Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chapter Six: Cat People

Note from Rebus: In its day RKO was known for its ability to produce well-crafted, sometimes artsy or offbeat features using a smaller budget than the other so-called major studios.


Founded in 1929, RKO stopped making movies in 1953 and eventually sold its lot and production facilities to television’s Desilu Productions. For most of its existence RKO had been in trouble, financially.

In the summer of 1982 I booked a festival of 24 titles, all from RKO, which was still operating in a Los Angeles office as the distributor of its original library. The 12 double features in the RKO Festival were:

“Top Hat” (1935) and “Damsel in Distress” (1936); “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939) and “The Informer” (1935); “King Kong” (1933) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949); “Suspicion” (1941) and “The Live By Night” (1948); “Sylvia Scarlett” (1936) and “Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House” (1948); “Murder My Sweet” (1945) and “Macao” (1952); “The Mexican Spitfire” (1939) and “Room Service” (1938); “Journey Into Fear” (1942) and “This Land Is Mine” (1943); “The Thing” (1951) and “Cat People” (1942); “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948) and “Woman on the Beach” (1947); “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Fort Apache” (1948); “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944) and “The Body Snatcher” (1945).

One feature, “Cat People,” which was later remade as a vehicle to present the youthful Nastassja Kinski’s naked form in all of its lithe glory, was a low-budget black-and-white thriller. Unlike the florid remake, the original was a lean and subtle production that left much to the viewer’s imagination.

Still, any film of the monster movie genre, no matter how subtle, can be disturbing to a sensitive viewer.

For some reason the Val Lewton classic,“Cat People,” got under one such viewer’s skin. He was a solitary man who walked around the VCU neighborhood during daylight hours. He stayed in some sort of subsidized group home at night. Night or day, he was always medicated to the hilt.

At the theater we used to let him in free. Then, of course, he would complain about everything. We joked around about him when he wasn’t there, sometimes, but we treated him with respect when he was -- always at matinees.

“Are there really any cat people?” the man would ask, in his forced, cartoon way of speaking, as he scratched his head. When his eyes weren't locked straight ahead, they wandered without focus. He always walked with an odd, exaggerated shifting of his weight.

“No,” he would be gently assured.

Then, with his hands flexing and twitching, a few minutes later he would ask the same thing again. We figured a lot of it was his medication. After getting the same answer he’d take his free popcorn and go into the dark auditorium to watch the movie for a while ... only to come back out to ask about real cat people again.

When I created the image above of a cat named Zeke in a coat and tie, for a calendar in 1996, I thought of that same man. And, I smiled, thinking he probably still remembered that movie, if he was still alive.

Well, in the last year I saw him on Grace Street. He was totally gray and still walked with his fixed gaze and distinctive, swaying gait. 

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