You don’t have to be a professional animal trainer to figure out why there are a lot more dog movies than cat movies. Dogs’ emotions are written all over their furry little faces. They’re known for being brave, loyal and friendly. They’re also a heck of a lot easier to train.
Cats, on the other hand, are independent and somewhat inscrutable unless they’re purring and rubbing against you. Even the most well-behaved, well-trained cats have an attitude like they’re only willing to go along with your plan as long as it suits them. It’s not an accident that the most popular cat videos are the ones capturing them doing something stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I love cats and consider myself a cat person. But it’s a lot of fun to see these self-satisfied little gremlins make fools of themselves.
When Walt Disney branched out into live-action animal pictures, he understandably focused on the canine set. It wasn’t until The Incredible Journey that a cat received a costarring role alongside two dogs. A few months after that film was released, The Three Lives Of Thomasina made a domestic house cat the center of attention for the first time.
The movie is based on the novel Thomasina, The Cat Who Thought She Was God (great title) by Paul Gallico. Gallico was a former sportswriter whose work had provided the basis of the Lou Gehrig biopic The Pride Of The Yankees, earning him an Oscar nomination. He retired from the sports beat in 1938 and became a prolific fiction writer. His work for young people includes The Snow Goose and Manxmouse, a childhood favorite of J.K. Rowling. Grownups probably know him best for his novel The Poseidon Adventure, although I’d wager more people have seen the movie than read the book.
Gallico cowrote the screenplay with Robert Westerby, whose first work for Disney had been Greyfriars Bobby. Greyfriars Bobby and Thomasina have a fair amount in common. Both take place in Scotland around 1912 and both center around devoted pets who melt the hearts of cold, emotionally repressed men. So it makes sense that Walt also rehired Don Chaffey, the director of that film.
Don Chaffey had kept busy in the years between the dog movie and the cat movie. For Disney, he’d directed a pair of TV productions (The Prince And The Pauper and The Horse Without A Head) that received theatrical releases overseas. He’d also picked up a gig for producer Charles H. Schneer, directing the Ray Harryhausen classic Jason And The Argonauts. Chaffey will eventually be back in this column but not for awhile. He spent the better part of the 1960s back home in England, alternating between film and television. Some of his best work would be multiple episodes of the series Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent in the US) and The Prisoner starring his Three Lives Of Thomasina leading man, Patrick McGoohan.
McGoohan had been poised to become a breakout star since the mid-1950s, but it hadn’t quite happened yet. He was an acclaimed stage actor but producers couldn’t seem to find the right movie roles for him. In 1960, he was cast in Danger Man, a half-hour spy show that ran a little over a year before it was canceled. He turned down some other spy roles, including James Bond and Simon Templar on The Saint, and instead signed on with Disney. After appearing in Thomasina and TV’s The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh, Danger Man was revived as an hour-long series. This version caught on and McGoohan finally became a star. While he won’t be back in this column for quite some time, we will eventually hear from him again. McGoohan returned to Disney for his last film, voicing Billy Bones in the 2002 animated feature Treasure Planet.
In The Three Lives Of Thomasina, McGoohan stars as Dr. Andrew McDhui, a widowed veterinarian whose near-total lack of compassion isn’t exactly winning over the locals. If a beloved pet is beyond help, McDhui coldly informs the owner that old Rover needs to be put out of his misery.
McDhui lives with his daughter, Mary (Karen Dotrice), and her beloved cat, Thomasina (who narrates the film in the voice of Elspeth March). Mary enjoys dressing Thomasina up in doll clothes and pushing her around in a baby carriage (even here, the quickest way to humanize a cat is to humiliate her). One day, Thomasina is injured while making her rounds down at the market. Mary begs her father to save the cat but he’s otherwise occupied, trying to save the life of a blind man’s dog. He takes a quick glance at Thomasina, declares her beyond help and orders his assistant to have her destroyed.
Poor Mary is heartbroken and announces that her father is now as dead to her as Thomasina. She and some other children stage an elaborate funeral procession for Thomasina through the village. And it’s right around here that the movie takes a quick detour into the elaborately weird. It switches to Thomasina’s point of view as she tumbles through space and ends up in Cat Heaven. She ascends a stairway straight out of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life And Death, makes her way through dozens of other cats to appear before a gigantic statue of the Egyptian cat goddess Bast. You kind of have to see it to believe it. It’s sort of cool but it’s definitely odd.
Anyway, the kids’ funeral has attracted the attention of Lori MacGregor (Susan Hampshire), a beautiful young hermit rumored to be a witch. The kids run away at the sight of her and Lori discovers that Thomasina is still breathing. She takes the cat back to her cottage, where she nurses all sorts of different animals back to health. Thomasina slowly recovers but she has no memory of her previous life.
Meanwhile, the local kids have decided to run Dr. McDhui out of town by starting a whisper campaign focused on the fact that he didn’t even care enough to save his own daughter’s cat. The villagers’ faith in old-fashioned folk remedies returns as their distrust in science deepens (that sounds familiar). With word spreading about the beautiful witch with the miraculous healing powers, McDhui decides to pay Lori a visit. They work together to save an injured badger with Lori respecting McDhui’s knowledge and skill and McDhui admiring her compassion and gentle touch.
As Thomasina begins to remember her previous life, she finds herself drawn to Mary’s window on a stormy night. Mary catches a glimpse of the cat but Thomasina runs off before she can get to her. She chases after her pet and, because it’s raining and this is a Disney movie, immediately comes down with pneumonia. The doctor does everything he can but in the end, McDhui turns to Lori for help. Love conquers all.
The Three Lives Of Thomasina is a bit of a bumpy ride but it’s not a bad little movie. For such a low-key affair, the movie has a lot of different parts that don’t always fit together seamlessly. The Cat Heaven detour is just one extreme example. I didn’t even mention the ramshackle gypsy circus that’s brought up on charges of animal cruelty toward the end. McDhui and Lori team up to get them shut down and I suppose the sequence exists to further cement their bond and rehabilitate McGoohan’s callous character. But it comes just as McDhui is trying to save his daughter, so it’s like a climax in the middle of another climax.
It’s to Chaffey’s credit that the movie works as well as it does. He wisely stacks the supporting cast with wonderful character actors including many familiar Disney faces. Laurence Naismith and Alex Mackenzie were both previously seen in Greyfriars Bobby. Wilfrid Brambell was last seen alongside Hayley Mills in In Search Of The Castaways. Finlay Currie has been in this column several times, most recently in Kidnapped. Even the kids are familiar. Vincent Winter and Denis Gilmore were choirboys in Almost Angels. And while we haven’t seen Karen Dotrice or Matthew Garber in this column previously, we’ll be seeing them again soon enough. Thomasina ended up being a sort of screen test for the kids before moving on to Mary Poppins.
The movie also works as a technical achievement. Cats are not easy to work with on film sets and cinematographer Paul Beeson captures some impressive, long tracking shots of Thomasina making her way through the village. The animals were provided by Jimmy Chipperfield, whose family had owned and operated Chipperfield’s Circus in England since the 1680s. Jimmy left the circus in the 1950s and began training animals for films and television. He definitely earned his keep on this film, providing cats, dogs, frogs, badgers, deer and other assorted critters.
His daughter, Mary Chipperfield, would later take up the family business, serving as a trainer on the live-action 101 Dalmatians remake. Unfortunately, Mary was also eventually found guilty on multiple charges of animal cruelty, mostly surrounding her performing chimpanzees. Hopefully the animals in Thomasina were treated well, although some of those shots of the cat flying through space look a little sketchy.
Preview screenings of The Three Lives Of Thomasina took place in December of 1963 but the film didn’t go into general release until June of ’64. It did just OK at the box office and critics were fairly unimpressed. Years later, film critic and Disney expert Leonard Maltin championed the picture in his book The Disney Films. I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as Maltin does but I agree with his claim that it deserves to be better known. At its best, this is a cute, charming little movie that carries a nice message about the importance of loving our pets. If my biggest criticism is that the movie packs in too many ideas, that’s actually a pretty good problem to have.
VERDICT: A low-key Disney Plus.