Friday, June 30, 2006

Cat People

In its day RKO was known for its ability to produce well-crafted, sometimes artsy or offbeat features using a smaller budget than the other so-called major studios. Nonetheless, it was almost always in trouble, financially. RKO, founded in 1929, stopped making movies in 1953 and eventually sold its lot and production facilities to television’s Desilu Productions.
Twenty-four summers ago I booked a festival of 24 titles to play at the Biograph, all from RKO, which still operated then as a distributor of its original library.

The 12 double features in this festival were: “Top Hat” (1935) and “Damsel in Distress” (1936); “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939) and “The Informer” (1935); “King Kong” (1933) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949); “Suspicion” (1941) and “The Live By Night” (1948); “Sylvia Scarlett” (1936) and “Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House” (1948); “Murder My Sweet” (1945) and “Macao” (1952); “The Mexican Spitfire” (1939) and “Room Service” (1938); “Journey Into Fear” (1942) and “This Land Is Mine” (1943); “The Thing” (1951) and “Cat People” (1942); “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948) and “Woman on the Beach” (1947); “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Fort Apache” (1948); “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944) and “The Body Snatcher” (1945).

One feature, “Cat People” -- which was later remade as a vehicle to present a young Nastassja Kinski’s lithe form in all its glory -- was a low-budget black-and-white thriller. Unlike the remake, the original was a lean and subtle production that left much to the viewer’s imagination. Still, any film of that genre can be disturbing to a sensitive viewer.

For some reason “Cat People” got under one such viewer’s skin. He was a solitary man who walked around the VCU neighborhood during the day. He stayed in some sort of subsidized group home at night. Night or day, he was always medicated to the hilt. At the theater we used to let him in free. Then, of course, he would complain about everything. We laughed about him, and imitated him, when he wasn’t there. But we treated him with respect when he was, always at matinees.

Anyway, the movie scared him. “Are there really any cat people?” he would ask, in his distinctive, almost cartoon way of speaking.

“No,” he would be assured. Then a few minutes later he would ask again, his hands would flex and twitch, his eyes would wander. Same answer. Then he’d take his free popcorn and go into the dark auditorium to watch the movie for a while.

Well, I saw him recently. He’s totally gray now, he must be at least in his mid-60s. He still walks around the neighborhood, with his strange gait. There are no movie theaters in the Fan District now. When I created the image above -- of a cat named Zeke in a coat and tie -- for a calendar in 1996, I thought of that same man, and smiled. I bet he still remembers that movie.

Yes, sometimes, there are cat people. But they aren’t all mean. Some of them just look at you, like they know something you don’t know.

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