newsies often seems to lack, despite the care that some of its makers have clearly lavished on it. Alan Menken’s score, a mix of new songs with those carried over from the movie, overflows with zingy, up-tempo numbers (the early “Carrying the Banner” is the best), but turns thin-blooded and jumpy whenever a ballad is required. Jack Feldman’s lyrics, neatly crafted in the rhyme department, tend to heighten the jumpiness by piling up familiar phrases, rather than putting a personalized spin on them. Sometimes even Feldman and Menken’s rhythmic rousers, like “King of New York,” seem melodically short-breathed, supplying a catchy opening phrase with no follow-through.

Harvey Fierstein’s dialogue, slangy and dotted with sharp-toothed laugh lines, has to fight its way through a story, somewhat modified from the movie script, in which major characters regularly flip their allegiances with the ease of playing cards tossed in the air. Even the show’s strongest asset, Christopher Gattelli’s leaping, somersaulting, cartwheeling choreography for the newsboys, sometimes seems almost too busy: Its dazzling parade of applause-winning balletic, acrobatic, and tap displays provoke constant excitement but carry little emotional “build.”

Yet you’d think these highly accomplished artists would have no trouble finding their way to the core of this instantly heart-tugging topic. The newsboys or “newsies” of the late 19th century were mostly poor, often homeless, street kids; their paper-peddling was the source of the vast circulation, and vaster fortunes, racked up by mass-market tabloids like Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Morning Journal. The newsies were not actually employees, but independent contractors, buying each day’s paper in bulk as it rolled off the press, and stuck with any copies they couldn’t sell during that day. When news was slow, you could hear them wearily crying out their unsalable headlines long after midnight.

The Spanish-American War made circulation boom. When it ended, the steep drop in sales pinched the magnates’ pockets; Pulitzer and Hearst tried to recoup the loss by raising the bulk price the newsboys paid. That, added to the unsold papers they were stuck with nightly, triggered their fury. Newsie strikes had been attempted before, but this one took: Within two weeks, the boys had reduced the tabloids’ circulation by nearly two-thirds. After futilely trying scabs, goons, and cops, Pulitzer and Hearst capitulated: Though retaining the price increase, they agreed to reimburse the boys for unsold papers.

Making Pulitzer (John Dossett) a totalitarian of stonelike rigidity, Newsies streamlines the strike’s history into a simplistic us-versus-them melodrama—the kind where you can tell a villain because he kicks a cripple. The show locates its dramatic conflicts, instead, in the wavering commitment of the strike leaders, Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan) and his newfound pal Davey (Ben Fankhauser), egged on by a girl reporter (Kara Lindsay), whose multiple hidden agendas provide Fierstein’s most problematic inventions. Betrayal, blackmail, guilt feelings, self-doubt, secret deals, and a restive membership are the union organizer’s lot—not the greatest inducements to break into song.

Nor apparently, do these troubling matters resonate much for director Jeff Calhoun. The acting, apart from Jordan and Fankhauser, is perfunctory at best, hammy at worst. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are colorfully apt, but Tobin Ost again provides Calhoun a blankly unevocative set, and Ken Travis’s ultra-mixed sound design turns every chorus number into colorless vocal mousse. Despite Newsies‘s basic premise, cheerful tunes, and superb dancing, it still feels like a gift from management during contract negotiations, laden with the aesthetic equivalent of hidden give-backs.


The Shock and Awe Show

As the first bombs fell on Baghdad, George Bush was getting his hair done. We know this because a rogue technician broke protocol by beaming a candid image from the Oval Office to the BBC. Millions of people around the world saw the president primping and squirming, his eyes darting to and fro, for a minute and a half before his here-comes-the-war address. The White House was up in arms. “This kind of thing has happened more than once,” fumed a senior aide, vowing that it would never happen again.

It’s evident why Bush’s hairspray moment was taken so seriously. The blooper must have played like a clip from America’s Funniest Home Videos dropped into the middle of Monday Night Football. Not only did the president seem vain and prissy; he looked uncertain—a real blow to the mastery that the White House is determined to project. Not to worry: The American networks never picked up the subversive footage. Nothing was allowed to intrude on the spectacle of bombs falling on Baghdad that unfolded before our eyes last Wednesday night.

This was a fateful twist on the famous exchange between William Randolph Hearst and an artist assigned to portray Spanish atrocities in Cuba a century or so ago. “There is no trouble here. There will be no war,” the artist wired the tabloid king, to which Hearst reportedly replied, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” This time the Pentagon provided both, and the networks processed these high-tech images into a pageant of unprecedented power.

For most people, newspapers are a souvenir of television. So it’s no surprise that even the logo-centric New York Times would publish jumbo four-color photos, as if to freeze-frame last night’s prime-time action. In this story, the only scoop the press can provide is nuance, and war is no time for that. Nor does it matter, except to watchdogs of the right and left, which way the media lean. Print doesn’t shape public opinion, and on TV the content of coverage is not the key to its meaning. The real spin lies in the flow of imagery and its impact on the imagination.

There’s more to the collusion between the networks and the Pentagon than ideology. Both parties have an interest in creating a drama, one that draws viewers into a web of associations, producing thrills, chills, and secret delight. These feelings are heightened by the belief that they convey the real meaning of actual events. The French, those weaselly surrender monkeys, call this confluence of the virtual and the vérité hyper-reality. It’s the grand illusion of our time.

Hyper-reality is a fiction that presents itself as fact. Its power is enhanced by churning Chyrons and rolling ribbons of text. These signifiers of “breaking news” are also a landscape that keeps the eye alert and moving. Meanwhile anchors spin the narrative thread. War wipes the usual smiles from their faces, and they must maintain a tone of reverent gravity however mesmerizing the imagery. But every now and then, a burst from the id lights up the commentary.

“Slam, bam, bye-bye Saddam,” a guest colonel blurted on CNN as the first missiles fell on Baghdad. No doubt many a surround-sound jock had those words on his mind if not his lips. But a Quaker might be unable to resist this invitation to exhilaration. The absence of flesh and blood allowed us to marvel at the impact violence. Bombs burst over the Tigris with the splendor of award-winning cinematography. Satellite maps offered detailed aerial views of targets, placing each of us in a virtual cockpit—every couch potato his own Josh Hartnett.

But we saw all that in Gulf War I. What’s truly new, and memorable, about this sequel is its aura of intimacy. Embedding journalists with the troops has produced its desired effect, creating a feeling of thereness that many an action-movie director would envy. But the insignia of this event is its distinctive low-res look. It resembles early generations of video games but with a far more resonant edge. The visual plane is flattened, the voices of reporters crackle, the image breaks up into pixelated squares. It’s the cubism of postmodern combat. And like cubism, low-res forces the viewer to fill in the semiotic blanks. Gaze at these images long enough and you enter a semi-rational state. Your mind may find it offensive but your senses say sit back and enjoy The Shock and Awe Show.

Back in the ’60s, when TV still seemed like a new medium, Marshall McLuhan wrote that every novel technology draws from familiar forms until it establishes its own aesthetic. The first cars were horseless carriages, the first art photos were modeled on painting, the first TV shows were visualizations of radio. McLuhan would have understood why the look of this war resembles our favorite new genre: reality TV. It has the same voyeuristic kick, the same aura of faintly forbidden intrusion. Now we know what pilots mean when they describe the terrible beauty of bombardment. Now we know what it’s like to face enemy fire. Or do we?

Reality TV is an illusion created by artful editing. Everything that seems actual has been distilled into high drama. The jiggle of the handheld camera makes the mirage even more lifelike. The same is true of war in low-res. Tanks race through the desert in a beige haze. Time and space collapse as we move in a flash from aircraft carrier to exploding palace, from the home front to Qatar. This preternatural state relaxes as it arouses. We know we won’t be assaulted with sights too shocking to bear. No one will hear our hearts pound in private. Such safe and secret stimulation is the joy of voyeurism. By providing a steady stream of anodyne imagery, the government can go a long way toward turning war into a guilty pleasure. By embedding war in a popular TV genre, the networks do their part to make it bearable.

But combat has a way of violating the rules of the reality game. As high tech gives way to flesh-and-blood fighting, the cameras will have to confront the corpses—either that or the pageant will look like the fake it is. When the agony becomes unavoidable, who knows how the intimacy of this coverage will play to the open eye? The low-res aesthetic has yet to reveal its true impact. The dreamlike trance it promotes could be a new basis for empathy.

Walking home last Friday after watching Op-Iraq in every store and restaurant, I was caught in a serious rainstorm. As lightning flashed and thunder roared, I felt a jolt of something approaching horror. Before it passed and reason prevailed, I was forced to calculate the distance between New York and Baghdad. It may not always be so great. Someday it could be me fleeing from catastrophe while sat-phones beam my agony to a distant population. I don’t think I would have conjured up this fantasy if I hadn’t spent the better part of two nights and days in the magic kingdom of shock and awe.

So get ready for your close-up, Mr. President. There are unintended consequences to hyper-reality TV.


Animal Crackers

Its attitude pitched somewhere between Bulfinch’s Mythology and the New York Post‘s Page Six, The Cat’s Meow allows Peter Bogdanovich to revisit one of the juiciest scandals in Hollywood history—namely the mysterious death of pioneer director Thomas Ince during the course of a wild weekend hosted by media mogul William Randolph Hearst on his palatial yacht in late 1924.

Hearst’s guest list included his young mistress, actress Marion Davies, and her ardent pursuer Charlie Chaplin, as well as aspiring gossip columnist Louella Parsons, popular novelist Elinor Glyn, various corporate flunkies, and assorted party girls. Rich in personalities, rife with cover-ups, and full of unexplained details, the incident has proved a rich field for speculation over the years. Ince’s demise was touched on in the 1985 telefilm The Hearst and Davies Affair (with Robert Mitchum as W.R.) and formed the basis for the 1996 mystery novel Murder at San Simeon, co-written by Hearst’s most notorious grandchild, Patty. In 1997, the same year that the Steven Peros play adapted by Bogdanovich was staged in West Hollywood, Vanity Fair ran an article suggesting that Hearst had precipitated Ince’s coronary by inadvertently stabbing him in the chest with Davies’s hat pin.

Eschewing such baroque conspiracy-mongering, The Cat’s Meow is most similar to the version put forth in Kenneth Anger’s classic scandal compendium, Hollywood Babylon—albeit as comedy. The insanely jealous and pistol-packing Hearst (an uncannily exact Edward Herrmann) suspects the high-spirited Davies (Kirsten Dunst) of betraying him with Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Ince (Cary Elwes), who has his own part to play in the scandal, more or less blunders into the line of fire.

Based on legend if not history, The Cat’s Meow—which is narrated by the humorously imperious Glyn (Joanna Lumley)—is further preordained for being presented as flashback. The party’s sense of forced gaiety is contagious. As most of the action is set on a boat loaded with scheming celebs (and the actors who play them), the audience might feel a tad trapped with a gaggle of Agatha Christie suspects—particularly as Bogdanovich needs to promote a bogus mystery regarding the identity of the victim. Everyone on board has an agenda, not least because Hearst, who has his yacht rigged so that he can exercise Mabuse-like total surveillance, enforces his own form of Prohibition by limiting his guests to a single drink per evening.

Well-cast if broadly acted, The Cat’s Meow gives Dunst particular room to stretch as the most sympathetic passenger on Hearst’s ship of fools (and also as the freshest talent in the hammy ensemble). A lively constellation of worked-out ’20s mannerisms, Her Royal Vivacity resolves every sticky situation by calling for an instant Charleston. Izzard’s avid Chaplin is less spontaneous, seemingly modeled more on Robert Downey Jr.’s impersonation than the thing itself. Squealing like Minnie Mouse, Jennifer Tilly plays Parsons as the starstruck nuisance of the party, who parlays her knowledge into a lifetime sinecure with the Hearst newspapers to become the most powerful columnist in Hollywood. Herrmann’s Hearst has a galumphing pathos, absurdly wearing a jester’s cap to a costume party and impotently glowering as Marion and Charlie do the bump.

The Cat’s Meow is dramatically convincing, although somewhat cute. Historically, there is far more material to suggest that Davies and Chaplin really were having an affair than that Hearst had anything to do with Ince’s death—other than orchestrating a disinformation campaign to forestall any investigation into his hospitality. Although, as noted by Hearst’s biographer David Nasaw, the newspaper baron “would be accused of poisoning Ince, shooting him, hiring an assassin to shoot him, fatally wounding him while aiming at Chaplin . . . there is still no credible evidence that [Ince] was murdered or that Hearst was involved in any foul play.” Nevertheless, omniscient Olympian that he was, the godlike Hearst should have been involved—and in the world of myth he is.

Crisply designed and carefully scored, The Cat’s Meow is, as one might expect, filled with inside references—mainly to Chaplin’s recent flop A Woman of Paris, his upcoming The Gold Rush, and an affair with teenage actress Lita Grey that left her pregnant. The movie may not prove a comeback for Bogdanovich, but his first theatrical feature in nearly a decade is a better-than-competent period evocation that allows the director to flaunt his knowledge (and perhaps vent some of his own bitterness) regarding Hollywood.

A reference to this particular divine comedy was dropped from Citizen Kane‘s initial draft. Bogdanovich, who has been dining out on his Welles impersonation for years, has managed an odd footnote to his hero’s career—filming the anecdote that was considered too scurrilous to make it into Kane.

One of the most famous addenda to the story of “William Randolph’s hearse” was D.W. Griffith’s remark that all anybody had to do was mention Ince’s name to watch Hearst “turn white as a ghost.” Griffith’s own ghost materializes this week, with somewhat unexpected levity, as part of Film Forum’s Sunday series of comic “Re-Discoveries.”

The 1925 Sally of the Sawdust was one of two comedies that Griffith, then under contract to Paramount, made with W.C. Fields. The movie adapted the Broadway musical hit Poppy—Fields’s first vehicle after featured stints with the Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals—and it is a small irony of film history that the humorless, moralizing Griffith would supervise Fields’s screen debut. Playing a boozy carnival con man known as Professor Eustace McGargle, Fields is surprisingly close to his essential persona—albeit a bit trimmer, more spry, and sporting an unbecoming mustache.

Fields gets to fleece numerous suckers and even kick a dog, but his misanthropy is considerably diluted by his affection for little Sally, the orphaned circus girl who grows up to be Griffith’s last protégée, Carol Dempster. Sally, who is characterized in her introductory title as “a strange whimsical creature, part tomboy, part woman,” is a sort of failed Mae Marsh—coyly forward, impish yet forlorn, prone to hysterical bouts of solo dancing.

Griffith may have infused Sally with memories of his own early career as an itinerant performer, but the movie is far more driven by his trademark sentimentality (and opposition to Americans even more puritanical than he). More a romance—or even melodrama—than a comedy, Sally is minor Griffith, but it demonstrates that, whatever the ostensible genre, he remained (and, pace Steven Spielberg, remains) the master manipulator of human emotion.

More unfunny comedy: Human Nature is an overemphatic, would-be wacky, ultimately tedious sex farce directed by video ace Michel Gondry from a script that Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich, seems to have pulled out of his drawer.

As its title suggests, Human Nature is a movie with big ideas (derived mainly from Rousseau and Freud) about our species’s defining drives. Each of the three protagonists is intimately concerned with just what it is that separates us from the beasts. Afflicted since puberty with a surplus of body hair, Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) flees the sideshow for the jungle to become a nature-loving hermit until the miracle of electrolysis allows her to have a relationship with Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a 35-year-old virgin—perhaps named for the former owner of Universal Pictures—who is working out his own childhood programming by teaching table manners to mice. Nathan hates nature, but humors Lila by accompanying her to the woods. There, they stumble upon a naked ape boy (Rhys Ifans, made up to resemble the American Taliban), and bring him back to Bronfman’s lab—where he is named “Puff” by the scientist’s little French assistant (Miranda Otto).

Nathan civilizes Puff, who learns to appreciate opera, drink wine, and imitate Peter Pan. Still, the ape boy persists in rubbing up against whatever woman wanders within his range. It’s either a tribute to or an indictment of the movie that the funniest gag is Puff’s refusal to stop grinding against a projected image despite repeated electric shocks administered by training collar. The acid test is dinner at Hooters, after which Nathan acquaints him with the essence of the human condition: “When in doubt, don’t ever do what you really want to do.”

This gloss on Civilization and Its Discontents aside, some elements of Human Nature are recognizably by the author of Being John Malkovich—mainly the sense of rotating relationships. The movie is framed as a murder mystery—it has a few parallels to The Cat’s Meow and an even lighter burden of consequence. It also features a fair amount of naked Arquette, although the invisible hair shirt she wears is more disconcerting than Gwyneth Paltrow’s body suit in Shallow Hal.


The Princess and the Showgirl

Although Marion Davies is best known these days as the presumed prototype of Charles Foster Kane’s second wife, she was nothing like the screechy, pathetic, and talentless creature ridiculed by Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz. The current Film Forum series (20 of her 46 features) gives ample evidence of her good work. At her best, Davies was an actress of considerable grace. She had a bouncy, elfin personality, she was a natural clown with a great gift for mimicry, and her porcelain prettiness photographed like a dream. Unfortunately, her talent was often buried in costume stories and serious dramas, made at the insistence of her lover, patron, and producer, William Randolph Hearst.

With the right material, she could equal any comedienne on screen. In the two earliest films in the series, Beauty’s Worth and When Knighthood Was in Flower, both directed by the plodding Robert Vignola in 1922, she was not yet fully confident in front of the camera. In the first, she’s a demure Quaker girl transformed into a society belle; in the opulent Knighthood, she portrays Princess Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, who consents to a marriage with the elderly king of France in order to save the man she loves. This dull pageant is notable principally for its lavish sets, designed by the great Austrian architect Joseph Urban. Mary flees the court, disguised as a boy—and this is just one of the many pictures in which Davies dons male attire. Hearst’s fetish for seeing his mistress in trousers gave rise to reports that he would buy any film property in which she was called upon to wear the pants.

He does seem to have cornered that market for his lady love; Davies masquerades as a man, in natty fancy-dress uniform, during most of Beverly of Graustark; in Operator 13, she’s a Northern spy disguised as a Confederate soldier; in Her Cardboard Lover, she’s irresistible in a form-fitting bellboy’s costume; and in Little Old New York, while in tight boy’s slacks, disguised as her dead brother, she falls in love with her male cousin.

Davies came into her own in 1928 with two outstanding comedies, The Patsy and Show People, both directed by King Vidor with an unpretentious lightness of touch lacking in most of her other vehicles. She’s hilarious in Show People (loosely based on Gloria Swanson’s rise to stardom), a witty, affectionate satire of Hollywood. That same year, she appeared in Robert Z. Leonard’s zippy romp Her Cardboard Lover, in which she’s a coed touring the Riviera who falls in love with tennis champ Nils Asther and proceeds to “save” him from his predatory femme-fatale love, Jetta Goudal. The sets are gorgeous; there’s more than a bit of salty pre-Code humor, as well as a long, quasi-experimental, and quite Lubitschian scene in which only the characters’ legs are visible. Davies is the personification of the high-energy ’20s flapper, independent and aggressive; it’s she who does the chasing in this surprising, reputationless film, the revelation of the series.

Davies went on to make 16 talkies, but although her voice recorded well, her position in films became increasingly unstable. In her penultimate picture, Cain and Mabel (1936), she and Clark Gable are teamed as a boxer and a showgirl who spat like cats and dogs and then suddenly fall madly in love. At 40, the actress was hard put to portray a coltish chorine half her age. Mabel may be a stale affair, but it’s a must-see for one truly memorable sequence: a vast production number ordered by Hearst, staged by Bobby Connolly, and intended as the apotheosis of Marion Davies. A guilty pleasure if there ever was one, this spectacularly baroque wedding-cake monstrosity, with its alabaster palaces and Venetian canals, is the kitschiest concoction imaginable. Presenting the actress in the guise of glamorous ladies of legend and history, it looks as if it had been perpetrated by a brain-dead Busby Berkeley.