Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Film, Fact & Fiction: Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill's
     -- e.e. cummings

Like many historical figures of the American West, William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, became a legend within his own lifetime. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Cody engineered the process himself, carefully crafting the persona of Buffalo Bill for his own ends. His flair for showmanship led him to create the Wild West show that entertained people all over the world and perpetuated many of the images of the Old West that we still see in films and other media today. At the center of that show was the man himself, larger than life, dressed in decorated buckskin and tall boots and crowned with flowing locks. Cody, who died in 1917, even appeared in some early film footage promoting his show; if he had lived to see the way cinema would continue his legacy he would no doubt have been pleased. Like other icons of the West, Cody has been depicted in numerous films, although most of them have succumbed to the lure of his public persona and few have looked into the facts of his actual life. An overview of Cody's appearances in classic movies reveals the extent to which Buffalo Bill looms over our imaginary Western landscape, but it also shows how much of Cody's real life has yet to be depicted on film.

Cody actually plays himself in the first entry for depictions of Buffalo Bill on IMDB, a 1915 three-reel silent known as The Circus Girl's Romance or Patsy of the Circus. (There is also a 1912 production called The Life of Buffalo Bill, in which he is credited as himself, and a host of other shorts and documentary shorts, mostly depicting the Wild West show. Look for these under William F. Cody as an actor rather than Buffalo Bill as a character.) This was not a new tactic for the showman, who had been playing himself in stage shows starting in 1872, when he alternated between having real adventures out West and then starring in fictionalized versions of them for the stage back in Chicago. He even took to wearing his stage costume on his frontier expeditions. The plays served as tie-ins to the huge number of dime novels that starred Buffalo Bill as their hero; in all, some 1,700 stories would be produced.

The novels were long on heroics but very short on facts. While the fictional Bill roamed the frontier and fought with Indians, the real William Cody struggled through a long-distance marriage and the deaths of three of his four children, including his five year old son, Kit Carson Cody, and his eleven year old daughter, Orra. Restless, extravagant, and always hatching a new plan for wealth and fame, Cody hit great heights as well as terrible depths over the course of his life. In 1904 he endured scandal when he unsuccessfully sued his wife, Louisa, for divorce, only to have his own affairs and alcoholism revealed to the public. The couple eventually reconciled, and Cody died on January 10, 1917, at the home of his sister in Denver, Colorado. His last living child, Irma Cody Garlow, died of the flu in 1918, and Louisa died in 1921, having outlived both her husband and all four of her children. (See the William F. Cody Archive for a longer biographical account.)

After his death, Cody continued to be popular in films and was played by a wide variety of actors. George Waggner played him in John Ford's silent, The Iron Horse (1924), and Duke R. Lee played him in both 1922 and 1927. The dawn of the talkie era brought more depictions, with lots of noisy excitement to bring both the frontier and the Wild West show to life. Moroni Olsen gets significant screen time as the showman in the 1935 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, Annie Oakley, a very free-handed biographical account of the sharpshooter's rise to fame. Although it's not the place to look for historical accuracy, it's an excellent picture and a lively rendering of the height of the Wild West show's success. In 1940 Roy Rogers played a youthful version of Bill in the aptly named Young Buffalo Bill, which touched off a series of other productions depicting the icon's early adventures. George Reeves took up that vein with the serial, Pony Express Days, in 1940, followed by child actor Dickie Moore a decade later in Cody of the Pony Express. Other actors who took on the role in subsequent years included Charlton Heston and Clayton Moore, and even more performers played Buffalo Bill once television took hold.

A few films from the classic era provide the most memorable screen depictions of Cody. He was treated to a full biopic production with Buffalo Bill in 1944, in which Joel McCrea plays Cody and Maureen O'Hara plays Louisa. Ironically, Moroni Olsen, who had played Bill in Annie Oakley back in 1935, here appears as Louisa's father. The picture also features Linda Darnell, Thomas Mitchell, and Anthony Quinn. Cody is probably best remembered by movie fans as he appears in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), the musical account of Annie Oakley's life starring Betty Hutton. In this picture, Louis Calhern portrays the showman, while Howard Keel costars as Annie's love interest and eventual husband, Frank Butler. In 1976, after the heyday of the classic Western had ended, Robert Altman offered a satirical look at the legend in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, starring Paul Newman in the title role.

You can find Buffalo Bill in plenty of more recent films and television series. He's played by Keith Carradine in Wild Bill (1995) and by J.K. Simmons in Hidalgo (2004). New depictions are certainly still on the horizon; Buffalo Bill is a hard figure to resist, even if we always seem more interested in the legend instead of the man.

If you want to learn more about the real William F. Cody, add a visit to Cody, Wyoming, to your bucket list. Cody founded the town, which is named in his honor, and it's there that you'll find the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The museum includes a large wing devoted to the story of the man and his myths, where you'll find not only a talking hologram of Buffalo Bill but also countless artifacts and personal items from his family and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. While you're there, pop into the historic Irma Hotel for a buffet lunch. Cody built the hotel and named it for his daughter in 1902; the huge bar was a gift to Cody from Queen Victoria. The town will give you a palpable sense of Cody's legacy beyond his depictions on the silver screen.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Guns of the Old Western in Wyoming

We spent last week in Montana and Wyoming, mostly touring Yellowstone and Grant Teton National Parks, but I'm happy to say that I still found some balm for my classic movie loving soul. One of the best spots for indulging a cinema obsession was Cody, Wyoming, where we spent a full day exploring the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a five museum complex affiliated with the Smithsonian and a treasure trove for all kinds of fascinating knowledge. I'll talk about Buffalo Bill's personal history and the movies in another post, but this time I want to focus on the Cody Firearms Museum, one of the five museums in the Center.

I'm not normally a gun fan; I grew up around them but find them disconcerting. In Westerns, however, I accept that guns are a necessary and iconic part of frontier culture, where homesteaders and cowboys might have good reasons for keeping firearms handy. Thus, as we were breezing through the firearms museum, not really paying too much attention to exhibits on Glocks and whatnot, I came up short when we arrived at an exhibit about guns in Westerns. This was a gun exhibit that could get my attention!

The display of Western Movie & TV Guns is not really large, but it does feature some gems sure to delight any true fan of the genre. The main cases contain the belts and guns of the stars of Bonanza as well as guns used by the stars of Gunsmoke, Bat Masterson, and The Lone Ranger. They also include a gun used by Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz (1954) and High Noon (1952). Another display pays tribute to World War II hero and Western star Audie Murphy. The gun displayed with it, a Colt Model 1905 Bisley Revolver, was a gift to Murphy from Gary Cooper.

The highlight of the exhibit, however, is the iconic rifle that gives its name to the 1950 Anthony Mann Western, Winchester '73. Displayed in a case by itself, it's an impressive sight, with a production still from the film serving as its backdrop. A closer look, however, reveals that the weapon was signed by all of the film's stars, starting with James Stewart himself. It's a fabulous piece of movie memorabilia that absolutely belongs here, surrounded not only by other Western firearms but by a history of the Winchester and its importance to the settling of the frontier.

If you're ever out around Yellowstone, make time for a stop in Cody, Wyoming. There's a lot of history here for a Western devotee to devour, as well as a nightly gunfight in the street and a whole lot of gift shops and rodeos.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951) brought Alfred Hitchcock back to box office success after the lull that followed Notorious (1946), and today it remains a favorite with the auteur's fans. Hitchcock presents a deliciously twisted thriller in this tale of murder and blackmail, with Farley Granger returning after his performance in Rope (1948) for a second outing with the director, but it's the creepy appeal of Robert Walker that makes Strangers on a Train such a macabre delight. There's nary a blonde in sight, but Ruth Roman, Laura Elliott, and Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, all give memorable performances as the younger women, while Marion Lorne and Norma Varden provide some delightful comic relief in their smaller roles.

Granger plays tennis star Guy Haines, who meets a fan named Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) while on a train. Bruno knows all about Guy and his personal problems, especially that Guy can't be with his new love, Anne (Ruth Roman), until his wife (Laura Elliott, aka Kasey Rogers) gives him a divorce. Bruno proposes to kill Guy's wife while Guy kills Bruno's hated father, but Guy doesn't take him seriously until it's too late. When Guy refuses to commit Bruno's murder in return, Bruno sets out to frame Guy for his wife's death, forcing Guy to dodge the police and resort to drastic measures.

Like a lot of Hitchcock's protagonists, Granger's Guy quickly finds himself deep in a situation beyond his control, and the stress pushes him outside the comfortable norms of polite behavior. He becomes secretive, driven, and tense, but we get hints of his inherent darkness early on, when he argues with his faithless wife and then tells his girlfriend that he could strangle the uncooperative woman. Guy never seems especially upset that his wife is dead, just unhappy that he's the most obvious suspect. Granger is solid in the role, but the real star of the picture is Walker, whose talkative, unstable Bruno drives the action throughout. He's a weirdly likable killer, devoted to his mother and rather desperate for Guy's approval, and he's shaken enough by the act of murder to develop a kind of PTSD in response to it. Bruno's scenes with his mother and Mrs. Cunningham, played by Marion Lorne and Norma Varden respectively, show his ability to endear himself to older women through his "naughty" sense of mischief; in some ways he's the opposite of Joseph Cotten's homicidal Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1942). The role ought to have been a comeback moment for Walker, who had struggled with alcoholism after being left by his wife, Jennifer Jones, but the actor died tragically just months after finishing the film.

Hitchcock engages in his usual visual tricks to crank up the suspense, and the amusement park setting of the murder gives him with plenty of striking images to use. Bruno pursues Miriam Haines through the Tunnel of Love in a boat named for Pluto, the god of the underworld; she constantly looks back at him as she romps through the carnival, never recognizing her seeming admirer as a figure of Death. We see Miriam strangled in the reflection of her own glasses, and afterward the glasses worn by Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock) cause Bruno to relive the murder, complete with echoing carnival music and a spinning sense of vertigo. A thoughtful viewer might pause a moment to wonder why Hitchcock would cast his own daughter as someone the antagonist wants to strangle every time he sees her, but the scenes are certainly provocative. The director also has fun with the tennis matches, where the spectators watch the back-and-forth between the players just as we watch the deadlier match being played by Bruno and Guy. The climax, back at the amusement park, delivers a hair-raising finale on a runaway carousel, as well as a wonderfully vicious little scene in which Bruno loses the cigarette lighter that he needs to frame Guy.

Strangers on a Train picked up only one Oscar nod, for Best Cinematography, but it's certainly a picture every Hitchcock fan should see. The director followed this film with I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Rear Window (1954). You can see more of Robert Walker in Since You Went Away (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and The Clock (1945), while Farley Granger has memorable roles in They Live by Night (1948), Side Street (1949), and Senso (1954). Look for Ruth Roman in The Window (1949) and The Far Country (1954). Patricia Hitchcock, who is still living at this time, appears in two other Hitchcock films, Stage Fright (1950) and Psycho (1960), and she acted in numerous episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series.

PS - If you want to know more about Robert Walker, you can read a thorough discussion of his life and career at The Lady Eve's Reel Life.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Top 10 List: My Favorite Westerns

My Westerns lifetime learning class is wrapping up this week, and my students have asked me about a top ten list of classic Westerns. I imagine there are plenty of such lists naming the "best" Westerns, but I'd rather make mine a list of personal favorites. I do aim for some diversity in terms of decade, focus, director, and stars, but these are all Westerns that I enjoy tremendously every time I see them. I'm not including the comedy and parody films that prospered late in the day, although I do really love Cat Ballou (1965), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and, for reasons even I can't fully explain, Paint Your Wagon (1969). Here, then, are ten of of my all-time favorite Westerns, listed in chronological order.

1. STAGECOACH (1939)



4. HIGH NOON (1952)

5. SHANE (1953)




9. RIO BRAVO (1959)


What are your favorite classic Westerns?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Five Movies on an Island Blogathon: My Five Picks

This week the Classic Film & TV Cafe is hosting the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon, in which different bloggers pick five movies they'd want to take with them to a castaway life. Of course, we're assuming that our islands are hooked up for movie viewing! For me, the five chosen films are ones that would keep my spirits up in such lonely circumstances and also reward frequent repeat visits. They have to be fun (as much as I love film noir, I don't think fatalism will help me keep going in my isolation!), so I'm leaning heavily into comedies, musicals, and family fare for my choices. I'm also picking movies that I personally love because I want the comfort of favorite characters and images; I thought about trying to "catch up" on some three hour foreign language classics I have never gotten around to watching, but I'm sticking with pictures I know and adore. Taking these five along would be like taking old friends or even family members. Here, then, are my five picks.

1) THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) - This big, colorful adventure is one of my all-time favorite films, with a tremendous cast and glorious swashbuckling action. Errol Flynn never looked better, and every scene bursts with excitement, interest, and romance. The big cast, packed with greats, offers plenty to pay attention to even after dozens of viewings. We get heavies like Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains, character actors like Una O'Connor, Eugene Pallette, and Alan Hale, and the lovely Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. It is, in every respect, basically a perfect movie (OK, so a few of Maid Marian's costumes are a bit odd, but that's nit-picking and you know it). It also reminds me of the rich tradition of Robin Hood legends, which will give me things to think about while I'm sitting around in the sand.

2) SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) - Who doesn't love this movie? Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and the delightful Debbie Reynolds never fail to make me smile, and Jean Hagen has me in stitches with her irritating tones. The songs are winners, the dance numbers are energetic, and the story is full of Hollywood taking a loving poke at itself. As charismatic as Kelly is, for me this movie always comes down to Donald O'Connor's lovable Cosmo, who nails the "Make 'Em Laugh" and "Moses Supposes" numbers with brilliant comic flair. The title song might feel too accurate when monsoon season hits on my island, but at least I'll be able to wish on my lucky star when the nights are clear.

3) LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) - I'm a huge Disney nut, and this is my absolute favorite Disney classic. It has laughs, it has adventure and romance, it even has tearjerker moments of tragedy, and it has some fabulous songs from Peggy Lee. I'd want at least one Disney film to remind me of the good times I have had at Disney parks and watching Disney movies, and for some reason this canine romance gets me every time. It features great vocal performances from Barbara Luddy, Peggy Lee, Verna Felton, and Stan Freberg. It's also a perfect Christmas movie, since it starts and ends at the holidays, so I can watch it to celebrate the season during my years of being marooned.

4) FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) - At least one of my picks needs to reflect my island situation, and this one also happens to have Shakespearean roots (it draws its inspiration from The Tempest, my favorite Shakespeare play). Sure, it starts a bit slow, but once it gets going it's a fabulous sci-fi adventure, with Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis falling in love while Walter Pidgeon battles his inner - and outer - demons are Dr. Morbius. Robby the Robot is an iconic figure with a dry humor, an Ariel of metal rather than air, while the invisible killer on the planet is a Freudian Caliban, a monster of the id unleashed. I used to show this film when I taught The Tempest, so watching it on the island will bring back fond memories of my university career, and I'll have lots of time to ponder its thornier psychological themes.

5) SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) - When I'm on the island I want something to laugh about, and this movie always makes me chuckle. Billy Wilder directs a delightfully screwy romantic comedy, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis hysterical in drag, and Marilyn Monroe very sexy as Sugar Kane. Again there are lots of great performances in the supporting cast to make repeat viewings rewarding, from George Raft and Joe E. Brown to Pat O'Brien and Mike Mazurki. My daughter has proclaimed this "the funniest movie ever made," so watching it on the island will remind me of the times I have watched it with her while we laughed together.

There are lots of other movies I'd like to take along, too, but our blogathon limits me to five, and I think these five will keep me going with their energy, humor, and engaging plots. If I could have five more, I might add Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Women (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and Rio Bravo (1959). For picks from other bloggers, check out the blogathon link post at the Classic Film & TV Cafe.

Monday, May 9, 2016

10 Great Westerns of the 1950s

The 1950s produced a bumper crop of A-level Westerns with some of Hollywood's biggest stars in the leading roles, including some we don't necessarily associate with the genre. Over the course of the decade, darker and more complex psychological Westerns appealed to adult viewers, even as the matinee cowboys continue to ride high with the Saturday morning crowd. Westerns and film noir provided fertile territory for directors and actors, with many jumping between the two genres and even blurring the line at times about which was which. Of course, John Wayne and John Ford were still on the scene, but a new generation of Western icons was also developing, with Lee Marvin making his presence known and director Delmer Daves venturing into the genre with Broken Arrow in 1950. You could spend a long time watching Westerns from the 1950s (check out 50 Westerns from the 50s for proof), but here are just ten great Westerns - one from each year of the decade - to get you started.

1) WINCHESTER '73 (1950) - Anthony Mann and James Stewart begin a fruitful collaboration in the genre with this picture, which focuses on the hands through which the coveted title rifle must travel. The cast also includes Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, and Stephen McNally, but viewers will also find early appearances by Rock Hudson (as a Native American) and Tony Curtis. Mann and Stewart would go on to make four more Westerns together: Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955), all of which are well worth watching.

Westward the Women

2) WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951) - Probably the least familiar picture on this list, this women's Western is truly unique in its focus on the suffering and determination of a group of women headed West by wagon train to marry settlers on the frontier. William A. Wellman directs an ensemble cast headed up by Robert Taylor as the women's guide, with Denise Darcel and Hope Emerson getting top billing among the many fine actresses. Renata Vanni gives an especially moving performance as one of the group's older members.

3) HIGH NOON (1952) - A four-time Oscar winner, this dramatic Western appears on almost any top ten list for the genre, and for good reason. Its real-time unfolding adds urgency to the story as we watch the clock tick down to Frank Miller's fateful arrival, while Gary Cooper's Oscar-winning performance is noble and moving, even if he is much too old to be marrying Grace Kelly. A terrific supporting cast helps seal the deal, including Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr., Henry Morgan, Lloyd Bridges, and Katy Jurado. Tex Ritter, a singing cowboy from the matinee herd, provides the film's mournful title song, which inspired many later Westerns to have their own, similar themes.

4) SHANE (1953) - George Stevens directs this chivalric romance recast as frontier drama with Alan Ladd in the lead as the Wild West's version of a knight errant. Building their own rustic Camelot on the range are Van Heflin and Jean Arthur as the Starretts, with young Brandon De Wilde giving an Oscar-nominated performance as their son. Jack Palance, also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, is Shane's rival gunslinger. Other familiar faces in the cast include Ben Johnson, Elisa Cook Jr., and Ellen Corby.

5) JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) - Joan Crawford makes a rare genre appearance in this very unusual Western from Nicholas Ray, with Sterling Hayden as the title character. There's a lot of noir atmosphere seeping through, no surprise with Ray in the director's chair and Crawford and Hayden in the leads. The supporting cast is full of Western favorites, though, including Ward Bond, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Ernest Borgnine, and Paul Fix. Look out for a truly vicious performance by Mercedes McCambridge as Crawford's rival.

6) BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) - Spencer Tracy stars in John Sturges' modern take on Western themes, once again with noir atmosphere turning everything a shade darker and dirtier. Tracy's one-armed WWII veteran comes to Black Rock on a mission of peace, but he finds out that Black Rock has a secret its residents will kill to hide. The landscape and the town speak to the lingering traces of the Old West, and the rest of the cast is packed with genre stalwarts, including Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin. Tracy earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance, while Sturges picked up a nod for Best Director, but every aspect of this film exudes excellence. It's just as hard-hitting today as it was in 1955.

7) THE SEARCHERS (1956) - John Ford and John Wayne deliver their most iconic collaboration with this epic tale of loss and obsession, with Wayne in the lead as ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, who embarks on a years-long quest to find his niece (Natalie Wood) after she is kidnapped by the Comanche. This is a darker, more morally complicated character for Wayne, but he suits the role perfectly. Widely considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time, this picture is the go-to example of Ford and Wayne's work together, with a rich subtext and emotional supporting performances that reward multiple viewings.

8) 3:10 TO YUMA (1957) - Delmer Daves directs Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in this tense character study of two very different men brought together by fate. Ford plays the smooth-talking, opportunistic outlaw, while Heflin plays the upright rancher with the dangerous job of getting the captured bandit to the train that will take him to prison. From there the lines between good man and bad begin to blur, with the outlaw and the rancher each coming to understand the nature of the other. Frankie Laine sings the theme song, which harks back to the melancholy theme of High Noon.

9) THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) - At 165 minutes, this is an epic Western, indeed, with Gregory Peck leading an impressive cast under the direction of William Wyler. Peck plays a former sea captain who heads West to take up ranching with his fiancee but, predictably, finds drama and strife as he becomes embroiled in a bitter feud. Burl Ives won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, but other notable cast members include Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, Carroll Baker, and Alfonso Bedoya.

10) RIO BRAVO (1959) - Howard Hawks and John Wayne strike back against the serious (and often left-leaning) tone of many 1950s Westerns with the rollicking Rio Bravo, which is more interested in action than psychological analysis. Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, who gets a very motley crew of assistants when the bad guys turn up to reclaim one of their own from Chance's jail. Dean Martin is the alcoholic Dude, trying to sober up enough to hold a gun, and Walter Brennan plays crusty old Stumpy. Dreamy Ricky Nelson sings and shoots as Colorado, while Angie Dickinson gives Wayne some romantic trouble as Feathers. The picture is usually seen as a rebuttal to High Noon, and it presages the kind of movie Wayne would continue to make from here until the end of his career. However, for the A Western as pure entertainment, this one is hard to beat.

For even more great Westerns from the 1950s, try The Gunfighter (1950), The Baron of Arizona (1950), The Furies (1950), Vera Cruz (1954), Seven Men from Now (1956), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). You'll find full-length reviews for many of the Westerns listed here in my books, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and Beyond Casablanca II. Both are available on Amazon Kindle.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Classic Movies for Cat Lovers

Cats have been on my mind a lot this month. In March, our family adopted two kittens, Ginger Peach and Earl Greyer, having mourned the deaths of our senior dog, Tess, in January, and our 20 year old cat, Grendel, back in October. Ginger has indeed been a peach, but little Earl quickly succumbed to a fatal disease that could not have been identified until the symptoms appeared (it's called FIP, or feline infectious peritonitis, and it's about the worst possible thing that can happen to a cat). The day Earl died I found myself thinking about that scene in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), where young Martha's kitten is killed by her vicious aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha then promptly murders her aunt, and the audience doesn't feel sorry for the old hag one bit. If I could push FIP down a flight of stairs I certainly would. Having held a dying kitten in my arms, that scene's emotional trauma now resonates for me in a very personal way.

Earl Greyer and Ginger Peach
Life, however, has to move on. Maybe Martha wouldn't have grown up to be such a rotten incarnation of Barbara Stanwyck if she could have just gotten a new kitten. Ginger sits in my lap as I type this post, purring and biting my arm, and next week we expect to welcome another kitten into our home. I'm still thinking about movies and cats, but brainstorming names for the new little guy makes me think more about movies with especially significant cat characters. Here are a few of those movies, in case you also find yourself thinking about naming a new kitty in the near future.


If I were getting a black female cat, I'd be seriously tempted to name her for Simone Simon or her character, Irena, in this iconic Jacques Tourneur horror made under the supervision of genre maestro Val Lewton. Simon plays an immigrant bride who fears that consummating her marriage with her American husband will cause her to transform into a huge, bloodthirsty cat. As it turns out, she's right to be worried. We don't really see much of Irena in panther form, but the movie just oozes feline atmosphere, and it's one of my very favorite Lewton films. Horror is eternally obsessed with cats, especially black ones, but they often skulk around the scenery without ever being named. This movie's existence offers two great names in its star and its protagonist, and really Simone and Irena would be perfect for a pair of kitten sisters.


It's not much help in the name department as far as the actual cat is concerned, but Carol Reed's brilliant film noir does have a very important cat character. In one of the movie's many iconic scenes, the presence of the presumably dead Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is revealed when his devoted cat comes up to his hiding place on a shadowy street. Given his disappearing Cheshire grin act, Harry Lime would actually make a great name for a cat, and Orson is pretty good, too, especially if the cat seems likely to get chunky as he ages! Cats on Film has a very interesting post about the cat in The Third Man, with some discussion of the cat's thematic and Freudian significance.

RHUBARB (1951)

This Ray Milland vehicle is the best place to appreciate cat actor Orangey, who appears in several memorable pictures but here takes the title role. While Orangey is not the most original name for a reddish orange cat, Rhubarb is definitely a good choice. This is a great movie for cat lovers, and it's packed with funny scenes. Unfortunately, Orangey doesn't get a name at all in his other most famous film, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), where he's just called Cat. My friend Terry at Shroud of Thoughts has a really excellent post about Orangey and his career, if you want to know more about him.


Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak star in this supernatural romance, made the same year as their most famous pairing in Vertigo. The cat in this instance is Pyewacket, a Siamese who acts as Novak's familiar. The name comes from an account in Matthew Hopkins' 1647 pamphlet, "The Discovery of Witches," which also contains gems like Elemanzer, Greedigut, and Peck in the Crown. If you subscribe to the T.S. Eliot theory of cat naming, Hopkins seems like your go-to source for unique feline monikers, and he's even a movie character himself, played by Vincent Price in the 1968 horror, The Conqueror Worm (aka Witchfinder General). Pyewacket is a good name for a Siamese or any cat who has that supernatural vibe, and it seems like it might work equally well for a boy or a girl. If you want to know more about this particular movie cat, Cinema Cats has a nice discussion of Pyewacket's history and the making of the film.


Here's another movie about black cats, this time from Japan. This is a strange, supernatural tale about two women who become murderous cat spirits after they are brutally raped and murdered by a group of samurai. It's also a tragic love story; the protagonist is the son of one victim and the husband of the other, and the women must struggle between their desire to be reunited with him and their sworn quest for vengeance. Obviously, Kuroneko is a name for a black cat only, since it means "black cat" in Japanese! If you need an additional Japanese cat name, you might go with Onibaba, which is also the title of a 1964 film by Kaneto Shindo, the director of Kuroneko. According to Wikipedia, Onibaba means "demon hag," which works pretty well for a cat.


Eventually all discussions of movie-inspired animal names turn to Disney, and The Aristocats is the richest single source for cat names in the studio's history thus far. We have white, fluffy Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor), tough orange tomcat Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris), and the kittens: Marie, Toulouse, and Berlioz. There's also a swinging cat band that includes Billy Bass (Thurl Ravenscroft) and Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers). For more Disney cat names, you could go with Thomasina of The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963), Bagheera of The Jungle Book (1967), or Oliver of Oliver & Company (1988). In general, Disney gives more love to dogs than cats, but they do provide some good names that would work for cats, especially in their villains. You could name your cat Maleficent, Ursula, or even Chernabog!

Of course, you could also name a cat after a classic movie star. Tallulah, Veronica, Bette, and Elsa Lanchester would all make great names for female cats; for boys you could go with Valentino, Bela, Boris, Basil, or Errol Flynn. Have any of you out there named a cat for a film character or star? Tell us about it in the comments!