Gareth Abbott takes us inside his book “Hollywood Cats” with a look at some talented kitty performers of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the human co-stars who loved them.
For anyone who loves cats it will come as no surprise that Audrey Hepburn recalls the famous scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when she threw ‘Cat’ from the New York cab into the pouring rain as the most distasteful thing she ever had to do on film. She probably shouldn’t have worried as we know that Orangey, the real name of the feline thespian who played Holly Golightly’s ‘poor slob without a name’ in the film, was a seasoned pro who took it in stride and was well rewarded indeed for getting wet.
Hepburn and Orangey are just two of the hundreds of stars that share equal billing in Hollywood Cats, a book that has not only allowed me to indulge both a love of photography and cinema, but expose the natural affinity that existed between so many of Hollywood’s fabled cast and our feline friends.
Hollywood Cats is the third in a series of books that was born out of a desire to reveal the extraordinary inventiveness and ingenuity of the great Hollywood film studios. From the late 1920s to the 1950s, Columbia, Paramount, MGM, Universal, Warner Brothers, RKO and Twentieth Century Fox presided over the ‘Golden Age of Cinema,’ and their publicity departments created a stream of stunningly original and charming material that fed a film-loving world with photographs of their favorite actors.
There are all manner of animals that have found a place in Hollywood’s history, but cats have something of a unique place within the menagerie of animal stars. Pepper was the first, albeit accidental, feline thespian to share equal billing with her human co-stars, and was followed into the business by the likes of Puzzums, Orangey and Whitey. With studio contracts and the potential to earn sums of money equal to that of their human counterparts, it is little wonder that cats and their trainers were ever present. (As early as the 1920’s Puzzums was earning in excess of $250 per week).
Hollywood Cats, however, is not just a record of those feline friends that found themselves in-front of a movie camera – it also provides a glimpse of the stars with some of their adored pets. For every Pepper or Puzzums there was a Joan and a Jinx, beloved companions of Dolores del Rio and Eartha Kitt, respectively. Marion Marsh had Precious, Jean Harlow had His Royal Highness and James Mason was so devoted to his cats that in 1949, he and his wife Pamela co-authored and illustrated the book The Cats in Our Lives. Told through amusing, and sometimes touching anecdotes, it was, as the title suggests, a tribute to all of the cats the actor had known and loved.
In the minds of the adoring public it was often difficult to separate the star from the cat, so certain celebrities were frequently photographed with their pets. Vivien Leigh’s house was overrun with cats (at one point she lived with 16) and was so regularly snapped with certain members of her ‘family’ that they became almost as well known as she was. Kim Novak bonded so completely with the Siamese star of Bell Book and Candle named Pywacket that she adopted the cat and they seemingly spent a large part of the next few years being photographed together.
Not all of the cats in the book are known however – some are nameless props of no distinct breed or origin often brought in by publicists and photographers to humanize the stars or present a softer side of a contract player hitherto unrecognized by the film-going public. Hired from one of the numerous animal trainers for the day, or even an hour or two, they were a part of the machinery that churned out countless images for a myriad of publications. Others are simply homeless interlopers that made their homes on the studio lots, untroubled by dreams of stardom or fear of eviction.
The material for the book comes from the incomparable John Kobal Foundation Archive. Made up of an incalculable number of original negatives and prints, as well as interviews with photographers and other material that helped shine a light on the subject, it is a trove that keeps on revealing itself in new and extraordinary ways.