2016-03-03 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

While watching the Academy Awards 80th anniversary show, it became apparent not a single cat has ever gotten credit during the broadcast for acting in a movie, even though several have played important roles, and others have added nuance, contrast or power to a particular scene. The following chronological list of 10 famous feline film stars includes two animated classics:

1. Rhubarb (1951): This black & white movie is a gem. The plot centers upon an eccentric millionaire who left his entire fortune and Brooklyn baseball team to his cat. The orange tabby actor is superb. Ray Milland, the team publicist, is named the cat’s guardian. The millionaire’s daughter contests the will, and the team objects to being owned by the cat until Milland proves to everyone the cat is a team good luck charm. “Orangey” plays “Rhubarb,” the marmalade tabby, 10 years before appearing in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He won two Patsy awards, the animal equivalent of the Oscar, for his roles in the two movies. “Orangey” is amazing in the Rhubarb courtroom scenes.

The Godfather’s cat The Godfather’s cat 2. Alice in Wonderland (1951): In the Disney animated classic, the Cheshire Cat is a pink striped feline who can disappear at will with only his smile lingering. He pretends to guide Alice on her journey, but instead, confuses her more. I recall seeing the Cheshire Cat on the big screen as a little kid and being both frightened and mesmerized by his strange smile.

3. Lady & the Tramp (1955): Disney does it again. “We are Siamese if you please; we are Siamese if you don’t please” are the lyrics introducing us to the conniving, identical twin brothers, “Si” and “Am,” who abuse Aunt Sarah’s love. She thinks her kitties are victims and banishes “Lady,” the innocent Cocker Spaniel, from her home. The cat co-conspirators provide young viewers with a first taste of dramatic irony. Kids know Lady is blameless, but no matter how loudly they protest to defend the poor dog, the characters on the screen do not hear them.

4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961): Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly has a cat, played by “Orangey.” Holly’s cat is a reminder of the lack of connection she feels to those around her. He represents her unwillingness to feel tied down to anyone or anything. The fact that she won’t name him further emphasizes this: “We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent, and so am I.”

Near the end, the cat represents something slightly different. Holly sets him free in the rain on her way to the airport, by leaving him in an unfamiliar, unfriendly neighborhood. When she realizes the horrible mistake she has made and tries desperately to find him, the cat symbolizes Holly’s realization that she’s scared about never belonging anywhere or to anyone. In Truman Capote’s book she doesn’t find him; while in the film there is a Hollywood reunion with Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard squishing the drenched cat between them as they embrace.

5. That Darn Cat (1965, remake 1997): First the Hayley Mills version and then the Christina Ricci remake feature “DC” (aka “Darn Cat”) played by a Siamese that helps the FBI find a bank robber holding a store clerk hostage.

6. True Grit (1969): A different orange cat named “General Sterling Price” plays a role in True Grit. The cat lives with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) in the back of Chin Lee’s store. Rooster introduces Chin Lee as his father and the cat as his nephew.

7. The Godfather (1972): In the opening scene of the trilogy, as Don Corleone calmly explains his idea of “friendship” to the undertaker, the first shot of the Mob Boss reveals a gray and white cat sitting in Marlon Brando’s lap. “The cat in Marlon’s hands was not planned for,” director Francis Ford Coppola said later. “I saw the cat running around the studio, and took it and put it in his hands without a word.” Brando apparently loved animals, so this cat became part of the scene. But an anonymous extra nearly ruined the shot. When the sound crew listened to Brando’s dialogue, they couldn’t understand a word he was saying and feared they would have to use subtitles. The problem wasn’t Brando but the cat, whose purring wrecked the sound. You can still hear purring on the sound track.

8. Harry & Tonto (1974): A senior citizen road trip of Harry (Art Carney) and Tonto (his cat) shows how both deal with the challenges of old age. When Harry’s Upper West Side apartment is condemned, he decides to travel cross country with Tonto as his feline side kick.

9. Homeward Bound The Incredible Journey: (1993): Three pets erroneously believe they’ve been abandoned for good when their owners drop them off at a friend’s ranch to pet sit while they go on vacation. “Chance,” a Bull Terrier with Michael J. Fox’s voice, “Sassy,” a Himalayan voiced by Sally Field, and “Shadow,” an older and wiser Golden Retriever who sounds quite a bit like Don Ameche, endure many hardships as they cross the Sierra Nevadas and beyond.

10. Austin Powers (1997): Mr. Bigglesworth is the hairless Sphinx pet of Mike Meyers in the Austin Powers series. He was originally a white Persian cat like the one held by a villain in James Bond films. Along with Dr. Evil, Mr. Bigglesworth was forced into a hasty escape in a cryogenic capsule. All of his hair had fallen out during the process rendering him permanently bald.

For Adoption: The poster cats this week have dramatic backgrounds. “Tyke” 6-9 is a six-year-old dilute calico, one of over 20 cats rescued by Babylon Shelter (631-643-9270) when a hoarder was evicted. “Tyke” had dental extractions courtesy of the shelter while she was spayed. “Binky” is a six-year-old seal point Himalayan originally rescued from a warehouse when her owner died. Last fall she was placed by Last Hope in a new home. But one of the cats in that home is bullying this gentle soul so she is looking for a new foster or adoptive home. Call 631-671-2588.

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