Notes on the queen of silent comedy and her role in King Vidor’s hilarious Hollywood satire.
In recent times, the New Zealand International Film Festival’s “Live Cinema” event has paraded us with Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin—all doyens of the silent era. This year sees a long-neglected talent enter the spotlight: Marion Davies, a gifted and effervescent comic performer better known in Hollywood folklore as the ‘mistress’ of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Davies’s acting in the 1920s, which against the odds continued through into the next decade of talkies (she was a lifelong stutterer), was micromanaged by Hearst, who shoehorned the precocious comedienne into first a series of drab period pictures, and then a handful of ill-advised roles in the 1930s before her eventual retirement and retreat to Hearst Castle. That’s according to legend, anyway. There’s really no divorcing the scandal of Davies’s relationship with Hearst from the history of her bright but fleeting screen stardom—what we imagine from the stories and hearsay of their life together is intrinsic to the notion of Hollywood as a dream factory, and without our natural human fascination there would be little reason for movies such as Citizen Kane or The Cat’s Meow to exist. (Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander was a vague representation of Davies in the Orson Welles film; Kirsten Dunst played the real Davies alongside Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst and Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich’s underrated period drama based on the ‘Oneida’ incident.) Still, it has perhaps come at the expense of a genuine appraisal of Davies’s body of work, the obscurity of her filmography not withstanding. Her best and most well-known features are the comedies she made, and in a pioneering move, often produced as well. These comedies confidently studded a movie career which, like those of so many of her peers, had to brave the sudden transition from silent to sound production in the late 1920s.
Once only the domain of the TCM channel, many of Davies’s comedies have since materialised on the Warner Archive DVD label and On Demand service. Of the talkie productions, Going Hollywood (1933) is the strongest currently available: squarely in the Busby Berkeley-era, it’s an early Bing Crosby vehicle with Davies top-billed as his romantic opposite, consummately directed by old pro Raoul Walsh. This jaunty backlot musical is very much a continuation of the showbiz sendup played for bigger laughs in Show People (1928), this year’s Live Cinema screening, and incidentally the second consecutive King Vidor film to receive a special presentation at the New Zealand International Film Festival. The Crowd (1928), a visionary epic of everyday struggle, and the powerful WWI drama The Big Parade (1925) are undoubtedly Vidor’s masterpieces of the silent era. Set against these deeply moving ‘message movies’, Show People is no more than frivolous entertainment, though has its own kind of significance, particularly as a document of the silent movie business at the height of its popularity. There’s a relaxed simplicity to Vidor’s depiction of Hollywood that lends the film a satirical, though never scathing, tone. As Davies tours the bustling studio lots and encounters various industry greats—most notably, Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Vidor, and in a cute self-reflexive moment, herself—there’s a sense that these people are just hanging out and shooting the breeze. It’s a publicity stunt, yes, but also a gentle and unpretentious insight into the social dynamic of moviemaking in an era where the people involved were, to an extent, making things up as they went along, and having fun in the process.
Davies was cast as a Cinderella-type several times over, and along with The Red Mill (1927) and The Patsy (1928), Show People forms a loose trilogy of silent comedies. Though she’s never spoken of in the same breath, this continuity of character arguably aligns her with the indelible screen personalities created and honed by Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd over many more movies. Besides the fact that Davies was clearly in her element in the silent era, with her unmistakable face her greatest asset, what also connects these three key comedies of hers is that they’re flat-out funny. The Red Mill, directed by Fatty Arbuckle, establishes her gift for playacting and wide-eyed facial expression, while The Patsy finds her at her most adorable, skittery, and elastic—a template for the manic pixie dream girl if ever there was one. The Patsy, especially, takes full advantage of Davies’s irresistible eyes, and her famous party trick—three spot-on impersonations of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri—is one of the most memorable scenes in all of silent comedy. Show People does not disappoint in terms of its sketches either, with Davies’s struggle to cry on cue at the request of a long-suffering director an exemplar of sustained visual hilarity. The scene, of course, also speaks volumes of Davies’s fate as an actress—a natural born comedian who was compelled into too many stiff dramatic roles at the insistence of her keeper. In that sense, Show People is worth a dozen forgettable melodramas.