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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Marion Davies Rehab Goes On

TCM all-nighted Marion Davies this month to remind us how slammed this actress/comedienne was by the second Mrs. Kane and lasting impressions from said 1941 caricature. Was W.R. Hearst defending Davies' honor as much as his own by applying hammer and tong to Orson Welles? There must be record of how Marion Davies felt over RKO's grim impersonation, but I guess for then-obvious reasons, she kept quiet. Writers have since defended this one-time movie star among Welles' collateral damage. They'll cite Show People and The Patsy as silent proof of Davies' talent. I'd at least add talking Blondie Of The Follies, equal delight The Floradora Girl, and precode time capsule Five and Ten to ones doing her credit, each an obscurity and all better than you'd expect.

Wealthy Partygoers Make Their Own Movie In a Sequence Deleted From Five and Ten's Final Print.
Five and Ten was based on a Fannie Hurst novel. That name resonates for 30's hits derived from her output. Around a same time and also based on Hurst was Back Street, Imitation Of Life --- later came Four Daughters. Was it quality of this author's yarns or pizzazz contract dialoguers added? She lived to 1968 and age 78, past relevance her novels once had, but for at least a decade's time and place, they spoke well to readers, and later, picture-goers. Five and Ten lacks pavement grit of Warner precodes, conflict here arising from snobbery directed at nouveau riche by older money, neither likely to evoke sympathy in a then or present economy. Davies was more effective on light setting, this apparent in Gay-90's The Floradora Girl, maybe the first (1930) talkie to celebrate simpler times of a century (more recently) past. There's better evocation here of a vanished era than all Fox's decade-later Betty Grable/Alice Fayes could muster. Not a musical per se, The Floradora Girl was for me among happier vintage discoveries lately made.

Among Blondie's Many Virtues ... Vivid Depiction of Backstage Life
Blondie Of The Follies is also less about music, being hung over from a 1932 public's exhaustion with All-Sing, Dance, Etc. Just-off Grand Hotel director Edmund Goulding goes near-Euro-vérité with backstage reveals to show he'd thoroughly known settings depicted. So had Davies for that matter. She'd been a Follies girl Hearst picked up, then set down in luxury for what was left of his life. Goulding's camera is adventurous as anyone's covering 30's theatrical life --- Metro really turned him loose here, maybe as reward for how well Grand Hotel came out. I wondered why he didn't vault higher and sooner before reading Mark Vieira's tattle of orgy stagings at chez Goulding that surpassed even sock the director put before cameras. Blacklist placement must have calmed him, for when EG resurfaced a couple years later (for Riptide), he'd calmed down to a career's balance of tasteful megging.

Less a Game of Backgammon Than Mistress Trade Between Precode Rogues Bob and Doug

Robert Montgomery engages Precode's art of gentle predation after Metro pattern set by Adolphe Menjou, Gable, Franchot Tone, innumerable others, all seducers so expert as to make present-day impressionables wonder if such technique might still work. Blondie's Montgomery and membership of the roué brotherhood swap mistresses and compromise innocents without our once getting a cue to disapprove, such behavior in Post-Codes would have set off seat buzzers and put moral compensation into resolute third-act play. Marion Davies' pairing off with oily oil baron Douglas Dumbrille in exchange for deco-ed digs isn't emphasized, but lying down is clearly what sets her up in luxury, Blondie honest enough not to side-step price-tags on said lifestyle.

Another Precode Delicacy --- Girl Fights That Were Really Fights

A Precode Dropout That Might Have Become One Of The Era's
Brightest Lights --- Billie Dove
 Good as everyone is, Billie Dove takes honors doing the Anita Page (misguided) part better than Page, or Joan Crawford, for that matter,  themselves achieved. Dove was a looker too, scorching in fact, and I don't wonder at Hearst demanding her part be denuded upon seeing rushes that left Marion in the shade. Did Dove complain? Certainly not where anyone could hear, she didn't. To buck Hearst and Metro would amount to a livelihood forfeit. She'd step off the carousel instead and marry ... 1932's loss, and ours since. Gal-pal themes were rife in precode, Davies and Dove a scrappy pair raising dukes as coda to every argument. It's fun watching love rivals go to the mat as opposed to civilized exchange Code-compliant Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Miriam Hopkins, et al confined themselves to in 40's bouts. Those latter were verbal at best, whereas Davies/Dove slug each other silly, few quarrels between them ending short of physical combat.

1932 Patrons Looked Longingly at Davies,
 But What I Covet Is That Deco Stair Bannister!

Is Billie Putting Marion On Notice That Blondie Is Her Movie To Steal?

Marion Davies' Blondie gets off a stinging impersonation of Garbo during a specialty with Jimmy Durante. He's Jack Barrymore and they're spoofing Grand Hotel, only she clamps deep into GG's Achilles with make-up, expression, and voice to reveal baseline absurdity of the Swedish sphinx's act. Was Marion first to nail lampoon potential of I Vant To Be Alone? Don't know, but I'm guessing Garbo was not amused at send-up so close to the bone. Davies had done these caricatures before --- in 1928's The Patsy, she laid several dramatic divas to rest, most devastatingly Lillian Gish. I'd love to have observed commissary meets between Davies and less-than-good-sport targets of her spot-on satiring. Did her own impressions prepare MD for the cruel jape Citizen Kane later played on her?


Blogger Dave K said...

Nice round-up of some of Ms. Davies' best talkies (although as to the silents I'd certainly add THE RED MILL, a great example of silent era 'cutes') And, boy, I agree with your shout out for Billie Dove, one of my favorites!

10:42 AM  
Anonymous cee said...

i was s l o w l y scrolling down & saw just the top of the deco stair rails when all the springs in my head loudly went BOINK! with desire! and then came your caption!

7:56 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Faith Baldwin also wrote the story "Spinster Dinner," which understandably was retitled "Love Before Breakfast" when converted into a Carole Lombard vehicle for Universal in 1936, several months before her better-remembered film at that studio, "My Man Godfrey."

BTW, Davies' talking films, on the whole, are better than they're often given credit for. While none reach the heights of "Show People" or "The Patsy," for the most part, they are capable entertainment, and Davies is invariably as likable in them as she must have been in real life, given how beloved she was in the film community.

8:19 PM  
Anonymous Dbenson said...

Floradoara waits on the DVR, but I've seen Patsy, Show People, the Red Mill, and the talkie where she invents a nerdy alter ego to fend off employers, then has to pretend to be her own sister. While these films are obviously vehicles, you often feel she's carrying the material rather than visa versa.

Show People is especially odd. It's all about Davies stumbling into a career in comedy, but the films we see her making are like no actual comedies I've ever seen (guys in clown costumes, gag-free mayhem, etc). Even then, Hollywood was weirdly incapable of simulating the kind of film that was probably being shot fifty feet away on the same lot.

1:59 AM  
Blogger Jim Lane said...

I've always thought what infuriated Hearst about Kane wasn't his own treatment (which is not unsympathetic) but Davies's (which is). We now know that Hearst didn't need to see it; all he needed was to hear about the "Rosebud" business to hit the warpath. Sadly, the HBO docudrama RKO 281 perpetuates the Welles/Mankiewicz slander by casting Melanie Griffith as Davies; Griffith could never play anything but a vulgar airhead bimbo, not if you held a gun to her mother's head. Naomi Watts would've been a better choice.

"To buck Hearst and Metro would amount to a livelihood forfeit." Heh. Maybe Billie Dove should've offered Orson some advice on that score.

3:35 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

I never confused Marion Davies with Susan Alexander...I just knew she was one of several people and their situations combined to create the character. And Vince Paterno (VP81955) is absolutely right about the esteem Davies was held in Hollywood. Tennessee Williams said "Marion Davies makes up for the the rest of Hollywood".

9:31 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I enjoyed Marion in OPERATION 13. Wonderfully versatile.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Muscato said...

Always lovely to read a kind word about Marion Davies, and how nice that in recent years they've been coming more and more often.

Hers is one of the odder Hollywood careers, even by the standards of that very odd place, but for too long it was forgotten that she was a solid audience favorite for as long as (or longer than) many better remembered stars...

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

That spoof of Grand Hotel sounds like someone at Metro was paying attention to Buster Keaton when he wanted to make his own satire with Durante in the Barrymore role.

7:37 AM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

I'm a Davies fan - and think that "The Patsy" stands as her best silent film. Certainly her own work in it (and she makes that work look like sheer fun) represents a career high-point. Her talkies were generally problematic, often put together clumsily (albeit expensively). And - though Davies had a lovely speaking voice, a distinctively pretty face and a ton of charm - her line readings often varied in quality from moment to moment. The great exception, I find, is "Peg O'My Heart" from 1933. She's consistently terrific throughout. And both Davies and the vehicle itself are a charming match for each other. An Oscar nomination that got away.

10:46 AM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

I've always thought what infuriated Hearst about Kane wasn't his own treatment (which is not unsympathetic) but Davies's (which is). We now know that Hearst didn't need to see it; all he needed was to hear about the "Rosebud" business to hit the warpath. Sadly, the HBO docudrama RKO 281 perpetuates the Welles/Mankiewicz slander by casting Melanie Griffith as Davies; Griffith could never play anything but a vulgar airhead bimbo, not if you held a gun to her mother's head. Naomi Watts would've been a better choice.

Or Kirsten Dunst, who despite her relative youth did a splendid job capturing Davies' spirit in "The Cat's Meow."

6:20 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Davies' last film at Warners, also co-starred a borrowed from Metro-Montgomery, "Ever Since Eve". My grandfather, and Jack Scholl wrote the very catchy title song. My father, then about 17, was present at the wrap-party and met W.R. Telling him of his aspirations to become a writer, Dad said Hearst took out a card and wrote "Give this lad a job" on the flip-side. A week or so later Dad walked into the Downtown office of The Herald-Express and presented the card to the managing editor thinking they'd roll out the red carpet. Wincing as he read the inscription, the guy sighed, "The old man's still giving these out, eh? Okay, son, we start you out as a copy-boy at 25 a week. Take it or leave it." Dad said he left it.

All best, R.J.

2:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

What a priceless Hearst story, R.J.! Too bad your father didn't get to keep that card W.R. gave him.

I watched "Ever Since Eve" recently and it was fun.

5:16 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer on Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst:

VP81955 is surely right in thinking that it was the treatment Marion Davies received in Citizen Kane that set him against it and Orson Welles, not his own; that and a sense of betrayal. Many of the domestic details in the film concerning Kane and Susan Alexander were provided by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Welles' collaborator on the screenplay, a purported friend of Davies and frequent guest at San Simeon, Hearst's fairy tale castle atop a mountain called La Cuesta Encatada--"The Enchanted Hill." Jigsaw puzzles and ketchup bottles were the least of it: "Rosebud" was a particularly intimate term of endearment Hearst had for Davies--that is, for an aspect of her anatomy--and if he didn't do more to hound Welles, it was probably because he thought it just as well if a child's sled served as a metaphor for lost innocense.

Marion Davies herself was hardly the talentless harridan of Citizen Kane. Even her vignette in an early talkie all starrer like The Hollywood Revue showed her as a charming, doll-like creature who could sing and dance and deliver lines with a beguiling ease. She was very pretty, with those irregularities of feature--teeth slightly crooked, a nose too long and narrow--which made her seem even more so. Possibly the stutter she was known for, which is never apparent in her sound pictures, was itself an affectation, to the same effect. By the time she made Blondie of the Follies, however, the rich life style Hearst afforded her had thickened her figure and coarsened her face. Apparently it never mattered to him. There is a photograph of them from one of their parties in the late thirties. Davies, her career long over by then, is in an army uniform and dress cap. She looks out at the crowd, happy but rather overweight and blowsy. Hearst stands to her side, gazing only at her, the expression on his face suggesting utter adoration.


10:33 AM  

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