In Homeward Bound (1993), a remake of the 1955 live-action animal touchstone The Incredible Journey, two dogs and a cat travel 250 miles to get home. The dogs perform their tricks while the cat’s contribution is Attitude; in fact, the arduous road trip only happens because the note to resolve the plot is “accidentally” set afire by “Sassy,” the cat.
Cats, as anyone fortunate enough to live with a cat knows all too plainly, are just not into being tamed…much less trained. Several to many cats most often share playing a role on screen as the Olson twins did on TV’s Full House. The movie cat is usually played by a series of lookalike cats, each trained for one specific trick, a host of back-up cats, mechanical animatronic cats, “stuffies,” (background and/or stunt figures), and more recently computer generated images (CGI) in some combination.
“Cat,” Holly Golightly’s cat in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was played by the actor cat legend, Orangey. The ginger cat made his debut as title character Rhubarb (1951) who inherits a baseball team. Orangey won the Picture Animal Top Star of the Year (PATSY Awards) for both performances. He was highly in demand in Hollywood the decade between, including his role in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and was also a series regular as “Minerva” in long-running 1950s TV sitcom Our Miss Brooks. A studio executive labeled the fabled Orangey the meanest cat in the world.
Cats are irresistible, and cat actors will continue to dominate their movies in tasteful cameos and featured roles. In the Bond franchise, Polish-born supervillain Blofeld has his blue-eyed-white Persian (neither the cat character nor the actor cat is ever named) unforgettably lounging on his lap. Blofeld-inspired parody gave us another movie pair, Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) and his hairless lap cat, “Mr. Bigglesworth” (SGC Belfry Ted Nude-Gent) in the Austin Powers movies.
As movie technology evolves, a leading cat can be made better to perform—as the cat actor becomes more optics than performance. We expect that—on screen as in life, cats are not inclined to be service animals—with one brilliant exception: The cat is central to Black Magic. The Harry Potter series features cats, Kneazels, and their half-breed progeny. Hogwarts School caretaker Argus Filch’s cat, “Mrs. Norris.” is all cat as played by Pebbles and two other Maine Coons who essay the role. As the mesmerizing ally to the movie witch, cats exude particular glamor, intrigue, and sensuality. No one wants to see a spellbinding movie-witch served by a slobbering St Bernard. Black cat “Susie” unexpectedly appears at politician Wally Wooley’s front door when he arrives home one night in Rene Clair’s black-and-white witchcraft comedy, I Married A Witch (1942). Susie pays no attention to Wally’s admonition that she is not welcome and tears into the house to lead Wally to sultry witch Jennifer, (Veronica Lake) also uninvited, already awaiting them sitting in Wally’s arm chair.
Since it is Halloween, let’s look at the movie’s most mesmerizing familiar. Siamese “Pyewacket” in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) is named for the familiar spirit of a witch detected by the "witch finder general" Matthew Hopkins in 1644. The purring of witch Kim Novak’s beautiful familiar in their duet rendition of George Duning’s theme as well as their hypnotic close-up is more than enough to cast the love spell that both sets the story moving and runs it off track by Christmas.
OK…movies have promoted dogs as the animal hero since “Dick the Detective Dog” in the silent era. Of course, “Buck” in The Call of the Wild, “Rin Tin Tin,” “Old Yeller,” and the lovely “Lassie” have graced the screen in classic movies, remakes, and television series spin-offs. If child-protagonist Jeff played hooky and got himself entombed in the old deserted mine just outside town in the first season of “Lassie” and waited to be saved by his cat, he would surely learn his lesson the hard way. But make no mistake, “Jinxy,” “Crookshanks,” “Tonto,” “Buttercup,” internet sensation “Lil Bub,” “General Price,” and all those other irresistible movie cats could summon help—if they wanted to. These beautiful feline creatures are obviously intelligent…brilliant as hell, actually. So brilliant, that Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) in Meet the Parents explains, “A dog is very easy to break. But cats make you work for their affection. They don’t sell out the way dogs do.” And work for their affection, we do. No tricks…no problem, because we all know every cat is all treat. Leonardo da Vinci said it best, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”