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Studio Cat: The Secret History of Smokey

A young "Smokey" on the Republic lot, circa 1938.
Few people know the true story of "Smokey," the feral cat who came to rule over the back lot at Republic Studios in the 1940s and 50s. It's a shame, really, because in her own way, Smokey has had an enduring influence on the history of American entertainment.

The first reference to Smokey comes from the obscure autobiography of Ira McTavish, a bit player whose impressive "49'er" beard frequently landed him background parts in studio westerns of the thirties.  In between takes on Three Faces West (1940), McTavish recalls sitting with John Wayne on the back lot's famous saloon porch.  "Tuckered out from a long day shooting, Duke took off his boots to air his barking dogs," recalls McTavish, "Now what Duke didn't know was that an ornery mama cat had drifted down from the hills and had set to birthing under the planks where he was dangling his feet.  Suddenly he jumps up like his chaps is on fire and lets out a war whoop you could hear all the way over to Culver City.  Smokey, which is what we came to call the mama cat on account of her being coal black, had sunk her fangs right into the Duke's ankle and weren't letting go for nothing." 

The Duke's ankle after his 1940 tussle with Smokey
Later, with order restored, director John Phillips volunteered to drown Smokey and her brood in a barrel of water, but Wayne would have none of it.  "I think he took a liking to that cat's gumption," writes McTavish.  Smokey's kittens eventually went home with the cast and crew of Three Faces West, while Smokey herself earned a more secure home as Republic's official house cat.  She would live on the lot as the studio "mouser" until 1958.

Lowe: Not impressed.
Smokey is best known, of course, for her featured role in the studio's 1946 production, The Catman of Paris, a horror B directed by Lesley Selander and starring Carl Esmond as the "cat man."  The film began almost as a dare.  Dealing primarily in westerns, screenwriter Sherman L. Lowe had begun moving into horror territory in 1944 with The Monster and the Ape.  Later that same year, Lowe and Republic chief Richard J. Yates attended the premiere of RKO's The Curse of the Cat People, the sequel to the surprise hit of 1942, Cat People.  Retiring to a bar just off Ventura, a somewhat inebriated Lowe apparently began venting his anger at the success of RKO's Lewton unit, irritated that the studio could produce not one, but two films about people turning into cats without ever really showing the transformation itself.  Whether amused or annoyed at his house writer's complaints, Yates commissioned Lowe on the spot to write a "cat based" horror script, promising to stake the project a $100,000 budget and an aggressive sales campaign for the 1945 season.