Cat Cameos in Cinema

Dan Doody | SIFF Programmer | Monday, October 17, 2022

Cats in Film

It’s hard to believe nowadays that the humble Felis cactus was not always the most popular furry pet in the world. The internet, with its LOLCatz, Instagram stories, and Twitter memes, have turned cats into, quoting the CatVideoFest blurb, “our fuzzy overlords”. But between ancient Egypt, where cats were worshiped as gods, till the invention of the internet, cats had something of an image problem. Independent, indifferent, willful—qualities we now embrace and lionize—did nothing to make them popular with a majority of humans, particularly in Europe, where they were tolerated for their pest control efficiency but also seen as witch’s familiars, i.e. instruments of the Devil. Dogs became “man’s best friend” while cats became those skittish rat-catchers slinking about the shadows and crawl spaces, occasionally appearing for a saucer of milk to be followed by a quick pet.

This prejudice between cats and dogs was something I experienced growing up. My family shared our home with cats. Every dog we ever tried to own ranaway at some point. Most of my friends and classmates were dismissive of cats. “Boring,” they said; “All cats do is sleep.” (Yes, cats sleep a lot, but that is because they evolved as such efficient hunters they had a lot of downtime, and so naps and cats became synonymous with each other.) But a dog, now there was a “real pet”. It did tricks and guarded the house from burglars—dogs did things, were useful. Nevermind they also barked too much, were often unable to be house trained, and needed to be taken out for walks, leading to those little plastic baggies with which every dog owner is now familiar.

In some ways this prejudice still remains, even though cats as pets outnumber dogs by nearly 14 million. Dogs are perceived as being companionable, to the point where if you bring your leashed dog into a local store, you get oohs & ahhs, photos taken, maybe even a treat for your pet. Now try that with a cat and see what reaction you get.

The above preference for canines was an essential staple of mid-Twentieth Century America—it was a dog’s world, particularly in Hollywood. With one notable exception, dogs were stars: Rin Tin Tin, Petey (of Little Rascals fame), Lassie, Benjy, and, my favorite, Skippy, better known as Asta from The Thin Man series. All of these pooches became household names and, to a degree, iconic. The one cat that would rise to such ranks is hardly a household name—Orangey, who appeared in The Diary of Anne Frank, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and, most famously, opposite Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. You probably have seen him, but didn’t know his name*. There are, of course, reasons for this: dogs are more trainable than the “willful” cat, who, as all cat owners know, will rarely, if ever, do what you want, when you want it to.

And yet, while there are fewer feline stars, cats aren’t altogether absent from cinema screens. In fact, they make a surprising number of cameo appearances along the edges of the frame. Two years ago, I was re-watching Labyrinth in preparation for a SIFF Movie Club. There’s a moment late in the film, right when Sarah and her companions arrive at the Goblin city, when a cat runs across the background of the scene.

It happens so quickly that it seems unlikely to have been intended; what seems more likely is that a stray cat (or the studio’s resident mouser) must have got on set and happened to sprint across when the cameras were rolling and, subsequently, the shot made the film’s final cut. For whatever reason, I’m not sure why, I took note of it and the time the cat appeared in the film.

A few days later, I was watching my new blu-ray import of Jacques Tourneur’s classic horror noir Night of the Demon. If you’re a fan of the film you’ll know there’s a cat in it—a warlock’s familiar named Greymalkin, who features in one of the film’s eeriest sequences. But there’s also another cat, seen here at the corner of the frame during the 53 minute mark. Probably just another stray puss who just happened onto the set for this shot.

Ever since, I’ve been keeping a running total of cats appearing incidentally in films. Incidental is the key word here. If I’m watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Incredible Journey, or Cat People, I know there’s a cat in those films, and it plays a key role in each of those films. Nor does it apply to the great cats, i.e. lions, tigers, leopards, etc. What I’ve been interested in are those moments when there just happens to be a cat on screen, not because the animal is essential to the plot, or used as a jump scare, but because of some strange whim of the production.

To give another example, in the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera, Claude Raines’ Claudin returns to his impoverished boarding room. As he sits down to work on his composition, a stray cat walks along the outside window sill.

It’s a beautiful, quiet moment that emphasizes Claudin’s loneliness, and one that goes unnoticed, I think, for most viewers. However, it begs the question, why the cat? Was it scripted or an impromptu on-set idea? Where did the cat come from? Did Universal have a stable of cats available for productions? (Seems unlikely, given the studio’s famously frugal reputation.) Or was it a stray that managed to make its way onto the soundstage?

Here's a few more of the cat appearances that I’ve managed to “collect” over the previous three years.

La Jetée (1962)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

The War of the Worlds (1953)

Black Orpheus (1959)

Frankenstein (1931)

Where Danger Lives (1950)

Amadeus (1984)

Africa Screams (1949)

Three Colors: Blue (1994)

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Tequila Sunrise (1988)

As Tears Go By (1988)

In writing this blog post, I became aware of two websites that track cat appearances in films: CATS ON FILM, which was last updated in 2017, and Cinema Cats, which is ongoing and active as of this writing. Not all of my discoveries have been previously reported in the blogs above. However, both were helpful in preparing this post, particularly with the film stills pulled from and credited to the latter site.

*The thing about Orangey is that he wasn’t just one cat. The commentary track on the Criterion release of The Incredible Shrinking Man reveals that Orangey was 1) mean, and 2) a number of different cats each trained to do one thing well. This was apparently the easier approach, rather than an attempt to train one temperamental cat to do many things. There are at least two different cats in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; if you look closely enough, you can tell the difference via their tabby patterns.

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