That Darn Cat! (Robert Stevenson, 1965)

by Douglas Buck October 7, 2019 6 minutes (1430 words) 35mm (IB Technicolor) New Beverly Cinema

Precocious independent-minded Patti (Hayley Mills) starts to believe the family cat D.C., a little trouble-maker who manages to escape each night to cause havoc in the neighborhood, has stumbled across a kidnapping plot by a duo of bumbling bank robbers (Frank Gorshin and Neville Brand) and manages to enlist a reluctant allergy-ridden FBI agent (Dean Jones) into a sting to entrap the kidnappers by following the darn feline.

The Parent Trap. The Shaggy D.A.. The Absent-Minded Professor (and its sequel, Son of Flubber). It was the happy dick days of Disney distractions, when the whacky continuing adventures of everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic Love Bug named Herbie were on replay ad infinitum on the boob tube (even ten years after they were made, which is when I was catching them); the time when ‘family entertainment’ was king, and future shows like “Law and Order: SVU”, in which the dissection and obliteration of the human body and psyche would be beamed directly, in perverse detail, into one’s living room on a weekly basis seemed like some kind of dark dystopian scifi world that couldn’t possibly happen (to my parents at least).

Frank Gorshin, Neville Brand Grayson Hall

With viewing choices limited back then, I would intermittently catch these G-rated movies and kinda enjoy them… but, even then, they never really did float my boat (in fact, I can’t remember a single moment from any of them). Nah. My burgeoning teen years had me caught up eagerly anticipating the day when The Exorcist was gonna finally make its way to television (cuz back then shows would often take literally YEARS to go from big screen to small). Or trying to figure out how to hoodwink my mom into letting me go see a re-release double feature of a couple of William Girdler animals-gone-amuck exploitation films, Day of the Animals and Grizzly (which I managed to do, telling her with a straight-face and nary a pang of guilt that they were nature documentaries), films that somehow – thankfully — managed to secure PG ratings (even with the ornery grizzly ripping the eight year old kid’s arm off!).

So when I decided to mosey away from catching primarily (surprise, surprise) rep films at the ongoing Beyond Fest to see what other cinematic delights might be unspooling on celluloid around LA… and noticed a child’s matinee of Disney’s That Darn Cat! at Quentin Tarantino’s very own all-35mm cinema home, a film from that once-cherished bygone era… I figured it was time, for better or worse, to re-connect with one of those long gone family entertainments that once held such sway to at least see if I could figure out what all the box office fuss was about.

And, man, was I glad I did. The movie studio system might have had an assembly line approach at the time, where actors had binding contracts and often little power, but, wow, was that well-oiled machine capable of creating magic (in big part, because the studio heads were actually run by people who loved movies, and not faceless corporations interested only in bottom line figures), writing for their talent and dropping them in right where they fit best.

Starting with the titular opening upbeat jazz-y theme number, sung with verve by famed crooner Bobby Darin over an opening credits montage of a night of D.C’s amusing hijinks, gets the film rolling in engaging style… which it never loses for a second along the way (right into the welcome reprise of the song for the wrap-up end credits sequence).

Grayson Hall and Frank Gorshin

From top to bottom, the cast is full of familiar impressive professionals like aforementioned Disney regulars Jones and Hayley (no wonder the studio glommed onto them and didn’t let go – Hayley’s endearing mixture of teenage impetuousness with an empowering sense of independence and underlying mischievous intelligence – an unwatchable and toxic combination in most pandering Hollywood films of today – is pure pleasure, and what a discovery Jones was! He’s no less than Disney’s version of Cary Grant – the bumbling screwball version of Grant, that is — less good looking, naturally, but equally as charmingly daft), to the original Riddler himself Gorshin and well-known crazy man Brand, playing only slightly less dangerous versions of their usual punk noir-gangster parts (and I mean slightly – the scenes of them holding the poor old maid hostage are surprisingly menacing for a family movie – with the maid literally begging for her life at one point, well aware they plan to kill her), to the always wonderful Roddy McDowell as the stuck-up officious neighbor (the guy we love to hate) making moves on Hayley’s desperate elder sister Ingrid (Dorothy Provine, another wonderful performer from the 60’s), completely assured that she’s his for the taking, and on into the hilariously bickering elderly nosey neighbors played by Elsa Lanchester and Preston Sturges-fave William Demarest.

The directing is lively (and well structured – the world feels colorful, yet completely contained — and the set-ups, as preposterous as they are (having Dean’s FBI man heading a group to follow the cat from a distance, to the – thankfully, only slightly anthropomorphized cat – itself prowling about causing trouble), are handled with great fun… and, again, there is nice touch of real menace and suspense achieved with the plight of the two kidnappers; experienced studio vet filmmaker Stevenson makes it all look easy, comfortably shifting back and forth between tension and laughter, I’d say working to put this “Cat” right up there on a level with celebrated 60’s classics such as Charade (that actually had Cary Grant in it).

Another thing that caught me quite by surprise, considering how horribly conservative and patriarchal just about every classic animated Disney film is, from Snow White to _ Sleeping Beauty_ and on into Pocahantos, in each case where the heroine’s goal is either to be saved’ by a man, or simply defined by one, is just how empowering the film is with its female characters… from Hayley’s Patricia constantly being steps ahead of the bumbling FBI (ending up on exactly equal footing as far as solving the case by the end with the Jones character), to sister Ingrid finally telling the arrogant Mcdowell character to stuff it (okay, she ends up with Dean’s FBI man, but they’re puurfect – I mean, PERfect – together!), to even the equality of sparring between the bickering couple next door (if you can overlook some of the old school humor of DeMarest’s character threatening violence on Lanchester) That Darn Cat! certainly rocks it with genuine chick power; so not only did I absolutely adore the film, I right away thought I have to show it to my 14 year old daughter.

As I watched the beautiful 35mm IB technicolor print showing off the colorful, rich – often magical — production design common to that time, I thought it was no surprise it was screening at QT’s own theater. Of course he loves the film with its 60’s look and feel. Hell, as fun as it could have been, I say let’s forget the Friday the 13th sequel he once talked about doing… let’s even forget the fact that That Darn Cat! was already remade in 1997 (seems most everyone already has anyway)… I’d rather see him remake this film. Seems a perfect match; he’d just have to turn his clock back a few years from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood in which movie-land was changing and auteurs were taking over, back to when studio heads were king. I’m sure QT loves that time in cinema as well.

Common to screenings at the New Bev, a few tasty surprise morsels were thrown at us before the main feature, including the classic 7 minute 1952 Warner Brothers cartoon _ Feeding the Kitty_ about a dog smitten with a little kitten that he’s taken into his home and trying his best to hide from his owner. I first fell in love with the short as a kid (as I did with almost all of the now classic plentiful WB-produced Merrie Melody cartoons that played on a loop on Saturday mornings) and have found, seeing it over the years, as well as again just before That Darn Cat, Kitty hasn’t lost an ounce of either its irreverent (adult) spirit, laugh-out-load humor, or underlying heartfelt emotion.

Who would have known? A day flying solo, hiding out in the shadowy seats at the New Beverly’s children’s matinee, ended up a marvelous day at the movies for this aging misanthrope.

That Darn Cat! (Robert Stevenson, 1965)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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