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Friday, July 01, 2016

W.R. Hearst Orders Up Comedy For Davies

Marion Davies Is The Patsy (1928)

Marion Davies in an MGM comedy directed by King Vidor. He was lately triumphant with The Big Parade and so welcomed into W.R. Hearst's inner social circle. This was heady climate for even biggest names, as none approached Hearst's power or wealth. Vidor was assigned honored dining place at San Simeon beside Marion and across from the Great Man. Weekends at the upstate California retreat were like Arabian Nights for lucky ones invited. Vidor wrote of it with wonder in his 1952 memoir A Tree Is A Tree. Hearst flattered the director by entrusting him with Marion Davies' vehicles for Metro. W.R. was installed there with bungalows, personal staff, and world famous visitors passed through Culver gates each day. No one said no to Hearst because he controlled newspapers that controlled public opinion. Also, as Vidor found, he paid high. The Patsy was a first of three for the director with Davies, being a Cinderella story based on a minor, though successful, play. The movie survives and turns up at TCM --- also there is a DVD. It will do as evidence that Marion Davies really was an accomplished comedienne per defenders who say she was defamed by Citizen Kane.

Above Two Photos: King Vidor Directs The Patsy on Varied Locations

But read A Tree Is A Tree, especially Vidor's account of a "camping trip" organized by Hearst, and know from where at least one major segment of Kane sprang. I'm guessing Orson Welles, or more likely Herman Mankiewicz, spoke to Vidor and got the anecdote, or maybe Mankiewicz occupied one of the tents himself. Vidor impressions of Hearst and San Simeon translate directly to Citizen Kane's eventual script. I think it was such personal observations, plus the evident slur on Marion Davies, that annoyed W.R. Hearst, not Kane's x-ray of him as news czar and failed politician. Interesting that a comedy modest as The Patsy was done against backdrop of lives lived so large, the movie little more than Cinderella through jazz-age prism. Toughest choice is which player to focus on during two-shot pantomime, Davies or bossy mom Marie Dressler. Both are supreme at farce and often share busy frames. Overseers at Metro, certainly Vidor, would have realized that Dressler would be a most valuable character player in foreseeable future. The Patsy makes clear how she'd become the Number One audience favorite soon after sound came in.

Marion Davies was by all accounts a deft entertainer for guests at San Simeon, doing among, other things, deadly impersonation of other actresses. She took herself least seriously of them all, of course (that made it easier to quit when time came). Vidor would have seen the parlor tricks, and probably suggested they be worked into The Patsy. This highlight does play like something dropped in, and for Hollywood, must have seemed like an extended in-joke. Davies mimics Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. Murray and Negri were soft targets, but Gish was held in high reverence, so Davies exposing her tricks was cheeky, if not cruel. Tough to look at Broken Blossoms with a straight face after watching this. Wonder how Gish took the rib. For that matter, I'd like knowing if she ever made the trek to San Simeon (no mention of it in her memoir, nor any discussion of Hearst). How many ideas for films were born at San Simeon? Must have been lots, considering all the talent that weekend-ed (or full week-ed) up there. The place had a zoo, enough sprawl to imagine an outdoor epic, plus castle environ to evoke all centuries for any imagination. With conversation woven through days and night at play, and among guests given to full-time creativity, these must have been working vacations for most in attendance.

The Patsy is a lot like domestic comedies W.C. Fields was doing around the time, and would refine with talkies. His counterpart in The Patsy is Del Henderson, a comic familiar from Hal Roach shorts to come, plus elsewhere work before and after. There are also routines that Fields would expand upon later, notably mirror gags borrowed for 1935's It's A Gift (or had Fields done them first on stage, and it was The Patsy coming up second?). No telling how far back such a routine went, but it plays fresh in The Patsy, thanks to Davies, Dressler, and Henderson as combatants for the looking glass. Henderson's worm turns as Fields' often would, another screen husband/father who's anything but Master of the house. Did comedies like The Patsy show reality of home life in the 20's? Books say men got feminized mostly after WWII with focus on domesticity and child-worship, but looks from evidence in The Patsy that we were well along that road earlier, or maybe put-upon Dad was necessary to any family-set comedy. The Patsy being profitable rescued Marion Davies from costume and period-traps set by Hearst --- early sound wouldn't have abided such anyhow --- from here would come lighter doses pretty much to the bow-out in 1937, after which Davies would live twenty-four more years in retirement.


Blogger Bill O said...

Also feel that WRH's real beef was the Davies analogue. Meaning he waged the war out of love, not ego. And he reserved a special place in Hell for Dorothy Comingore, the film's sole casualty.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Today's banner of birthday gal Olivia...assuming that's to be Flynn, but looks a lot like Gilbert Roland.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

THE PATSY is the kind of comedy I'd show to those uninitiated to silent movies. It's still hilarious. And Davies is beyond charming.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

After reading this I ordered the DVD. It arrived yesterday. Beautiful picture quality. The film made me want to see more with Davies (which is what a good film does). Thanks for turning me on to this.

7:09 AM  

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