|Harold Lloyd as Ezekial Cobb and Una Merkal as Pet|
Merkel is a truly first rate comic, and as such was usually slotted into supporting roles, filling out her early resume with such films as 42nd Street and Broadway Melody of 1936. Although she appeared in over a hundred films across her forty-five year career, it's a rare treat to see her as a leading lady, and her chemistry with Lloyd is excellent. You'd never notice her alongside such dazzling co-stars as Ginger Rogers and Eleanor Powell, but Merkel is extremely pretty--and The Cat's Paw proves that she can make a whiny, nasal voice every bit as endearing as Lloyd's ever-present horn-rimmed glasses.
Lloyd plays Ezekial Cobb, the son of an American missionary working in China. After spending his formative years abroad, he returns to America in search of a mother for his future children. He finds a likely enough prospect at his boarding house in San Francisco, a cigarette girl called Pet (named Petunia, but she'd slap 'em down if they called her that). Cobb's plans are disrupted when, through an outlandish series of events, he is elected mayor of Stockport. The party leaders that nominated him never expected him to win--after all, the purpose of a reform candidate is not to be elected--but after his surprise win, they assume he'll be an easy enough puppet to manipulate. However, Cobb's upright Chinese upbringing combined with his hopeless naivite make him a force to be reckoned with, even as Cobb realizes that California may need a missionary far more than China.
One of the highlights of the film comes when Pet takes Cobb to a shady nightclub featuring a strip tease act. Cobb admires the dancer when she starts her number, modestly attired, and even points her out to Pet as an example of the kind of woman he'd like to marry (to Pet's great amusement). Of course, his admiration turns to shock and bewilderment as the dancer pulls him into the act, making it appear as though pieces of her clothing keep falling off due to his bumbling attempts at chivalry. All the while, Pet looks on in delight.
Considering that The Cat's Paw is served with a heavy dose of Chinese stereotypes, it is refreshingly un-racist. Although many of the characters are disparaging of Cobb's ties to Chinese culture, over the course of the film they must learn that this influence is his greatest strength. Racist insults are hurled about pretty freely, but the moral compass of the film condemns them, and by and large the Chinese characters are far more sympathetic than the Caucasians. In a wry play on a common stereotype, Cobb complains that it is hard meeting women in America, because, after living in China for twenty years, American women all look alike to him.