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'The Cat's Meow'

Bogdanovich film recounts legend of Thomas Ince's death

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LONG AGO and far away when I was a television writer in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of going to work every day at the historic Culver Studios (formerly the Desilu, Selznick, RKO, Cecil B. Demille and Thomas H. Ince Studios, among others), where I overheard rumors to the effect that the lot's 1918-vintage administration building — known to employees as "the Mansion" — was "haunted." Co-workers spoke of hearing strange noises and encountering spooky apparitions in stairwells. Some were sincerely reluctant to enter the building after dark.

The Mansion's spectral resident, I soon learned, was believed to be the ghost of the studio's founder, pioneer filmmaker Thomas H. Ince, who died in 1924 under what some called "suspicious circumstances" during a birthday party in his honor aboard newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst's yacht, the Oneida. The guest list included Charlie Chaplin, wannabe film actress (and Hearst mistress) Marion Davies, and wannabe gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

By all accounts, there was a good deal more going on that weekend than the celebration of Ince's 43rd birthday. Ince and Hearst were said to be in the middle of tense business negotiations. Chaplin was said to be romantically interested in Davies (a rumor of which Hearst was painfully aware). The ambitious Parsons lusted after fame and fortune. In the aftermath of a boisterous first evening of bootleg-fueled dickering, bickering and revelry, the putative guest of honor took suddenly and mysteriously ill, as a result of which Hearst precipitously docked the yacht in San Diego and sent the partygoers home.

Ince died a few days later. Published reports cited "acute indigestion" as the cause of death, but rumors began circulating immediately to the effect that Ince had been the victim of foul play. The fact that the body was cremated without an autopsy and no inquest was ever held only fueled speculation about what "really" happened aboard the Oneida on November 15, 1924, speculation which continues to this day.

Peter Bogdanovich's 2002 film "The Cat's Meow" enacts one version of events — a version inspired by three-quarters of a century of scurrilous hearsay, granted, but that needn't obstruct your enjoyment of this wonderfully evocative re-creation of Roaring Twenties Hollywood. Nor should you be deterred by critics' complaints that the script is too soap opera-ish or the acting too broad. To my mind these stylistic choices are wholly appropriate to what is, after all, a tabloid tale with all the classic trimmings: lust, envy, jealousy, greed, and a handgun.

How true to life it is we shall probably never know, fresh murmurs from the haunted stairwells of Ince's "Mansion" notwithstanding.

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