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Susan Alexander Kane: Much more than Marion



When Carole Lombard saw "Citizen Kane" late in 1941 -- she reportedly viewed it at a private screening, according to Carole Sampeck of The Lombard Archive -- she recognized its revolutionary cinematic nature, having known and admired Orson Welles (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/53545.html). At the same time, she probably wasn't happy over the character Susan Alexander Kane, who many were already saying was based on her good friend Marion Davies...and some have conjectured that Lombard herself may have been the source for the Davies-inspired word "Rosebud" that plays an integral role in the film (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/328313.html).

Are there elements of William Randolph Hearst and Davies in "Kane"? Certainly so. But as the film's legend has grown over nearly 70 years, then and now there's been a massive oversimplification of just who Kane was based on (and whom Susan was based on). In both cases, they were composites; just how well Lombard was aware of the latter would have largely depended upon her knowledge of...



...opera. (That's Dorothy Comingore as opera-singing Susan in a still from the film.)

Marion Davies never sang opera, but several other mistresses or wives of powerful magnates did. Chances are Lombard was aware of, and possibly even knew, one of them -- a lady named Hope Hampton.



Hampton had a bit of film success in the early 1920s, and can be seen in part of a pioneering color test shoot in 1922 (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/332945.html). Hampton likely got the nod because she was then the mistress of Jules Brulatour, head of distribution for Eastman-Kodak; they would marry the following year, becoming his third wife. (She periodically modeled fashions in color on screen throughout the '20s.) Hampton soon left films for a career in music, appearing in a short-lived (20 performances) Broadway show and singing opera in Philadelphia. That didn't pan out, so she returned to being a New York socialite.

(Brulatour's second wife, actress Dorothy Gibson, also dabbled in opera. Gibson, a Titanic survivor who starred in a now-lost film about the disaster a month after it happened, had also been a mistress of Brulatour's. That became public knowledge after Gibson was in an automobile accident that killed a pedestrian, and it was revealed the car was his.)

But the Hampton story doesn't end in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Universal Pictures, then struggling despite occasional hits like "My Man Godfrey," struck gold with Deanna Durbin -- but didn't have the money to strike up enough prints of her films to meet demands of theaters (unlike several of its competitors, Universal didn't own theaters). So Universal desperately needed film stock, and Brulatour -- who had been a business associate of Carl Laemmle's since the teens -- agreed to furnish it...but for a price: the studio had to create a film vehicle for his wife.

Universal reluctantly agreed, so Hampton headed to Hollywood to make the movie, called "The Road To Reno" (later known as "The Ranger And The Lady"), a vanity production if there ever was one. Randolph Scott drew the short straw and ended up her leading man; Glenda Farrell was the second female lead. Hampton performed two songs written by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson.

The movie -- Hampton's first in a decade -- drew considerable derision (at least one wag referred to her as "Hopeless Hampton") and soon sank from sight, but Universal got its film stock and the studio was saved. That was more or less it for Hampton's cinematic comeback, although she can be seen, playing her socialite self, in the 1961 film "Hey, Let's Twist" (whose cast also includes Sally Kirkland and Joe Pesci!). Hampton outlived Brulatour by more than 35 years, dying in January 1982.

Hampton may have been an inspiration for Susan, but she wasn't the only one. Another candidate is barely remembered today by anyone other than opera fanatics.



What Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane did to fictional voice teachers, Ganna Walska did to the real article. (One instructor reportedly said her voice sounded like "five million pigs.") At her best, she was apparently barely competent; in 1923, the new Time magazine called her voice “good enough for small parlour singing,” but little more. At one Paris performance, patrons reportedly laughed at her.

But she had a heckuva sugar daddy behind her -- Harold Fowler McCormick (her fourth husband; she would marry twice more), of International Harvester fame. He helped fund her career and made her a millionaire. Walska regularly performed in Chicago, not far from where Welles grew up in Kenosha, Wisc., so he certainly was aware of her. (Another Chicago mogul, Samuel Insull, built an opera house in town to further his daughter's budding singing career.)

After Walska's final marriage ended in divorce in 1946, she left opera for good (and probably to opera's relief as well) and turned to new pursuits, eventually creating the botanical equivalent of Hearst's San Simeon. Also in California (Montecito), Lotusland (http://www.lotusland.org/) is a 37-acre treasure, open for tours, featuring a wide array of flora, which Walska personally oversaw until her death in 1984 at age 97.



So while Davies' reputation has been tarnished for decades, history has let Hampton and Walska off virtually scot-free...the difference being, of course, that Davies was a genuinely talented actress, if often misused (largely due to Hearst, who liked her in romantic costume dramas that weren't her strong suit), while the other two had average acting/operatic skills at most. Thankfully, the work of film historians, outlets such as Turner Classic Movies and repertory houses, and the release of DVDs have finally made Davies remembered for the right reasons.
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