Monday, July 16, 2012

The Three Lives of Thomasina

"I made them what they are today--though I had to be murdered first."

Thomasina--complete with bib.
This opening line to The Three Lives of Thomasina is spoken by the title character, an orange tabby cat who begins her life with the MacDhui family in Scotland circa 1912. Thomasina belongs to seven-year-old Mary, whose father Andrew is the village veterinarian. Andrew still mourns his deceased wife and struggles to communicate with his daughter. As a result, Mary transfers much of her love to her cat, who eats at the dinner table and rides in the young girl's doll carriage.

Mary relies on her father for very little. However, when Thomasina is critically injured in an accident, she pleads with her father to save her cat. Unfortunately, Andrews is conducting surgery on a injured seeing-eye dog. He can only save one animal and chooses the blind man's dog. When Andrew euthanizes Thomasina--who "dies"--Mary declares: "My daddy's dead...I killed him."

Karen Dotrice as Mary; she also
starred in Mary Poppins.
Walt Disney made one of the best dog movies with Old Yeller and it's apparent that The Three Lives of Thomasina was intended as Disney's "serious" cat movie. However, there is a crucial difference between the two films. Old Yeller focuses on the unique bond between humans and canines. The Three Lives of Thomasina focuses on the relationships among its human characters. Thomasina provides her unique perspective as narrator (though I wish she had more to say) and serves as a facilitator. Ultimately, she is responsible for bringing father and daughter together and for introducing a loving person who can heal their wounds.

Patrick McGoohan as Dr. McDhui.
Patrick McGoohan is perfectly cast as Andrew, who masks his emotional scars with an icy exterior. Considering this is a family film, he's a surprisingly unlikable character for most of the movie. He is perceived as an outsider by the local Highlanders, but makes little effort to socialize with anyone but the local pastor and his housekeeper. He doesn't seem to enjoy his profession, confessing at one point that his dream was to be a physician. As for his relationship with Mary, one wonders if it deteriorated following his wife's death or was always tentative. He has no clue how deeply his daughter loved her cat, offering to get her a "wee dog" after the local children bury Thomasina.

The luminous Susan Hampshire
as Lori.
As for Mary, she disappears from the middle portion of the film, which picks up with Thomasina's "second life" with Lori, a reclusive young woman who "has a rare way with beasts and birds." The villagers dub her a witch, but seek her aid with ill or injured animals due to their mistrust of Andrew.  The film's second half explores the relationship that forms between Andrew and Lori, who has learned how to cope with her parents' tragic death.

Based on Paul Gallico's 1957 novel Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God, The Three Lives of Thomasina is a Disney oddity. The plot is more about the adults than the child or the feline title character. The "cat heaven" sequence, while intriguing due to its Powell & Pressberger similarities, seems out of place. The climax featuring animal cruelty in a circus also feels like it was lifted from another movie.

And yet, it's those very differences that make The Three Lives of Thomasina more interesting than routine Disney efforts like Big Red and Savage Sam. The cast is also first-rate and, like the superior Greyfriars Bobby, it captures the quaint charm of a small Scottish village and its residents. Keep your expectations modest and you'll be pleased you spent 97 minutes with this different Disney drama.


  1. Thanks for reminding me of this unique and charming movie.

  2. Rick, I must admit I've heard of THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA, but never actually saw it! I'm glad I got an opportunity to read your post, especially with that fine cast. Heck, I'm even kinda interested in seeing what the Disney version of "Cat Heaven" is like! :-) Well-done!

  3. I remember this film very well. I seems Disney films of that period were full of British kids: Pollyanna, The Moonspinners and Mary Poppins.

    Thanks for taking me back in time..

  4. What I especially liked about "The Three Lives of Thomasina" is the performances of the children, especially during the funeral procession and when they go to see Lori and leave an animal in distress with her. Lori is delightful and sweetly portrayed by the radiant Susan Hampshire. I think you described the strengths and weaknesses of this film very well, Rick. Well done!

    1. Toto, I agree. I thought it was interesting when some of the town's youth spread misinformation about Dr. MacDhui. Reminded me just a little of the much more vicious act in THE CHILDREN'S HOUR.

  5. The Cat steps to Heaven looks to have been modelled on the stairs to heaven scene in the old British film, "A Matter of Life and Death"

    A nice study of McGoohan btw.

    1. Definitely! That's what I was alluding to with my Powell & Pressberger comment.

  6. Rick, I haven't seen this film since it first came out (I was a mere fetus then), but it has always held a special place in my heart. I remember it with such warmth and, from that day ever after, I followed Susan Hampshire wherever she went (movie/tv -wise, not stalker-wise).

  7. I watched this back when it was the Sunday night Disney movie ...yep ..telling my age ! Lol ...but I truely believe this movie is directly responsible for my deep love of cats !