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. 

The Catman of Paris began principle photography in November of 1945 for a slated premiere on April 6, 1946.  The story opens with the image of an eerily quiet Parisian street in the middle of the night.  And then, from around the corner, Smokey emerges and strides down the cobblestones toward the camera. Walking through a miniature crafted by the famed Lydecker Brothers, she appears to stand some 10 feet tall.
Smokey strolls down a Parisian side street in the opening shot of The Catman of Paris (1946)
Midnight poses with Dolores del Rio
Legend has it that Smokey's big moment on the screen would have never happened had it not been for the off-hand comment of a typist in the Republic steno pool. Selander's first impulse was to work with a professional.  At the time,"Midnight" and her trainer Oscar Nettleson were the "go-to" cat team in post-war Hollywood, a reputation cemented by Nettleson's famous Halloween stunt of 1944.  Using only his voice and hand gestures, Nettleson led Midnight on a "shopping spree" down Hollywood Boulevard, showcasing the feline's incredible skills of command and concentration for an appreciative photo pool.  But Midnight didn't come cheap, and when a typist joked they should just let "Smokey" play the part, Selander was intrigued.  "In the end she worked for a can of tuna," he recalled fondly.  "We just left the tin at one edge of the Paris set and she bolted right for it.  One take and done!

In drafting his script, Lowe was particularly eager to distinguish his cat yarn from the Lewton series. Most of all, he hoped to avoid the sluggish pace of the Cat People films as well as the anti-climatic revelation of the "creature." Accordingly, The Catman of Paris gets down to business quickly. Charles Regnier (Carl Esmond), a successful but politically controversial French author, visits the Folies Bergère with his publisher friend.  Not long into the evening's fare, however, Charles suddenly does not feel well.  He apologizes to his friend and quickly exits to take in the night air of Paris.  Here the script calls for a deceptively simple direction: "Charles transforms into the Catman."

But how?  An early idea to use stop-motion and time lapse photography, as pioneered in Universal's recent sensation The Wolf Man (1941), was deemed by Yates to be beyond the budget and resources of the tiny studio.  When Selander jokingly suggested to Lowe that the transformation might best be handled by projecting the shadow of a cat on the wall, the incensed screenwriter reportedly hung up the phone and drove directly to the lot to "punch that bastard in the nose."

In the end, the transformation sequence was farmed out to Gus Berringer, a WWII hero who had just taken over as manager of the studio's stock library.  Drawing on his own unique experience, Berringer crafted a cat transformation sequence that remains an inspiration to film editors even today, a hauntingly poetic montage using nothing more than "reverse negatives" of footage already on file at Republic.  In shot (A), the ill Regnier places hand to forehead to signal his growing discomfort.  In (B), Regnier begins his revelation/transformation, signaled here by footage of blowing snow superimposed over his image.  The snow footage then dissolves into a reverse negative of frozen icecaps (C), a bleak oblivion seemingly beyond time and space. 

Suddenly, a shock of lightning--the image again reversed--streaks across the icy night sky (D), suggesting, perhaps, the exact moment of Regnier's crossing over into the feline world.  And then, enigmatically, a naval buoy bobs up and down on stormy waves (E), portending the troubled emotional ocean that lies ahead for the "catman."  Finally, we dissolve back to original footage for a shot of Smokey (F), dramatically underexposed to emphasize her glowing eyes floating in a field of blackness.  A man has become a cat, or more accurately, the "catman."

One of the biggest fans of this transformation was Stanley Kubrick, who often boasted that his famous "Star gate" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had its roots in a surreptitious viewing of The Catman of Paris during Kubrick's time as a staff photographer at Look.  "I had a couple hours between assignments," Kubrick recalled in a press interview for 2001, "so I ran into a theater somewhere in midtown, mainly to get out of the rain.  I ended up watching the movie twice that day, mesmerized by the simple, understated effects."
Into the Star Gate: Kubrick's homage to The Catman of Paris. 

How did Berringer come to craft such a compelling sequence?  In many respects, the veteran was simply working out his own traumas in relation to the recently concluded war.  Berringer had served in the North Atlantic on the U.S.S. Toledo, a submarine charged with harassing Nazi U-Boats making their way to port in occupied Oslo.  But on November 10, 1944, a U-Boat got the best of the Toledo, splitting her in two with a single torpedo shot.  Adrift in the rolling northern waters, Berringer managed to swim to a buoy at the mouth of Oslo's harbor, where he clung for life until a Norwegian fisherman managed to rescue him under cover of darkness. "Agnar and Gunda hid me in their home for two weeks," Benniger remembers, "slowly nursing me back to health so that I could cross over into Sweden and back to the states. And they had the sweetest little ink-black cat, Anja, who shared bowls of porridge with me in the basement.  I guess when the time came to put this sequence together, those memories all came flooding back to me."

Berringer's transformation montage occurs three times in the film, shot for shot with absolutely no variation. Although some would argue this was a cynical attempt to save money, more astute critics have noted the sense of brooding fatalism imparted by the unwavering repetition of this sequence.  "The result is always the same," observed Paulette Hale in an appreciation written for a MoMA retrospective in 1974, "Regnier does not wish to be the cat, and yet the cat he must be.  Thrice he traverses the icy void of his subconscious to encounter the glowing eyes of his feline alter ego."

Smokey again on the prowl--but this time there is a body (lower right)
"Scat!" says the inspector.
Smokey's other appearance in The Catman of Paris is perhaps even more legendary, at least within the esoteric circles of film criticism and analysis.  After the "catman" claims his first victim, we cut once again to the little Parisian street seen in the opening credits.  And also once again, Smokey rounds the corner and saunters toward the camera.  Only this time there is a dead body on the sidewalk (lower right).  We are again in a quandary--is this a giant cat loose in the streets of Paris?  It is certainly not the eponymous "catman," as we have just seen him in the previous scene to be an upright human with cat-like features.
"I had this replica of the murder scene built during the night..."

We then cut from Smokey on the prowl to a medium shot of the men charged with bringing the killer to justice, the Inspector and the Prefect of Police,  "Scat!" says the Inspector, tapping the counter with a pointer to shew away what is now revealed to be merely an ordinary house cat (interestingly, Smokey does not actually appear in this shot. Much like the celebrated "arrow-effect," in which filmmakers will use a shock cut to create the illusion that an arrow has struck its target, here Selander's quick editing compels us to believe that the cat has in fact just jumped from the counter top).

But if the cat is but a house cat, what now is this street in Paris?  The Inspector explains:  "I had this replica of the murder scene built during the night, so you could get a clearer picture of it, Monsieur LaPeffit." It is an extraordinary moment.  "Selander's famous cat reversal is nothing less than a dagger driven into the heart of Hollywood naturalism," opined Hale in her screening notes. "The viewer is compelled to confront verisimilitude for the tiresome crutch it has become, while also being encouraged to cultivate a skeptical eye for all illusions of depth and scale.  Do not believe in the cat or in Paris-both are duplicitous fabrications." 

Smokey's infamous Have Gun "blooper" cost CBS over $5000
After her appearance in Catman, Smokey kept a low profile.  But by 1958, her mousing days on the Republic lot were over.  With television production picking up all over the city, the Republic back lot became a dangerous place for an elderly cat, especially as renters unfamiliar with the former cat star began showing up for one or two day shoots.  "I was worried for the old girl," remembers Patty Millicent, a long-time veteran of Republic's accounting department. "There were all those new faces on the lot and many of them thought Smokey was just a nuisance."  These complaints were not without merit.  As Smokey grew older, she somehow lost her intuition to stay off the set when cameras were rolling.  After Smokey wandered into a take of CBS' Have Gun--Will Travel, Patty decided the time had come to take her home.  "Plus, I was pretty sure a coyote would get her soon if we didn't do something."

But Smokey's Hollywood days were not over.  Reading Variety one morning, Patty noticed an open audition call for "black cats"--part of an exploitation campaign by Roger Corman to generate publicity for his upcoming production of Tales of Terror (1962), a horror anthology starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre set to feature an adaptation of Poe's "The Black Cat."  A real trooper, Smokey showed up and took her place in line with a hundred other black cats, patiently waiting for her opportunity to impress Corman.  Documented by a photographer from Life, Smokey and Patty can be seen in the middle of the frame at left, Patty in a white dress leaning over to give her furry thespian a few words of encouragement.

Smokey didn't get the part--but her uncanny influence in Hollywood continued nevertheless. Standing in line that morning, Smokey had a run-in with her old nemesis, "Midnight," the cat that almost beat her for the plum role in The Catman of Paris fifteen years earlier.  "It was spooky," recalls Patty.  "They had obviously never met before, but somehow Smokey knew.  One moment I was chatting with Midnight's handler, Oscar, and then the next, Smokey and Midnight were wrestling on the sidewalk, the fur flying!"  After separating the two feuding felines, Oscar joked, "just like a couple of old Hollywood bitches, isn't it! Meee-owww."

The story of these former cat stars, tussling over a part that neither had any real chance of landing, quickly spread across the lot, eventually reaching the ears of Robert Aldrich and Joan Crawford in the commissary.  Aldrich had Crawford on stage that day to run through a few scenes in his upcoming production, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).  "We were having lunch when a mail boy came in laughing about the big 'cat fight' over on Stage 7," recounted Aldrich in his unpublished autobiography.  "Joan and I both had a good laugh about it, but then I noticed her eyes were tearing up. I think, in that moment, the parallel between those two old cats and her own situation with Bette (Davis) became all too real." Aldrich went so far as to credit Smokey (and Midnight) for inspiring Crawford's masterful performance in the film.  "When it came time to do an emotionally intense scene," Aldrich writes, "Joan seemed to draw strength from the example of those two old furballs wrestling with each other on the lawn.  It was really quite moving." 


Smokey passed away in her sleep in 1963 at the rather extraordinary age of 24 years old.  And there her story might have ended if not for the attention of a rising singer of the 1970s, none other than the "King of Pop" himself, Michael Jackson.  As a small child in Gary, Indiana, Micheal apparently saw a screening of The Catman of Paris on Chicago station WBKB's Shock Theater (records indicate the film did indeed screen in October of 1966 when Jackson was 8 years old).  Neighbors of the Jacksons  remember Micheal's obsession with the movie, and how--like the catman--he would climb trees to then pounce on unsuspecting pedestrians walking in front of the Jackson home.

Jackson's compromise: half wolf, half cat
While it would be a stretch to say that Jackson's eventual interest in transformative cosmetic surgery stemmed from his late-night TV rendez-vous with the "catman," one thing is certain: the catman had a profound influence on Jackson's vision for the epic video for Thriller. "When Michael came to me on that project, it wasn't about zombies," remembers John Landis, "it was about The Catman of Paris.  He really, really wanted to turn into a catman. But I tried to convince him that would just look silly. Francis (Coppola) was even more direct. 'Nobody wants to sit through a 15 minute video just to see you turn into a cat, Michael," he said.   In the end we compromised on a creature somewhere between a cat and a werewolf."

Jackson may have compromised on Thriller, but he would eventually find a way to pay tribute to this film favorite, and in a manner, to Smokey herself.  "When Micheal came into the office with the idea for Black or White, he brought a copy of The Catman of Paris," remembers Dexter Timberlane, a software engineer who worked on the project for Pacific Data Images.  "He told us he had a vision of all kinds of different people transforming into one another--male into female, black into white, white into Asian, and so on. So he showed us the scene where Regnier turns into a cat. 'I want that and I want it as real as possible,' he said." 

While this "morphing" technology had been used previously in Willow (1988 )  Terminator 2 (1991)  and even the video for Godley and Creme's "Cry," PDI perfected the technology for Jackson's high-profile project.  "Micheal was adamant that he be there the first day of production," continues Timberlane. "Just before I was about to hit the return key to start rendering the first morph, Micheal stopped me.  He pulled this odd little jeweled pouch out of his pocket, opened the clasp, and then took out what looked like a tiny stamp. It was a little sticker with a cartoon cat face on it.  Michael peeled off the back and then stuck the decal on my keyboard, right on top of the return key.  'Okay, now you can start,' he said."

And to this day, "hit the Smokey" remains industry slang for starting a CGI program, a signal to fire up the computer and initiate the long and laborious process of digital rendering and compositing.
Select Bibliography

Ira McTavish.  Highlands West: The Story of My Life.  Tucson: Wagon Wheel Press, 1956.
"Kat is Kalm, Kool, and Kollected," Variety (November 1, 1944) p. 27.
Gus Berringer.  From Hell to Hollywood. Wilshire Press, 1965.
"Kubrick's Cosmic Vision," Film Parader Magazine, January 1969. p. 12.
Paulette Hale. "Notes on The Catman of Paris."  MoMA 1974.
"Krazy Kat Kosts Tiffany a Kool 5K,"  Variety (January 15, 1958) p. 29.
"Calling All Cats--New Corman film Looking for Feline Lead."  The Hollywood Reporter.  January 22, 1961.
Robert Aldrich. Untitled Manuscript. Lorrington Collection, UC-Fullerton.
"Working with the King of Pop"   Rolling Stone.  August 27, 1999.
Philip Morgan. A History of Future Wonders: CGI and the Reframing of Hollywood.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

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