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That Darn Cat! DVD Review

"That Darn Cat!" movie poster That Darn Cat!

Theatrical Release: December 2, 1965 / Running Time: 116 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Robert Stevenson / Writers: Gordon Gordon, Mildred Gordon (screenplay & book); Bill Walsh (screenplay)

Cast: Hayley Mills (Patti Randall), Dean Jones (Zeke Kelso), Dorothy Provine (Ingrid Randall), Roddy McDowall (Gregory Benson), Neville Brand (Dan), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. MacDougall), William Demarest (Mr. MacDougall), Frank Gorshin (Iggy), Richard Eastham (Supervisor Newton), Grayson Hall (Margaret Miller), Tom Lowell (Canoe), Richard Deacon (Drive-in Manager), Iris Adrian (Landlady), Ed Wynn (Mr. Hofstedder)

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In spite of its title, That Darn Cat! does not feature a feline for a villain. Nor is the animal lead merely used for its time-tested comedic screen prowess the way it may have been in other live action Disney films. Instead, the cat at the center of That Darn Cat! is simply one important character in this entertaining, plot-driven suspense comedy.

D.C. (which stands for "Darn Cat") is the pet of teenager Patti Randall (Hayley Mills), but the blue-eyed Siamese likes to roam all over the neighborhood. Each night at 9:00 on the dot, D.C. takes off for some exercise and adventure, with several stops to be taken along the way. The film opens with one of these nightly prowlings and it happens to be an important one.
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While out and about, D.C. follows a bag of salmon and steak into an apartment where two bank robbers are holding a teller hostage.

The crooks are the shot-calling Dan (Neville Brand) and his twitchy partner Iggy (Frank Gorshin, who would soon go on to play The Riddler on "Batman"). Their latest robbery nets them headlines and a nice bundle of cash. Even with authorities actively looking for them, the criminal duo feels comfortable about their hideout being safe. They're also not too worried about their captive, Margaret Miller (Grayson Hall), or as they like to call her, "Moms." When the time is right, they plan to get rid of her in a permanent way.

Iggy takes a liking to D.C. and lets him stay around for a bit. While preparing her kidnappers' dinner, Margaret comes up with an impromptu plan to subtly plea for help without losing her life. She takes her watch, scrawls the word "Help" on it (or as much as she can) and puts it around D.C.'s neck, replacing his collar and sends him off. When D.C. decides to wander home to Patti, she notices what her voracious, surf movie enthusiast boyfriend Canoe (Tom Lowell) doesn't.

Patti (Hayley Mills) has a talk with her big eater boyfriend Canoe (Tom Lowell). Dan (Neville Brand and Iggy (Frank Gorshin) are not very respectful of their captive, Margaret Miller (Grayson Hall).

Patti's older sister Ingrid (Dorothy Provine) dismisses the conclusion Patti leaps to, in linking the gold-plated watch with "Hel" on it with the local woman reported missing in the news. She proceeds to alert the FBI and in particular one Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones), the federal agent she quickly takes a liking to. As a result, Zeke is assigned to set up a station and monitor the course of D.C.'s nightly roaming. There's a hitch, though. Zeke is allergic to felines and can hardly even utter the word "cat" without sneezing.

D.C. doesn't make things easy for Zeke with his hissing, scratching, and general lack of cooperation. Nonetheless, Zeke tries to take his duty seriously and remembering that a woman's life might be at stake helps him maintain a straight face through the unorthodox procedures. With Zeke stationed inside Ingrid's room and a number of agents patrolling the area, the FBI hopes the precocious cat will lead the bureau to Ms. Miller or at least some new information.

From the silly title and the typically unrealistic plot, That Darn Cat! is surprisingly a lot less ridiculous than you might suspect. Part of this stems from the fact that the laughs support the plot rather than drive or deter it. The mystery angle of the film is never much undermined by opting for animal cuteness to carry an excessive cinematic weight. Furthermore, the villains for once are not bumbling idiots. Dan and Iggy (played finely by actors who have specialized in portraying antagonists) are a believable threat and seemingly capable of enacting violence in spite of one's expectations for a 1960s Disney comedy.

What's this? Patti finds a clue. Zeke (Dean Jones) has never had this hard of a time getting finger...er, paw prints before.

That Darn Cat! represented Hayley Mills' last feature film for the Disney studio.
Twenty years later, she would return for made-for-TV Parent Trap sequels and a television series that would evolve into "Saved By The Bell", but by then she was clearly into adulthood and the stakes were rather different. In this film, though she's fuller in the face and visibly older than her earlier work for Disney, Mills retains her distinct and charismatic screen presence. Turning nineteen during production, Mills is on the cusp of womanhood here and yet she has no trouble pulling off the appealing female lead. Patti is more mature in appearance and she's presented as something of a hip teenage character, but her spunk is in line with Mills' roles and it makes for a solid send-off for the studio's incomparable young star.

While the film marks a departure for Mills, it also signifies an important arrival for the studio: 34-year-old Dean Jones. In his Disney debut, Jones is as lanky and likable as ever. The actor shows his flair for restrained physical comedy, an attribute that would keep him as the studio's preferred leading man for the next twelve years.

The comedy of That Darn Cat! is a hybrid between Mills' earlier films and the Jones junctions that would dominate the post-Walt era. Fortunately, the film takes the best elements of each to deliver a combination that is almost entirely winning. The running time of 116 minutes may seem a bit excessive and the plot doesn't advance much for a significant portion devoted to Zeke's setup on catwatch. But the movie is too much fun you to notice and by the time Dean and Hayley get to enjoy a few moments as action heroes near the end, they clearly have had lots of fun too.

The majority of the film offers highly amusing hijinks in conjunction with tight plotting and sharp wit. There's fun to be had all around, even in the seemingly irrelevant discussions Patti and Canoe share about the current beach-movie-proliferated state of cinema. Some potential romance is thrown into the mix, present but wisely downplayed in favor of the compelling central story. A great deal of the suspense that makes that rather dramatic core work can be attributed to what Alfred Hitchcock called the "MacGuffin", a device in which the audience knows more than the characters. Indeed, a much different film could have been made out of this same story and even the same footage had a more daring editing approach been employed. As it is, the film works fantastically letting viewers know what's going on, while the pleasure of solving the mystery gives it an excellent sense of purpose and resolution.

Zeke shows his federal agents a picture of the informant. In his amusing camo, Disney veteran Ed Wynn finds himself amused by Patti's plan which involves an exotic accent.

A strong and noteworthy supporting cast is on hand here. Roddy McDowall plays Gregory Benson, a temperamental (with an emphasis on "mental") hunting man who drives Ingrid to and from work and seems to be unhealthily planning a relationship with her. Elsa Lanchester (the resigner Katie Nana from Mary Poppins) plays Patti's nosy neighbor who is appalled that there are men allowed in the Randall house while the parents are off vacationing the world. William Demarest is her quarrelsome husband and their scenes together are amusing if not very functional. There's even a brief but comical cameo from Ed Wynn as a watchstore owner.

That Darn Cat! is adapted from the bestselling book by Mildred Gordon and husband/former FBI agent Gordon Gordon. The pair contributed to the screenplay, while the real FBI kept tabs on production. (You can find some interesting documents on this and Moon Pilot online.) While the Gordons wrote follow-up novels, sequels never came to be filmed, but Disney did produce a remake in 1997, which starred Christina Ricci and Doug E. Doug, with Dean Jones returning for a supporting role.

Released in early December of 1965, the film was met with warm reception from critics and audiences, the latter of whom made That Darn Cat! one of the highest-earning titles of the year with a gross of nearly $10 million. Like nearly all of Hayley Mills's '60s films for Disney, the Sherman Brothers were asked to contribute here, though to a lesser degree. Their title song, "That Darn Cat!" is performed over the opening credits by Bobby Darin.

Overall, That Darn Cat! is one of the best live action comedies produced from Walt's time. Refusing to settle for easy visual comedy from its photogenic animal star, the film excels with characters, plot, and humor which flows naturally. It's a smart and involving movie, and one which benefits from having the director, cast, and writers all putting the effort to get the most of it. The same cannot be said for all Disney comedies even those which delighted their initial audiences. But That Darn Cat! certainly remains a crowd-pleaser all these years later.

Buy That Darn Cat! from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Reformatted Fullscreen
Dolby Digital Mono (English, French)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: May 3, 2005
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Reduced from $19.99)
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

That Darn Cat! is not presented in the widescreen aspect ratio in which it was theatrically exhibited. Instead, the DVD provides just a reformatted fullscreen transfer which appears to be cropped from slightly wider dimensions.
The strongest suggestion of missing picture comes in the way of newspaper headlines, which are lopped off at both ends. There wasn't consistently excess head room the way there would be in an open matte transfer, but certain shots definitely seemed they had a bit to spare if matted. The best conclusion one can arrive at is that there is a mix of cropping and unmatting the full frame.

Once again, it is very disappointing to get another live action film released in a compromised fashion. In the past six years since Disney began releasing their live action catalogue to DVD, they've bounced back and forth between very good and very horrid at presenting their films in widescreen when they were filmed and shown in theaters that way. In 2005, they've been getting more wrong than right, but this week's new batch shows a bit of both: Summer Magic is anamorphic widescreen, while the films Hayley made for Disney before and after, In Search of the Castaways and this, are fullscreen only.

Looks like cropping to me. Dean Jones and Hayley Mills look for the missing bits of picture. Are they under the bed? No, but D.C. is.

Aspect ratio aside, picture quality isn't bad at all. Considering the way that fullscreen transfers often stem from recycled video masters that haven't been remastered at all, That Darn Cat! looks rather good for a 40-year-old film. It may just be what was on hand displayed high quality to begin with, since efforts to remaster have almost always resulted in Disney releasing a widescreen transfer (see Hayley's first two films, gloriously restored for the Vault Disney line). The video remains clean throughout, with the intrusion of artifacts or flaws both infrequent and minor. Sharpness is mostly pleasing, though a bit too much so; edges sometimes produce rings around them in what might be labeled as "edge enhancement." This too was an infrequent occurrence.

For the most part, this transfer would be entirely fine if the film was intended to be seen in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of most modern television sets. But it wasn't, and even if framing only explicitly suffered a few times, the practice is still a disheartening one.

Audio is provided like most of Disney's other catalogue DVDs in a Dolby Digital monaural track. The film's catchy score is presented nicely in this, as is dialogue. In fact, there was little to complain about the sound presentation. One feels, however, the film might benefit from opening up the soundtrack to the other speakers as well. Even if it was a simple broad mono track like the "5.1 remixes" on the Vault Disney discs, for some reason, a wider soundfield feels like it would be appropriate here, though purists would probably disagree or label me a hypocrite for saying this after going on about maintaining the original theatrical experience visually. In any event, this Mono track is a capable and satisfying offering. One minor note is following the Bobby Darin title theme, the volume needs to be turned up to fully appreciate as the dynamics are subsequently lower though consistent.

Gregory Benson (Roddy McDowall) is a little bit off the edge. Not one, but two Randalls cling to Zeke in a moment of fright.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Hayley Mills and Dean Jones have both reflected at length on some of their other Disney films for the double-disc releases of Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, and The Love Bug. So you think they'd be game for some kind of retrospective on this film, a documentary or commentary maybe, right? That'd be a nice way to commemorate this beloved comedy's 40th anniversary, no?
Well, either they weren't game or they weren't asked, because this DVD is absent of any bonus features. Even just the trailer would have been fun, knowing how Disney (and other studios) promoted their films to audiences back then. The DVD format has been around for eight years now, and Disney knows what collectors like. That makes it all the more disappointing that for bonus features, (like original aspect ratio), this DVD scores a zero.

The 16x9 menu screens are accompanied by portions of score. The screens feature artwork from the film - a silly Photoshop job of Dean Jones and D.C. occupies the Main Menu and there's an odd shortage of Hayley Mills around the few menus that exist. The ubiquitous 90-second promo for old live action Disney films on DVD shows up at the start of the disc, of course, but cannot be accessed from the menu. Pressing "Play" from the menu requires you to wait for some unskippable new FBI warnings, which makes Chapter 1 as appealing an alternative as ever.

Hayley and D.C. make a nice on-screen team. Zeke is a bit weary of cats in general.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

That Darn Cat! holds up well as one of the better live action Disney films of the '60s. Unfortunately, its long-awaited DVD debut comes not as the fine 40th Anniversary Edition you might have hoped for, but as a widely disappointing barebones disc. Video and audio quality are mostly very good, but the lack of an anamorphic widescreen transfer and bonus features of any kind is a letdown. Ultimately, your decision to pick up this DVD will depend on how much or little you value the film (live action Disney in its heyday), getting the original aspect ratio, and bonus features.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / Buy the Book: Undercover Cat by The Gordons

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Related Reviews:
The Remake: That Darn Cat (1997)
Starring Hayley Mills: The Parent Trap & The Parent Trap II Summer Magic In Search of the Castaways The Moon-Spinners
Starring Dean Jones: The Ugly Dachshund The Love Bug Million Dollar Duck Monkeys, Go Home! The Shaggy D.A.
Roddy McDowall: The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin Bedknobs and Broomsticks Planet of the Apes (Blu-ray) The Black Hole
Disney Cats: The Three Lives of Thomasina The Cat from Outer Space Oliver & Company The Aristocats
Disney Capers: No Deposit, No Return Never a Dull Moment National Treasure The Great Muppet Caper

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Reviewed May 2, 2005.