Monday, 30 November -0001

TOP CATS

The story of Hollywood isn’t only about its human stars – it is also the remarkable tale of the felines that made the industry their own, says Gareth Abbott

Written by Gareth Abbott
HollywoodCats-Jan30-08-176Pepper, who in 1912 was noted for her star quality and praised as being ‘The most remarkable animal ever seen on screen’ by studio boss Mack SennettWhen a tiny grey cat emerged from underneath a stage at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in 1912, who would have guessed that a star to rival some of the great names of the silent era had just been discovered?

Stories of chance encounters and fortuitous meetings are legion in Hollywood and have provided scriptwriters with precious material since the first single-reel film was in the can.

Yet it was an example of life imitating art that captured the imagination of a film-loving world and thrust a young kitten into the Hollywood spotlight.

Pepper, as she was to be christened by Sennett, may have been the first, but was by no means to be the last feline artist to earn the respect, admiration and love of both studio executives and audiences alike.


Perhaps we should not be surprised that Sennett’s instinct was to carry on filming when he first saw the kitten appear.

Regarded as the greatest innovator of slapstick comedy in film, intuition must have told him that Pepper had a star quality that would not only leave a mark on audiences of the day, but would also secure her a place far above the mere footnotes of any cinematic history that attempts to analyse what made the Hollywood film industry so successful in the first decades of the 20th century.

HollywoodCats-Jan30-02-590Left: A kitten hitches a ride in Elizabeth Taylor’s pocket on the set of The Girl Who Had Everything (MGM, 1953) Right: In a scene from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Swedish actress Anita Ekberg cradles a tiny kitten in her hands (Riama Films, 1960)

Sennett famously was often as silent as his films when pushed by the press to comment on his own work. Yet when it came to talking about his animals, he could be vocal. In 1919 he released Rip And Stitch: Tailors; when asked for his opinion of the film he neglected to mention any of its human stars and singled out Pepper as the real reason he imagined the film would achieve success. She was, he said, ‘the most remarkable animal ever seen on screen’.

HollywoodCats-Jan30-03-590Carole Lombard posing with a black cat in a studio publicity shot (Paramount Pictures, c. 1932)

Hollywood was born out of wilderness. It was the desert of California on which the early soundstages and studio offices were built: the natural habitat of strays and the studios became their playground. Perhaps surprisingly, they were more than tolerated, they were welcomed. Hundreds of kittens must have been born over the years. Some, like the young cat that sits on Marlon Brando’s knee in a famous scene from The Godfather, found themselves a place in cinema history, but most simply lived out their lives within the confines of the studio lots, untroubled by dreams of stardom.

HollywoodCats-Jan30-04-590-quote

There are a multitude of images of stars with cats that lived on studio property. Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Lilli Palmer, Arlene Dahl and Cary Grant are all photographed with nameless cats who roamed on and off set with no fear of eviction. Feeding stations were dotted around and strong bonds were often formed between the cats, the stars and the studio staff.

HollywoodCats-Jan30-05-590Left: A studio shot of Judy Garland to celebrate Halloween. It was taken a year before the release of The Wizard Of Oz (MGM, 1938) Right: Between takes, Cary Grant offers some words of advice to a black cat on the set of Kiss And Make-Up (Paramount Pictures, 1934)

But surviving images also provide a glimpse of the stars with some of their adored pets. For every Pepper, there was a Joan and a Jinx, beloved companions of Dolores del Rio and Eartha Kitt respectively. Marian Marsh had Precious, Jean Harlow had His Royal Highness and James Mason was so devoted to his cats that in 1949 he and his wife Pamela co-authored and illustrated the book The Cats In Our Lives.

HollywoodCats-Jan30-06-590Left: Clark Gable with one of the cats that lived on his ranch in the San Fernando Valley (MGM, 1945) Centre: Audrey Hepburn with Orangey, who won his second PATSY (Picture Animal Top Star Of The Year) award – his first was for the title role in Rhubarb in 1951 – for his role as ‘Cat’ in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Paramount Pictures, 1961) Right: Pinning flowers in her hair, Ava Gardner relaxes with a stray cat in the Californian sunshine (MGM, 1949)

The first true feline star of the screen simply disappeared one day following the death of her greatest friend, Teddy the dog. Mack Sennett issued a press release expressing his gratitude to his friend Pepper and added in true Hollywood style, ‘at least she retired at the top’. Despite her passing, and that of every other cat pictured here, one constant remained – in whatever capacity, cats continued to play an important role in the life of Hollywood. There is a saying that you never really own a cat, rather the cat owns you. If that really is the case, then we should be grateful that they allowed themselves to be photographed at all, for they are just as much the stars of the show as their generally better-known human counterparts.

HollywoodCats-Jan30-07-590Stan Laurel (left) and Oliver Hardy (right) during the filming of the silent short, The Finishing Touch (MGM/Hal Roach Studios, 1927)

Hollywood Cats: Photographs From The John Kobal Foundation, edited by Gareth Abbott, is published by ACC Editions, priced £25.


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