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The first feline movie star

Pepper the Cat makes the front page in movie magazine.
Pepper the Cat makes the front page in movie magazine.
Picture Show magazine July 1913

Long before Grumpy cat came onto the scene Pepper, a small grey female cat, wandered into the movies and became a star. As with most stars of the silent era, stories of how Pepper found stardom are largely apocryphal. No one really knows the whole truth or exactly how many movies she made. She appeared in at least 25 short films with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio. Pepper certainly left her mark on film history; and the marks may well have been literal in some cases.

Pepper received full screen credit for 17 of the movies she made during her 16 year collaboration with Sennett. Her name appeared along side such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, the Keystone Kops, Marie Prevost and Sennett’s favorite leading lady, Mabel Normand.

According to press releases Mack Sennett discovered the little dark ball of fluff after she squeezed her way past loose studio floorboards and sneaked onto the film set where he was working. Right on cue the unfazed kitty wandered between the actors as if she had been making movies all her life. Always one for taking advantage of unforeseen opportunities Sennett had continued filming all through her performance and decided her screen test was perfect. Her first onscreen appearance was in the can.

Pepper worked uncredited during her first year at Keystone. She can be seen in walk-on parts and as an extra as she hones her skills in such movies as the Keystone Kops comedies. In 1913 everything changed. She received her first on-screen credit as Pepper the Cat in the two reel short A Little Hero. Co-staring with Pepper and Mabel Normand was Teddy the Dog. Teddy and Pepper would enjoy a lifelong acting partnership and close off-screen friendship. Stardom had arrived.

Pepper was smart too. Her intentions were to become more than just a cutesy-poo purring furry prop. She learned to do tricks and some were quite complex. Pepper played a convincing game of checkers with cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin in one of their six collaborations. They appeared together in Are Waitresses Safe? (1917), Whose Little Wife are You (1918), When Love is Blind (1919), Trying to Get Along (1919), The Dentist (1919) and The Quack Doctor (1920). Pepper remarkably restrained her natural instincts when she was briefly teamed with Frederich the Mouse.

Pepper appeared seven times with her friend and co-star Teddy the Great Dane. The two were so inseparable that, when Teddy died in the mid 1920s, Pepper was so distressed she retired from the screen and never worked again. There was a rumor that she had come out of retirement in 1927 to appear with Carole Lombard in The Girl from Everywhere. It was not Pepper but Pussums the Cat billed as impersonating Pepper. Though retired from the screen Pepper remained a permanent fixture at the Mack Sennett Studio until her death in 1928. We will never know whether she could have made the transition into sound films, her purr can only be imagined.

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