A Brief History of Felines on Film

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CBS Films

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a well-trained animal dazzle on the big screen, and cats are no exception. In fact, cat actors are frequently more impressive than the rest of the animal kingdom, simply because it’s hard to imagine getting cats to do anything they don’t want to do.

And yet professional cat acting still exists, against all odds. Next up in the great hall of cat performances? A smattering of star turns in Joel and Ethan Coen’s upcoming film Inside Llewyn Davis. While marketing for the film has focused on just one handsome orange tabby (often seen tucked under the arm of leading man Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis actually utilized a number of cat actors for the production—a process the brothers found pretty difficult. "The whole exercise of shooting a cat is pretty nightmarish because they don't care about anything," Ethan told NPR. "As the animal trainer said to us, 'A dog wants to please you. A cat only wants to please itself.' ... In True Grit we had a vulture, a trained vulture ... that was a pain. But I would take a vulture over a cat. The cat was just horrible." 

Still, the cat acting work in Inside Llewyn Davis is quite exceptional, especially considering that its furry stars were asked to do things like jump out windows, act calm while being hustled down a busy city street, and run around a noisy New York City subway car. Some human actors couldn’t do that without flinching.

The history of cat acting is long and rich and just a bit fuzzy, much like a Maine Coon or a Norwegian Forest, and it’s one you’ll want to cuddle up to as soon as possible.

From Edison to PATSY

Like so many other things, we have Thomas Edison to thank for the very first cat actors. Way back in July of 1894, Edison himself reportedly made the very first viral cat video when he put two cats into a tiny boxing ring and let them hash it out (with a little help from a human handler) and recorded the results on film. They may not have been professionals, but these two certainly looked the part.

A likely candidate for first feline in a feature film is the unnamed star of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat. While the identity of the cat actor playing the eponymous black cat is unknown, the sleek kitty’s frequent appearances throughout the 1934 film are integral to the feature’s plot (and scares).

Since The Black Cat, a number of cinematically-inclined felines have graced the silver screen. Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played by the well-known star Orangey (who was also sometimes called Jimmy and Rhubarb), was the only feline to win a staggering two PATSY Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year, the animal actor's version of an Oscar). Other PATSY winners of the feline variety include Pyewacket from Bell, Book and Candle, Syn Cat from That Darn Cat!, and Morris from those classic 9Lives commercials.

The Unnamed Meowers

Despite that handful of recognized (and recognizable) cat actors, there are also plenty of famous roles filled by unnamed cats—like Jake from the 1978 film The Cat From Outer Space, Binx from 1993's Hocus Pocus, and Jones from 1979's Alien. And one of the most famous unnamed cats around showed up in seven James Bond films.

The prize pet of notorious baddie Blofeld, this white Turkish Angora had screen time in From Russia With Love, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, For Your Eyes Only, and Never Say Never Again, and spent most of his (or her!) time simply being stroked by its owner in a nefarious fashion. Though Blofeld’s cat never got a name, he was a major player in the Blofeld world—it was his very appearance that would often signal just who the bad guy was (the character was played by various actors over the years and was occasionally just an anonymous villain, albeit one with his own cat).

Blofeld’s cat has become so famous that he’s even been parodied—many times!—from Mr. Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers films to the Inspector Gadget cartoon series.

Cats and Dogs, Living Together...

Of course, there are plenty of animal-centric films that keep our four-legged friends in business. Two of the best examples—Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and The Adventures of Milo and Otis—relied almost exclusively on the skills of their various animal actors, including cats who needed to get along with dogs to make the whole thing work. Tiki the Himalayan played Sassy with some serious, well, sass in the former film, performing alongside both a Golden Retriever and an American Bulldog.

The latter film also required cat and dog relations to remain strong on set, with the various cats that played curious orange tabby Milo absolutely having to get along with the various pugs that played the more straight-laced Otis. Filmed over a period of four years, the identities of the many stars of Milo and Otis still remain unknown (and continued claims of animal abuse, all of which have been shot down, haven’t helped). We’ll likely never know who played who (and over which age period), but the feline stars of Milo and Otis handily exhibited some of the best cat acting of the century.

More recently, the Harry Potter franchise featured a jaw-dropping number of animal actors (including cats, rats, owls, and many more), all of whom were expected to act and behave while wild, magical, wacky things (read: green screen) were going on around them. The standout cat actor of the eight-film series was undeniably Crookshanks, Hermione Granger’s notoriously crotchety cat (who also happens to be half-Kneazle, at least in the world of the books). In the films, a stunning male Persian named Crackerjack played the role of Crookshanks. (You can see Crackerjack and his trainers in action in the video below.)

A consummate performer, Crackerjack reportedly endured a great indignity in service to his work—his trainers would gather bits of his shed fur, roll it into balls, and clip them back on to him in order to really pump up his rough and slightly mangy appearance. Somebody cast a little, cat-sized Oscar for Crackerjack, who certainly seems due for a Lifetime Achievement Award after years of going through that just to deliver a good performance.

Cats, of course, are still cats—and sometimes their independent streak can get in the way of their craft. Such is the case with Montie, a former understudy to famous cat actor Vito Vincent, who was summarily dismissed from the Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s earlier this year. The New York Post reported back in May that Montie got the sack for acting “unruly.” You know, like a cat. Montie’s firing even made it to the gossip pages of Page Six, where it was mentioned alongside the apparent demands of Vito (Vincent? Mr. Vincent? Sir? Meow?) that he have his own car and driver each night and the news that Montie was set to be replaced by a kitty named Moo.

Cat acting, it seems, is not just all fluffy balls of string and belly rubs—it’s work (and deserving of a treat or two).

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December 20, 2013 - 1:00pm
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