"Marion Davies makes up for the rest of Hollywood."
– Tennessee Williams
If only as many people knew about Show People as know about Citizen Kane…
Like most folks who are aware of the ABCs of their film history, a couple of months ago I could have told you that in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ brilliant but not-so-disguised portrait of a media tycoon based with obvious relish on rich and powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the character of Susan Alexander, the talentless vixen whom Hearst promotes into a career of fake stardom, was meant to represent Marion Davies. But unlike Susan Alexander, Davies, who in real life fell in love with the already-married Hearst, was by measure of viewers, critics and historians a sharp-eyed, quick-witted comedienne, the polar opposite of the rather nasty picture painted by Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and I’d never seen her on screen to judge her talents for myself.
Davies started in show business early. By 1917, at age 20, she was already a familiar face on Broadway, having landed a featured spot in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916, which is where Hearst first became aware of her. Her first film, which she wrote, was called Runaway Romany (1917), but it was Cecilia and the Pink Roses (1918) that was her first film backed by Hearst, and with that film their strange professional relationship began in earnest. Davies was certainly ambitious and hard-working, and Hearst wanted the whole world to know about her. He brought the full force of his media empire to bear on her relentless promotion, but unfortunately Hearst had little instinct for where Davies’ true talents lay. Over the course of her career, until she retired from pictures in 1937, Marion Davies made close to 50 movies all under the watchful eye of Hearst, all of them expensive, almost all of them financial flops. According to Pauline Kael, who wrote extensively about Davies in her famous essay “Raising Kane,” Davies, by all accounts an unpretentious and down-to-earth personality, felt smothered by Hearst’s notions of what roles were best for her. Kael wrote:
“Marion Davies was a mimic and a parodist and a very original sort of comedienne, but though Hearst liked her to make him laugh at home, he wanted her to be a romantic maiden in the movies, and—what was irreconcilable with her talent—dignified. Like Susan, she was tutored, and he spent incredible sums on movies that would be the perfect setting for her. He appears to have been sincerely infatuated with her in old-fashioned, sentimental, ladylike roles; he loved to see hr in ruffles on garden swings. But actresses didn’t become public favorites in roles like those, and even if they could get by with them sometimes, they needed startling changes of pace to stay in public favor, and Hearst wouldn’t let Marion Davies do anything ‘sordid.’”
Like take a pie in the face. (More on that later.) In the late ‘20s Davies managed to wrest free of the dull costume pictures which had become her trademark under Hearst and she made a series of freewheeling comedies, including The Red Mill (1927, costarring Fatty Arbuckle), The Fair Coed (1927), Tillie the Toiler (1927), Quality Street (1927), The Five O’Clock Girl (1928) and The Patsy (1928). However, outside of the occasional screening on Turner Classic Movies, movies starring Marion Davies have typically been difficult to come by. The recent made-to-order Warner Archives program has rectified this situation somewhat, with The Red Mill, The Patsy and other titles like The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), Operator 13 (1934) and Cain and Mabel (1936) all now available to purchase . (Click here to find out more.) Also, new to the top of my Netflix queue is the DVD of a 2001 documentary entitled Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies, produced in association with Hugh Hefner and TCM. That DVD, in addition to the documentary (which is purported to be quite good), also includes the previously mentioned Davies comedy Quality Street, which costars Conrad Nagel and Helen Jerome Eddy and which was remade in 1937 by George Stevens with Katharine Hepburn and Franchot Tone.
Unfortunately, the reemergence, such as it is, of Marion Davies on DVD does not yet include perhaps her most beloved movie, a 1928 silent comedy called Show People, directed by King Vidor. The movie is still available on a VHS issued by MGM/UA in 1998, and though I am unaware if MGM (or now Fox) still holds the rights to the film or has any plans to reissue it on DVD it certainly would seem to be a good time to do so. Show People is one of the first, if not the first, and certainly one of the best of all Hollywood comedies, that is, comedies that shine a light on the moviemaking process and the glittery allure of the movie business.
Davies is Peggy Pepper, fresh from the boondocks and escorted to Hollywood to give a career in pictures a try by her pompous father, the Colonel (Dell Henderson), who uses his military status to affect the easily impressed who might be standing in Peggy’s way. The picture opens on the two of them riding down Hollywood Boulevard, fresh into town and wide-eyed as any modern-day tourist, and viewers in 2010 will be just as dumbstruck and fascinated as Peggy and the Colonel by all the lost monuments of Hollywood at the end of the silent era on view as they pass on the street. Soon Peggy makes friends with another young up-and-comer, Billy Boone (William Haines), who joins her on a parallel pursuit of Hollywood stardom. Peggy lands a series of jobs which put her on a distinctly Gloria Swanson-esque career track, while Billy remains mired in the land of Mack Sennett-type bit players. Of course this disparity in experience is grist for the movie’s ripe sense of parody, but it’s also a terrific showcase for Davies and her comic talents (arguments over which should abruptly end after seeing this movie) as well as a glimpse inside MGM during a period when the movies themselves were about to change forever.
It’s up for grabs just how talented Peggy and Billy really are, but in Peggy’s case her wild-eyed energy is enough to get her noticed, and enough to position Davies to let loose the gifts of mimicry and snap comic timing that were the stuff of legend within the walls of San Simeon. (A scene where she is commanded to cry on cue and finds the act near impossible is a gut-busting classic.) Davies and Haines knew the Hollywood world inside out, of course, and both had star images that were sharply at odds with their own personal lifestyles-- Davies was nothing like the Hearst-groomed waxwork candidate on display in most of her movies, and Haines was gay and living a relatively uncloseted life—so you can feel the relish and joy with which they rip into this genial parody of the Hollywood styles and fashionable entertainers of the day. Peggy rises from lowly farm girl to the hoity-toity toast of the movie business on the strength of a roster of highfalutin pictures that closely resemble Davies' own filmography, but also those of Gloria Swanson. (Swanson also comes in for some good-natured nudging by way of many of Peggy’s facial mannerisms and her body language when the actress “upgrades” her name to Patricia Pepoire.) The telling of this story certainly gives Show People ample opportunity in which to cast a wonderfully observant eye on the world of making movies in the days when talkies were but a year or so from really taking hold. Peggy dines at the MGM commissary, and in a single scene, sharp-eyed observers of the silent film firmament will spot William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert, Mae Murray and seemingly dozens more relaxing over their lunches. As her star begins to rise, she is approached for an autograph by a dapper but diminutive admirer, and poor Peggy is still such a rube she doesn’t realize the fella she’s haughtily putting off is Charlie Chaplin. And in one unforgettable bit of “meta” business, Peggy and Billy are making their way through the lot when they encounter Marion Davies herself, all dressed-down, comfortable and laughing as she passes by. Naturally, Peggy cannot help but observe that the young star Davies is nothing like what she expected.
Show People’s most famous entry into Hollywood lore relates to Hearst’s hawk-like supervision of every element of Davies’ performance. He refused to allow her to participate in a scripted pie fight, and despite director Vidor’s pleas to Louis B. Mayer, who was apparently sympathetic to Vidor and his star’s desire to indulge in the spirit of the scene, Hearst insisted that his Marion not be demeaned by having to take a face full of custard. He seemed to feel that a high-pressure blast of seltzer water directly in the kisser was the more dignified route, and so it stands in the final film. Davies' wild over-emoting in her audition scene is a highlight in a movie filled with highlights (I wondered if Naomi Watts saw this performance before jumping into Mulholland Drive), and Show People stands, some 80 years after its release, as one of the funniest movies to ever come out of Hollywood. And thanks to having seen it recently on the big screen (thank you, American Cinematheque!), I’ve got the biggest crush on Marion Davies, one which I hope never goes away.
The movie deserves its stellar reputation, and I just wish that it would somehow be rediscovered so that more people who, like me, only knew Marion Davies from what we were told by Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz could discover for themselves what an effervescent, charming actress she was. Kael reminded us that by the time Citizen Kane was released Davies had been retired for four years, and the publicity machine, which had tried so desperately to sell her image in such a way that even the public began to see through it and reject her, continued to grind on during that time. She suggests that audiences and readers were so worn down by Hearst’s efforts on behalf of Davies that they probably no longer even trusted their own memories of the charming comedienne they had loved in those late ‘20s comedies, like Show People:
“Mankiewicz, catering to the public, gave it the empty, stupid, no-talent blonde it wanted—the “confidential” backstairs view of the great, gracious lady featured in the Hearst press. It was, though perhaps partly inadvertently, a much worse betrayal than if he’d made Susan more like Davies, because movie audiences assumed that Davies was a pathetic whiner like Susan Alexander, and Marion Davies was nailed to the cross of harmless stupidity and nothingness, which in high places is the worst joke of all.”
Welles himself, in the recent PBS documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, admitted: ““We had somebody very different in the place of Marion Davies. And it seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick, and does still strike me as being something of a dirty trick, what we did to her.” I haven’t had an opportunity to read it myself, but Welles did write the foreword to Davies’ own book The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst, and in it I hope the mercurial director displayed a similar tone of contrition. Personally, I hope Welles is still apologizing to Davies, wherever they both might be.
More on Marion Davies:
The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst by Marion Davies
A brief biography of Marion Davies written by Robert Board
Notes on Show People, particularly the life of William Haines, by Jack Hagopian
Fred Lawrence Guiles’ published biography (1972)
The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by David Nasaw (2001).
Many thanks are due to my friend Charley Taylor, who first made me aware of the American Cinematheque screening of Show People and insisted I take my daughter Emma to see it with me. I did, and with that single act he has well earned, with all due respect to William Demarest (whom Emma also loves), the familial moniker Uncle Charley.