The Internet loves nothing more than cats, but it’s rare that we look beyond the cute photos and memes to more seriously consider their place in our world. Flavorwire’s Highbrow Cat Week is an attempt to remedy that, with a series of pieces devoted to analyzing their impact on the cultural realm.
The list of dogs in film and television is long and distinguished: Lassie, Benji, Air Bud, Fang, Rin Tin Tin, and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. (Just me? Okay then.) But more noticeably, they’re almost all heroes: saving damsels, rescuing kids, alerting townfolk to people trapped in wells, dunking basketballs, etc. Even the troublemakers — your Beethovens and Hooches — are ultimately lovable rascals who may do some minor property damage, but remain fiercely loyal, admirable creatures. Movie cats, on the other hand, are less heroic; in fact, they are usually the accessory of choice for evil masterminds, gangsters, and other villainous types. Why the split? What’s the explanation for pop culture’s deeply ingrained cat-ism?
The examples are voluminous, and helpfully cataloged at the essential site TV tropes, which even gives these felines a name: “Right-Hand Cats.” Their owners include:
- Ernst Stavro Blofield, the Bond villain first played by Donald Pleasance in the 1967 film You Only Live Twice, forever stroking his fluffy white cat while explaining his evil plans for world domination.
- Dr. Evil, played by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers movies, is a point-for-point parody of the Blofield character — right down to his feline companion, the hairless Mr. Bigglesworth.
- Han, the head of the evil organization in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, carries a fluffy white cat.
- In the original novel The Hundred and One Dalmations, iconic villainess Cruella de Ville has a white Persian cat.
- Cold and unlikable publisher Mrs. Pynchon on TV’s Lou Grant keeps a cat at her desk.
- Two episodes of the original Star Trek series (“Assignment Earth” and “Catspaw”) feature antagonists with black cats — both of which turn out to be beautiful female villains themselves.
- In the Harry Potter books, Dolores Umbridge — in addition to her other flaws — is a classic Crazy Cat Lady.
Aside from Alien’s Jones and your occasional Incredible Journey movie, movie cats aren’t often heroic, much less owned by heroes. They’re stroked by evil geniuses (witness Conan O’Brien’s pantomimed feline petting whenever he adopts the character of a terrible television executive), or they leap out from behind a door to scare the bejesus out of our protagonist, and that’s about all they’re good for.
There are theories a-plenty as to why, most of them implicit value judgments about the disposition of the species: they’re vaguely evil killers of mice and birds, they have an air of superiority that jibes well with madmen, and so on. But this writer (and, fine, cat owner) contends that it’s less a matter of intentions than logistics.
Many, many years ago, when I was in high school, I acted in a play where a minor bit of action centered the introduction of a cat. Our directors volunteered their own fluffy white feline for the scene, and in order to prevent said cat from freaking out under the lights of the stage and the gaze of hundreds (okay, dozens) or theatre-goers, it was administered a rather powerful sedative. As a result, the animal was basically like a big bag of socks. But it could be easily carried, handed from person to person, and deposited in a lap.
That experience was instructive in understanding how pets have been deployed in staged entertainment. Dogs are easily trainable — a good animal instructor, working with an inventive director and cinematographer, can create the warning barks, rescuing gallops, and other miscellaneous action of a dog hero. It doesn’t make them better or more honorable animals; it just means they’re more easily manipulated. Cats, on the other hand, can be most reliably knocked out and used as props, and thus, the villain’s lap cat was born.
But in the years since You Only Live Twice, the logistical practicalities of cats have been usurped by unfortunate notions of their own intentions and attitudes. The tail, if you’ll pardon the malapropism, now wags the cat. It wasn’t always thus; one of the most famous cats in all of movies is the kitty on Don Corleone’s lap in the opening scenes of The Godfather. He wasn’t placed there to establish Don Corleone as a figure of the underworld — he wasn’t even in the script (or Mario Puzo’s novel). No, director Francis Ford Coppola found him on the Paramount lot, and Marlon Brando liked the visual contrast of his warmth and playfulness with the cat to his ruthlessness as a crime figure. The cat didn’t signify his evil; it was contrary to it. And here’s the best part: Brando had to go back and loop most of his lines in the scene, because the cat was purring so loudly, he drowned out the dialogue. That cat wasn’t a villainous adornment. In fact, quite the contrary — he was just a very good boy.