The Story Behind the casting of Cleo in Cass Timberlane

The art of cat handling for films has been around for quite some time, but rarely do we get to see a glimpse of the craft documented in the media covering Hollywood in its heyday.  But such was the case for cat handler Walter Huber, who was interviewed about his work in bringing the cat character “Cleopatra” to life in the 1947 film Cass Timberlane.

Cass Timberlane - Cleo as a kitten

This article, penned by an unknown author, appeared in The Milwaukee Journal on December 2, 1947:

Cats Stubborn, Unpredictable, Says Movie Feline Expert
      Hollywood, Calif. — Eight homeless cats of the alley variety, which were obtained from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are the latest screen arrivals to lend proof to Hollywood’s accepted theory that the greatest scene stealers in pictures are children and animals.  Of the eight selected for film careers, six of the larcenous felines were required to portray Spencer Tracy’s sneeze impelling house pet, Cleo, in “Cass Timberlane.”  The other less-fortunate two merely play themselves in minor roles, appear briefly, and were no problem to cast.
      Why it took six cats to portray what should be a simple role to an everyday tabby and what went on behind the scenes to get the one in six Cleos to respond to direction and at times compete for footage with Tracy and Lana Turner, is an interesting side light which involves Hollywood’s animal providing and taming industry and particularly Walter Huber, a 54 year old ex-printer who finds cats more profitable than type.
Cat Specialist
      As Huber explains, it was simple for Author (Sinclair) Lewis to write catlike antics for his Cleo in the novel and it was equally as easy for the scenarist to transfer such imaginative frolics to the screen play, but getting a cat to follow script — well, that’s where Huber comes into the picture.  It would have been some other animal specialist, he points out, had Cleo been a monkey, a dog, a crow, a horned toad, or some other bird or beast.
      Hollywood has its specialists for every type of animal, bird or reptile likely to be called for a movie part.  These specialists have their own protective organization with a set of ethical standards, minimum rate scale for their own services, and “salaries” for their stock in trade depending on rarity, extent of training and — of course — “name” value.  One advertises he can supply anything from an ant to an elephant.
      It isn’t unusual for the salary of the animal engaged to be higher than that of its owner, or handler, who works through the production of the picture with it.  Take the case of Lassie, for instance.  He’s a star and recognized as such on MGM’s star roster along with the Gables, the Garsons and the Hepburns.
      In the case of Huber, the cat expert — and this is the commonest procedure at the studio where animals are involved — he was hired as “cat trainer” for the full run of the production of “Cass Timberlane.”  In addition, the feline actress or actor which he would supply and train to play Cleo would receive a salary of $100 a week for the same length of time.  But when Huber was engaged for the stint, several weeks before the start of the film, there was no Cleo in sight — in fact, some of the cat actors that filled the role in the picture were not then born.
Cats Are Unpredictable
      The script called for a tabby of the alley cat type which is first seen as a kitten, several weeks old; later is filmed in antics as a cat of around 4 months old, and in a subsequent sequence as a 1 year old.  That meant three different cats at approximately those ages which must, for camera purposes, be look-alikes.  But as cats are somewhat on the independent and unpredictable side, Huber’s task included also the finding of three additional look-alikes of those ages to understudy the originals.
      To find his cats, Huber turned to the Los Angeles SPCA, where unwanted animals are left by their owners for possible sale or, what is a more likely, fate for pussies of the alley category — humane destruction.  Before Huber finally got his six look-alikes of the varying ages, it meant for him many daily trips to the SPCA.  But he did get them and thus saved six cats, or 54 lives, for Hollywood fame.  Only two of the half dozen were relatives, brothers — and all were male.
      There was not much time to train the youngest pair for their screen career, as they were before cameras within a few weeks of their birth and they would be expected only to look kittenish anyway.  For the older couples which would have to “act,” it meant many hours of training by Huber to teach the cats to answer to signals.

Spencer Tracy and cat in Cass Timberlane

Photo caption: This cat was saved from death because a cat was needed in the picture “Cass Timberlane.”  Five other cats were saved too, because the cat expert had to use six alley cats, three for roles and three as understudies.  This is a courtroom scene and the cat steals the picture, for a moment, from Milwaukee’s celebrated son, Spencer Tracy.

Not Much Competition
      Despite their training it still took more tedious hours to get them to do the right thing at the right time for the camera.  “Cats are so obstinate,” says Huber, “they will not do anything unless they have satisfied themselves there is a reason for it.  It’s much easier with dogs.  That’s why I’m in the cat business.  There are too many dog men, but there’s not so much competition in cat handling.”
      For “Cass Timberlane” the most tedious cat routine to get for the cameras, according to Huber, was the comedy high light scene in which Tracy turns from the radio, makes a face at Cleo and says, “I’m a green monster,” and the cat looks for a moment in apparent amazement at the actor’s grimaces and then turns tail and runs across the room and up a flight of stairs, without halting.
      “It wasn’t so difficult, after all, to accomplish,” says Huber, “but it did take two cats to do the scene.  One of them ran away from Tracy, as per direction, but would only go part way up the stairway and then stop, turn around and start down again.  Shot after shot was taken and each time the cat would stop midway and turn as if thoroughly disgusted with the whole affair.
One For All
      “So a scene was taken in which the cat’s brother starts at the bottom of the stairs and scoots all the way up and off stage.  Then with a bit of camera doubling it appears to audiences as if there is only one cat involved in this funny one shot incident.”
      Huber believes that, as a result of the performances of the collective Cleo in “Cass Timberlane,” he now has a new feline star on his hands.  But just which one of the six he considers the star actor and which are the understudies, he isn’t saying.  “From here on out,” he declares, “Cleo works only as a team of six — one star, five doubles, one for all and all for one.”

Cass Timberlane - Cleo

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