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That Darn Cat!

That Darn Cat!
1965 / Color / 1:33 Pan-Scan / 116 min. / Street Date May 3, 2005 / 19.99
Starring Hayley Mills, Dean Jones, Dorothy Provine, Roddy McDowall, Neville Brand, Elsa Lanchester, William Demarest, Ed Wynn
Art Direction Carroll Clark, William H. Tuntke
Film Editor Cotton Warburton
Original Music Robert F. Brunner, Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman
Written by Bill Walsh and The Gordons (Gordon and Mildred Gordon)
Produced by Walt Disney, Ron Miller, Bill Walsh
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the funniest recognition jokes in Joe Dante's wonderful Matinee is a hilarious spoof of 60s Disney comedies called "The Shook-Up Shopping Cart," a film-within-a-film. The perky leading lady's uncle has been transformed into a shopping cart, see, which leaps around on its own and foils the plans of clumsy crooks dressed like Beagle Boys.

That synopsis more or less describes the tone of the 1965 movie That Darn Cat!, a lightly amusing but drawn-out and insubstantial comedy that marked Hayley Mills' final Disney appearance of the 1960s. Basically a silly sitcom boasting good second unit work with some domestic pets, the movie will only hold the attention of devout Hayley Mills fans, and cat lovers. The humor is strictly for those adolescents who will put up with squeaky-clean "wacky cut-ups" that pass for comedy. Nowadays, I'd only try it out on kids younger than eight, and only if they aren't easily distracted.


Sisters Patti and Ingrid Randall (Hayley Mills and Dorothy Provine) hold down the home fort while their parents are in Europe, under constant snoop-ervision by their neighbor Kipp MacDougall (Elsa Lanchester). Patti is courted by the romantically inert, surf-crazy Canoe Henderson (Tom Lowell) and Ingrid is pestered by her mother-obsessed carpool partner Gregory Benson (Roddy McDowall). Gregory hates the Randall's adopted siamese cat DC (short for Darn Cat), which prowls the neighborhood each night looking for food and tormenting the bulldog next door. But one night DC comes home with a diamond watch around its neck instead of a collar, which Patti decides is a cry for help from a kidnapped bank teller (Grayson Hall) being held by rotten crooks Dan and Iggy (Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin). Against Ingrid's wishes, Patti contacts in the F.B.I. in the person of handsome Agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones). He's assigned to tail DC to find the crooks, even though he's allergic to cat dander!

Let me start right off by saying there's nothing particularly wrong with That Darn Cat!, a tame but pleasant movie. At almost two hours, it's slowly paced as well. Hayley Mills has finally outgrown her kiddie charm and is allowed to try a bit more of a mature approach, but after a while we start to miss the way she was made to act before, with every line of dialogue punctuated by a cross-eyed smile. Even without the kiddie mannerisms she isn't half bad, and Dorothy Provine's voice and attitude is also attractive. It's just that there's nothing very inspired on view; the whole enterprise has been aimed at some unknown "family" audience that wants completely empty entertainment. The watch-as-a-cat-collar gag is an awful lot like the message in a bottle that initiates the action in In Search of the Castaways. The predictability factor is unusually high and the characters are so dull that we feel sorry for Gorshin and Brand's crooks - in a real crime film they might at least have a chance to keep their dignity.

That Darn Cat! is a heavily storyboarded show and its best scenes by far are DC the cat's nightly neighborhood exploits. The cat trainer deserves the highest praise for getting such perfectly timed choreography out of the kitty, a lot of it accomplished within shots instead of with cuts. The way DC outfoxes the bulldog is almost as stylized as an animated cartoon; I think it makes use of some clever split screens. One of the best (and most cat-like) gags has Hayley trying to get DC to stand up on a bed. It just keeps flopping limp in a perfect uncooperative cat way.

Pert Hayley and poofy-haired Dorothy have slightly annoying boyfriends. Roddy McDowall is an intentional jerk of little interest, a mother-worshipping proto-Norman Bates type two years before he played a literal Norman Bates type in a Golem movie called It!. It's presumed that Hayley is "too young to have a real boyfriend," so twenty four year-old Tom Lowell is made to play Hayley's teen love interest as a sexless fool. If Lowell looks familiar, he was in The Manchurian Candidate - as "Private Lembeck," the POW that Laurence Harvey shoots through the forehead!

What makes That Darn Cat! a prime contender in the "Shook-Up Shopping Cart" genre is the way it handles comedy. When characters start following each other around the ever-so-spotless neighborhood, the music goes cute and the jokes come on like panel gags in a kiddie comic book. Tom Lowell snoops about with a silly fake moustache and gets himself caught in an automatic garage door: Jean-Luc Godard would call that suburban justice. Some physical gags are fairly amusing, but they don't build or have any particular point. The begin as fairly menacing for a Disney movie - Neville Brand shoves his gun into Grayson Hall's face in close-up. They predictably turn into silly bunglers. FBI agents become Keystone Kops and Dean Jones ends up with inky paw prints all over himself. Savant thought this kind of stuff was funny, at least until I turned 12. I remember being invited by a neighbor kid to see The Ugly Dachshund at a drive-in. About a half-hour in, we asked his mother to take us home!

That Darn Cat! is formula all the way, so much so that William Demarest and Elsa Lanchester are completely uninteresting as the nosy neighbors. Ed Wynn has only a brief cameo appearance. I enjoyed it, but only as a kind of reverse nostalgia ... wanting to find out if there were qualities in these popular Disney live-action pictures that I missed. Not really.

Disney's DVD of That Darn Cat! is a frustrating experience on DVD. The encoding is adequate and the picture quality quite good, but the movie has been reformatted at 1:33. The title sequence has been slightly squeezed and inserts of newspaper headlines chop words off on both the right and the left. If the movie once had a compositional balance, it doesn't any more. The package says "The Original Classic" but Disney doesn't treat it like one.

The audio is fine, with Bobby Darin singing the Sherman Brothers' so-so title tune behind shots of the kitty cat on the prowl, some angles of which mimic the titles of Walk on the Wild Side. I guess a strolling cat looks great no matter what kind of musical beat one sets against it.

There are no extras, not even a plug for the recent remake. There are some difficult-to-skip promos up front, so make sure you know where the chapter-advance button is on your remote. Savant is really "shook-up" over studios slapping unwanted commercials at the head of DVDs, even the insulting "don't steal" blurbs. Soon they'll be adding local advertising and infomercials - you know, more "special features."

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, That Darn Cat! rates:
Movie: Fair ++ or Good --
Video: Fair
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none, meow.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 18, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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