Some years ago, Dr Pepper had an advertising campaign where it was described as "the world's most misunderstood soft drink." You could make a good argument that Marion Davies, who was born 111 years ago today, is the most misunderstood star of the classic era.
Since more than half of Davies' career was spent making silent pictures, that's one of the reasons; silent movies have a different cinematic language, pardon the pun, and many people -- even some classic film buffs -- tend to ignore them, leaving some stars' legacies incomplete. But Davies faced an added handicap, stemming from one of the greatest films of all time.
We are, of course, referring to Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece "Citizen Kane," specifically the Susan Alexander Kane character for whom her wealthy husband, media mogul Charles Foster Kane, tries to build an opera career...but the hapless Susan isn't up to the task. Since Kane is seemingly based on a real-life media mogul, William Randolph Hearst, it stands to reason that Susan is an ersatz Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress for decades (a situation neither liked, but Hearst's wife refused to grant him a divorce).
Yes, it stands to reason -- but reason would be wrong.
Welles based Kane not only on Hearst, but on several contemporary titans of industry. In 1975, writing the foreward of the Davies book "The Times We Had," Welles wrote:
"It was a real man who built an opera house for the soprano of his choice, and much in the movie was borrowed from that story, but the man was not Hearst. Susan, Kane's second wife, is not even based on the real-life soprano. Like most fictional characters, Susan's resemblance to other fictional characters is quite startling. To Marion Davies she bears no resemblance at all."
Some other misunderstandings about Davies:
* While the Hearst press certainly hyped and inflated her reputation, Davies frequently received good reviews in the non-Hearst press, particularly for her comedies. And she was a popular actress, too; most of her films did well at the box office.
* Davies was popular even before Hearst came on the scene. She was a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, which in the mid-teens had the stature comparable to that of a movie star a decade later. Here's Marion in her Follies days:
* The lady had talent, especially where comedy was concerned; she had an innate vivacity and likability. And while she feared a stuttering problem would hamper her in talking pictures, she overcame it and her sound films are generally good. Even her period dramas, many made at Hearst's request, aren't embarrassing, in part because his film company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, gave them dazzling production values.
Fortunately, today you can get a feel for what Marion Davies was all about, since Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. is showing several of her films as a birthday celebration. It starts at 11:15 a.m. with a 1927 silent, "The Red Mill," followed at 12:30 p.m. by another silent, and arguably her best, "Show People" (1928), directed by King Vidor. (At about the same time, Carol Lombard made a film at Pathe called "Show Folks"; the similarity in names was not coincidental.) Here are two stills from "Show People," a film which features Davies' delightful impressions of stars of the era and shows what MGM's Culver City studio looked like at the time:
At 2 p.m., it's Davies' first talkie, "Marianne," followed by "The Floradora Girl" at 4 and "Peg O' My Heart" at 5:30. The Davies salute concludes at 7 p.m. with the 2001 documentary "Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies," narrated by Charlize Theron.
Over the years, Davies and Lombard became good friends; Carole, who respected Marion for her generosity to those less fortunate, was often invited to Hearst's fabled San Simeon castle or to Davies' swank oceanside mansion (most of which has, alas, been razed). Here are Carole and Marion, along with some other members of Hollywood's elite, at a 1935 party (and yep, Clark Gable is on hand too, a year before his romance with Lombard began):
Marion's generosity included financially assisting Hearst when his media empire fell on hard times in the late thirties. Davies made her last film in 1937, but continued to care for Hearst until his death in 1951. The family didn't include Davies in the will, and not long afterwards she married a Navy officer. She died in September 1961, three years after donating $1.5 million to UCLA to construct a children's wing at its medical center (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.shared/image.html?/photos/uncategorized/2008/01/09/1958_0109_marion_davies.jpg). In the thirties, Davies had established a foundation to provide medical and dental care to thousands of needy children in the city.
Welles, who admitted some guilt over damaging Davies' legacy, also wrote:
"As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow -— the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane —- I rejoice in this opportunity to record something which today is all but forgotten except for those lucky enough to have seen a few of her pictures: Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person."
Finally, it's been a half-century since the Hearst family donated San Simeon to the state of California, and it's long been a popular tourist attraction. It's a huge place, sometimes gaudy, and yet, thanks to architect Julia Morgan and Hearst's uncanny taste in art and history, this mix of eras and cultures works. For more on Hearst's amazing csstle, check out this recent Los Angeles Times story: http://www.calendarlive.com/tv/cl-tr-hearstcastle30dec30,0,1585454.story?coll=cl-tvent-utility-right