Five Film Favorites: Felines!

Insanity reigns, in Nobuhiko Obayashi's "House".

In honor of the arrival of our new kitten, Baby, named after you-know-who (see below), I’d like to give a brief shout-out to that most unheralded of movie creatures: the cat.

Everyone loves dogs, see, but the cat, well, the cat is a beast that conjures up mixed emotions. People love cats… or they hate them. Actually, people that love cats often hate ’em as well.

My stinky lunatics are a great joy in my life, and I love torturing them with aggressive affection. But I also think that cats make for interesting characters in movies, or interesting props. Dogs have a tendency to be a bit one-note for my taste (in movies, that is–in real life I think dogs are the cat’s meow.)

Most of the films mentioned below have house cats, or house cats playing big cats, so for that reason you won’t see The Lion King or The Ghost and the Darkness, both of which feature the biggest of cats, and both of which are the biggest of yawns in my opinion.

5. A menagerie of cats getting tormented or tortured: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Alien & Aliens, Blofield’s cat in a ton of great (and mediocre, and terrible) James Bond movies, and Michel Simon’s coterie of cats in L’Atalante.

Ah, the cat in torment. Monty Python and the Holy Grail has a number of scenes in which some filth encrusted, rag-clad peasant is beating a cat for no apparent reason, and a number of felines get hurled over the ramparts in the brilliant French taunting scene. What more do you want? I’d never hurl any of my cats against a wall, but that doesn’t mean seeing it a movie doesn’t make me laugh.

Jonesy the cat is totally bad ass in Alien and Aliens. He hisses at the big fucker, and watches with that nihilistic stare that is so prevalent in every cat as Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is taken down–in fact, his look seems to indicate, at best, a frustration that this is one less human to provide him with kibble. He’s a survivor, and that alien doesn’t bug him one damn bit.

Any James Bond movie featuring Blofeld is going to also have a shot of that hand with its pinky ring stroking that awful white cat. The good news is that Blofeld is one of those awesome evil characters, and that cat only makes him cooler. The bad news is that every damn parody of a Bond film, from the risible Austin Powers movies to the mind-numbing Inspector Gadget, has a take off on the cat. Still, those are some cool cats, and Blofeld isn’t Blofeld without ’em.

Oh, marvel at the joy of L’Atalante, and the great cats that swarm over its mystical Barge of Love. Michel Simon, an actor who was like no other before or since, loved animals and it shows in his adoration of the many cats that roamed the boat. In one scene, it looks as if the director, Jean Vigo, was actually hurling cats at his actors! Awesome. This section of this wonderful movie has the most cat craziness.

4. Team America: World Police (2004, Trey Parker.)

Though I’m not totally sold on Team America: World Police (like I am with the South Park movie), I have to say that the use of cats as ravenous panthers is perhaps the most inspired cat comedy ever. I’ll let the clip do the talking (and I apologize for the quality of said clip):

3. Harry and Tonto (1974, Paul Mazursky.)

Art Carney made three great films about aging in the 1970s, movies that hold up today: Harry and Tonto (for which he won an Oscar), The Late Show, and Going in Style. But Harry and Tonto also features one of the great cat performances in film. This one’s very 70s (read: lots of kooky characters, a road trip, endless discussion about the Man and being truly free, expanding one’s horizons, etc.), but it’s a also a great meditation on growing old, enduring change, and having a friend who is a cat. Tonto is the cat. And he’s lovely. He and Carney have about the best chemistry of any of these movies. (Hard to believe Carney was only 56 when he made this movie.)

2. Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawks.)

Just when you think there’s no possible way for Kate Hepburn’s Susan to ensnare Cary Grant’s Dr. Huxley, along comes Baby, that most sophisticated of film felines. Baby shines, especially as a foil to that annoying George, perhaps the most overrated movie pooch in history (it’s Asta, the Fox Terrier from the Thin Man series.) Who can’t love a cat that’s soothed by “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”? Baby wins my heart every time.

I know Baby’s not a house cat, but we named our kitten after her. So sue me.

1. House (1977, Nobuhiko Obayashi.) 

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. There can be no doubt that this is the greatest of cat movies. The cat dances. It flies. It kills teenage Japanese girls, seemingly at times by electrocuting them with a hanging lamp. Blood shoots out its mouth. This cat can sing, meowling out the creepy and disturbing theme to House.  You have to watch this one to get its full effect. All hail the House cat!

Honorable Mention: “Confuse-A-Cat” sketch from Season 1, Episode 5, “Man’s Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the 20th Century”(1969), of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

And finally, I have to share my favorite cat moment in film–though the film in question is television. Behold Monty Python’s “Confuse A Cat” skit. I wish Confuse-a-Cat, Ltd. lived in my neigborhood. (Or Distract-a-Bee for that matter…)

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4 Responses to Five Film Favorites: Felines!

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    Saw “Harry and Tonto” recently on Netflix. Hadn’t seen it since the mid-70s and it holds up well, in my book. But this time, looking at it through geezer eyes, I identified more with Harry, instead of Tonto.

  2. Ted Salins says:

    I always like your posts Peter but “TEAM AMERICA”, like all “SOUTH PARK” franchises, is brilliant.

  3. Peter Schilling says:

    Ted, I think it’s brilliant, but puppets, man, they creep me out.

  4. Janice says:

    I would like to add my favorite from a TV series, the British series Pulling. The show with the cat is pure genius.

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