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June 10, 2019

Cats on Film: Hollywood’s Conundrum (Purrt 1)

CatCon alum Dr. Paul Koudounaris is a historian, author, and photographer who has been regaling CatCon audiences with tales of cat hiss-tory for years. He’ll be back as a judge at the Furrocious Fashion Face Off Saturday June 29th. Here, he takes a look back at some of the very first feline stars of the silver screen.

“The cat is the one domestic quadruped that declines to pose willingly for the screen,” explained an article in an early Hollywood magazine discussing animal actors. All other manner of creatures could in contrast be relied on to perform in films. Dogs, being man’s best friend, were easily trainable and outstanding performers. Horses were smart and staples of westerns. And even various barnyard animals were willing to do their part.


But felines simply aren’t cut out for movie work, the argument concluded. They are too independent and stubborn, wrapped up in their own business and without the innate desire to make fools of themselves solely to please humans. No cat owner would deny the truth of such charges, but would also caution that cats might do just about anything, as long as they do it on their own terms. It’s just a matter of finding the right cat.


The right cat was named Pepper, and she came along in 1912 to prove the pundits wrong. She was a stray kitten born on the lot of Mex Sennett Studios, and according to accounts she wriggled her way up through the floorboards one day and found herself in the middle of a set. And rather than running off, she made herself at home. So much so that a lighting grip had a thought and turned a bank of floodlights on her. When she didn’t flinch a camera operator had his own thought and snuck up and rolled a test reel of film. Immune to the commotion around her, Pepper gamboled about in front of the camera like it was merely a window onto a sunny day, and a star was born.


While the story sounds romanticized, like it came from a publicists desk, it’s nonetheless more true than false. Pepper was indeed a stray kitten born on the lot. And however she wound up in front of the camera, a film clip does exist that might be none other than the test reel in question–she appears as but a wee thing, maybe a few months old, and chases her tail and rolls about without seeming in any way disturbed by being filmed. More importantly, she displays, to use the parlance, “it,” that indefinable quality that marks a star. Even in this short clip there is something entrancing about her. The movements of her stocky little body are simultaneously lithe and clumsy, and completely endearing. It is as if she had been born for the screen.


Mack Sennett knew the “it” factor when he saw it, and soon enough the little cat was being cast. Within a year she was already appearing alongside the biggest stars of the age, including Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and the Keystone Cops. Not only was she being cast, she was even being credited–people cared enough about the little gray cat suddenly appearing in films that they wanted to know who she was. And a year afterward, the unthinkable finally happened. She was being given starring roles!


The first came in a short called “The Little Hero.” Well, she wasn’t top billed. And in fact, she wasn’t the hero, she was actually the villain. Dogs were still man’s best friend after all, so Pepper was cast as a co-star to Teddy the Wonder Dog, a big time Hollywood canine actor of the day who also worked for Sennett. But still it was the first ever leading role given by Hollywood to a feline, in a story about a lady who left on some errands and admonished her cat, played by Pepper, to be good and not try to kill her pet bird.


You can probably guess where this is going . . . Pepper flagrantly disregards his mistresses’ instructions and tries to get into the bird cage. Teddy, the “Little Hero” promised in the film’s title, is passing by the house and hears the bird’s cries for help. He looks in the window and sees that the situation is dire, so he runs off and rounds up an entire pack of collies (To combat one little kitten? Seems like overkill, but it’s Hollywood after all.) and they break into the house. Like a canine Superman, Teddy helps chase off Pepper and save the bird.


Other starring roles would follow. Teddy and Pepper again teamed up in “Down on the Farm,” among other popular short films. While they were rivals on screen, off screen the two were in fact the best of friends. So much so that–to the extreme consternation of Sennett Studios–after Teddy died in 1923 Pepper refused to continue acting. Well, the pundits were right about cats being independent and stubborn. And when Pepper couldn’t be persuaded to continue her career without Teddy the studio was forced to search out a new feline star.


One day during a casting call a pair of sisters, Katherine and Nadine Dennis, who fancied themselves actresses showed up. They had a problem though, in the form of a stray cat they had found en route. It was sickly but very sweet so they had decided to adopt it. They didn’t have time to take it home, however, so they had to bring it to the studio with them. That was fine with the casting director, as it turned out, because he informed the girls that he had no roles for them, but . . . he just might have one for the cat. In fact, the sickly stray, named Pussums, went on to be Hollywood’s next great movie feline, commanding the then princely sum of 50 dollars a day and supporting the sisters who found him, who never made it beyond extras and made only 7.50 in comparison.


Pepper and Pussums had proven the naysayers wrong, and others would follow in their paw prints, but there was one galling caveat. They and the other early Hollywood cats had been credited with starring roles but never given the lead in a full-length feature. Producers of the time were simply not willing to go that far. That was a level restricted only to big time canine actors like Rin Tin Tin. Cats could star in shorts, but a full-length films? No way. It was the feline glass ceiling, the lingering prejudice against cats such that no studio was willing to take the risk until another three decades had passed, and once again the right cat along . . .

To be continued!