Movie stars have been discovered in plenty of odd places, but one performer's fairy-tail started in a Tinseltown back alley.
That's where actors Nadine and Katherine Dennis found Puzzums, who they trained to cross his eyes, suck from a bottle, and — wait for it — laugh on command. "They were just walking home, and they saw this little abandoned cat shivering in the alley," says Carla Valderrama, author of This Was Hollywood.
Though there's no categorical evidence to prove this, Valderrama notes there was a popular comic strip at the time that featured a cat named Puzzums, which she assumes was the source of his name.
After appearing in the 1927 Los Angeles Cat Club show, Puzzums caught the industry's eye when the Los Angeles Times published photos of his antics. While the cat show featured many pure-breds, Puzzums stole the show with his tricks.
Silent-comedy producing mogul Mack Sennett made Puzzums the first — and only — feline to sign a studio contract. (Literally. He signed with his paw print dipped in ink.) The three-year contract was for $50 per week, which was more than the Dennis sisters were making as extras.
Public Domain Puzzums the cat and Jeanette MacDonald
The rest is hiss-tory. When not starting a prison fire in Cecil B. DeMille's The Godless Girl or firing a gun in Charlie Chan's Chance, Puzzums stole scenes from the likes of Carole Lombard, Jeannette MacDonald, and Maurice Chevalier. Unlike movie dogs Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin, Puzzums was not the focus of a franchise of any kind. Rather, he appeared as a standout moment in films, unique to each setting, but often offering comic relief. "This special moment happened and then the cat would be on his way," says Valderrama.
Today, it can be difficult to track down much of Puzzums work. Many of his films are lost.
When he died of a tooth infection in 1934, Puzzums was granted a lavish funeral. The newspapers covered his death like the passing of any other great star.
While other movie felines require doubles (for example, Bell, Book and Candle used 13 different Siamese cats to portray Kim Novak's Pyewacket) or voicing by human actors, Puzzums stood alone.
"Cats have a mind of their own; they're not trainable like dogs," adds Valderamma. "Puzzums was a once-in-a-lifetime situation."
Maybe even once in nine lifetimes.
A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.