Cult Cinema: When the Cat Comes (1963) - Reviewed

The cinema world lost one of its most underrated innovators with the passing of Czechoslovakian film director Vojtech Jasný last November.   Though new to modern cinemagoers (myself included), Jasný was at the forefront of the Czech New Wave movement which included such colorful, fantastical films as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Daisies and The Fireman’s Bell.  Ideologically speaking, the mid-50s cinema movement opposed the strict social realism of straightforward dramas of the era and utilized an absurdist, freeform approach to narrative storytelling. 

Characterized by their tendency towards childlike playfulness while sneakily evading the censorial nature of their country of origin, the crux of the movement could be summed up by one film with Vojtech Jasný’s 1963 psychedelic family film When the Cat Comes.  A film which seemed to capture the essence of the Czech New Wave while still holding up as a delightful family entertainment for children as well as adults, it’s a simple yet electrically charged fairy tale about an imaginative teacher versus an uptight dictatorial schoolmaster keen on stifling the classroom’s creative energies. 

Enter a magic troupe which descends upon the small town whose centerpiece involves a cat donned in sunglasses.  Upon removal of the glasses, onlookers change colors representing their true natures, with red for love, yellow for unfaithfulness and blue for thievery.  From here, the film bursts into Pink Elephants on Parade flights of pantomime with brightly colored human figures silhouetted against a black backdrop.  The visual effect feels like a Disney film Fantasia come to vivid, multicolored life!

At face value a childlike Mary Poppins type of fantasy film loaded with magic and playful experimental technical innovation, When the Cat Comes at heart is a penultimate Czech New Wave expression of protest.  With the censorial authoritarian government represented by the fascistic schoolmaster at war with the imaginative upending unleashed by the magic show, When the Cat Comes functions both as a lab experiment as children’s movie as well as a loaded gun opposing the strictness of authoritarian storytelling at the time.

Jasný, himself a former anti-Nazi resistance fighter who gradually began distancing himself from the Communist party by the time When the Cat Comes came about, was no stranger to the opposition being deployed by the Czech New Wave movement and his film succeeds as both escapist entertainment and political opposition to a system that stifled creativity.  Not long after the film’s inception, Jasný would exit the country amid a mass exodus of filmmakers tired of their creative freedoms being trampled upon.

Key to the film’s success is the leading actor Jan Werich as the storyteller/magician who upends the tightly knit small town.  Sort of a Czech Wizard of Oz functioning as the film’s narrator and gatekeeper, Werich imbues the film with a grandfatherly charm that’s warm and welcoming.  Aiding his mischief making is Emília Vásáryová dressed in bright red as an acrobatic performer with her trusty sunglasses wearing cat by her side, functioning as ballerina and muse for the magician. 

Visually the film plays brilliantly with color timing, thanks to extraordinary cinematography by Jaroslav Kučera who photographs in panoramic 35mm widescreen in a largely grayscale color palette.  Maintaining an intentionally dull look synonymous with the film’s thematic leanings, the film occasionally explodes into a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of color sensory overload.  The stark contrast between a near-monochromatic look of normalcy versus the hyperkinetic visual tie-dye being unleashed through magic is kind of a shock to see firsthand and is indeed different on the eyes.

Sound wise, the film’s original orchestral score by Svatopluk Havelka joins in on the visual antics with a wide range of sonic innovation ranging from quiet pleasance to an overwrought fury of noise.  Jazzy and, again, leaning towards Dumbo’s Pink Elephants on Parade, the soundtrack intensifies in conjunction with the visuals so you too like the characters in the film aren’t entirely sure where to pinpoint where the dream begins and the fantasy ends. 

Renamed and redubbed The Cassandra Cat for US distribution, When the Cat Comes went on to win two top prizes at Cannes in 1963 including the Special Jury Prize and the Grand Prix Technique for its technical innovation.  In the years since, this firecracker fountain of a movie sadly was largely forgotten save for television screenings in dubbed as well as unrestored fullscreen bargain bin DVDs on public domain. 

Though a more extensive search on the internet will eventually turn up an anamorphic widescreen DVD from the Czech Republic (thankfully including English subtitles), When the Cat Comes clearly deserves a much greater restorative treatment and grander following as it stands as a textbook example of the creative heights reached by the Czech New Wave movement.  Still visually impressive and for some the quintessential Czech New Wave movie, When the Cat Comes is a delightful entertainment and exciting visual feast long overdue for recognition of its place in world cinema history.

--Andrew Kotwicki