CBS Films
CBS Films

A Brief History of Felines on Film

CBS Films
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).

14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles

Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.


A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.

So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.


A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.

It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: an eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.


Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.

Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch it themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).


Two bald eagles perched on a tree.

Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: the male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.


Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.

Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.


Two bald eagles in their large nest.

Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.


Two bald eagles in their large nest.

In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weight about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.


A bald eagle flies across the water.

People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.


Baby eagle chicks in a nest.

Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.


An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.

You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.


A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.

It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the Earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.


Close-up of a bald eagle's face.

What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.


A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.

If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.


A bald eagle

There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library

Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]


More from mental floss studios