A black sheep with blonde hair, Patsy Harrington has a crush. The younger sister of the social-climbing Grace who, abetted by a single-minded mother and a weak-willed father, always gets her way, Patsy is the family outsider who has to resort to mugging and antics to get any attention. It’s typical of her misfortune that the attention she now seeks is from Grace’s current beau. Made in a year when most silent-era denizens (actors and directors and cameramen…) were singing their swan songs, The Patsy (1928) was a new beginning for headliner Marion Davies.
Back in 1917, William Randolph Hearst had vowed to make the chorus girl a star after seeing her fiction film debut in Runaway, Romany (1917). Directed by her sister’s husband (George W. Lederer, a Broadway producer and father of future screenwriter Charles), Davies appeared with a Pickfordesque mane of long blonde locks. Hearst proved good to his word, seeing to her career at his New York-based studio. The history of Cosmopolitan Productions, in fact, took a divergent course because of the aspiring starlet.
Hearst had already established long tentacles in the motion picture business through his newsreel operations, distributed initially by Pathé, and later producing the 1914 serials The Exploits of Elaine and The Perils of Pauline, which he inventively cross-promoted through his newsreels and newspapers. He produced (and micro-managed via telegram) the 1917 serial starring Irene Castle about the dangers of not having a strong military, Patria. His silent partnership with Ivan Abramson in the New York-based Graphic Film Corporation, begun in 1917, gave Tallulah Bankhead her start in pictures. In what might be Hollywood’s strangest bedfellows story, Hearst agreed to give John Hollis Bankhead’s granddaughter a movie role in exchange for the powerful senator pulling strings to get Abramson’s cousin out of a military desertion charge. (1)
When Hearst brought Davies to Graphic for a screen test, Abramson objected, telling the love struck media magnate that “she would never be an actress, and that he didn’t want to direct her, didn’t want to use her” (2). What Abramson didn’t know was that a contract had already been signed and that his objections would break up his partnership with Hearst, not forestall Davies’ movie career. “From the moment he began to see Davies as a movie actress”, the author of Hearst Over Hollywood writes, “Hearst began to conceive of Abramson’s supervising her in the sumptuous and seductive style that had brought him some raves and considerable notoriety” (3). With or without Abramson, the 19-year-old chorine was cast.
With Abramson gone his separate way, Hearst began to produce features through the same entity that begat his serials, the International Film Service, and gave his blessing to Adolph Zukor’s son, Eugene, and Carl Zittel Jr. (son of Hearst’s trusted, wheeler-dealer director of advertising) to set up a system whereby stories published in Hearst magazines could be easily optioned for motion pictures. (Adolph Zukor’s Paramount distributed Hearst-produced features from 1919 to 1922.) “To take advantage of Hearst’s successful magazine business – and its star publication – the new film corporation was called Cosmopolitan Productions.” (4) Housed in a former Harlem casino, the studio produced seven features by director Frank Borzage, from 1920’s Humoresque through 1923’s The Nth Commandment. Former Triangle player Alma Rubens, who appeared in Humoresque, subsequently starred in several extravagant productions at Cosmopolitan. (The Hearst press publicised her as a descendent of the Flemish painter, which might explain the new spelling of her name, from Reubens to Rubens.) Hearst also pulled Mae Murray, Justine Johnstone, and Olive Thomas from the footlights of the Ziegfeld stage into Cosmopolitan’s arc lights (5).
With Davies in lead roles, Cosmopolitan produced not only a rash of programmers but also increasingly costly costume pictures. According to Hearst biographer John Winkler, “If the script called for the ladies of the ensemble to wear Irish lace Belfast was asked to send entire bolts of its best and most costly hand-woven product” (6). Hearst was hands-on, dashing off ten and 12-page memos calling for reshoots and directing details, in one instance insisting that “an ancient ship be painted in gilt rather than monotones so the actors would be more enthusiastic in their roles” (7). Davies even had her own five-piece orchestra that played on the set between takes.
No expense was spared in promotion either. For the New York opening of Cecilia of the Pink Roses (Julius Steger, 1918), Davies’ first feature for Cosmopolitan, Hearst had the theatre proscenium lined with fresh roses. He commissioned the “Marion Davies March” by Victor Herbert for the premiere of When Knighthood was in Flower (Robert G. Vignola, 1922). He hired architect and his go-to set designer Josef Urban to remodel a Columbus Circle movie house into the Cosmopolitan Theatre for 1923’s Little Old New York (Sidney Olcott). Davies, however, was not merely a puppet in a Hearst sideshow. According to Fred Lawrence Guiles’ 1972 biography, Davies complained when Hearst reviewers weren’t effusive enough and got him to circulate the story that she was related to Victor Hugo.
That King Vidor came into her privileged orbit was probably inevitable. Hearst had moved Cosmopolitan to MGM in 1924 (and left New York for Hollywood). In exchange for distribution, production funds and facilities, and a free hand, Hearst gave MGM unfettered access to his vast publicity machinery. When Mayer became concerned that Vidor’s anti-war message in The Big Parade (1925) might limit its distribution, Hearst helped out personally by getting Davies to host a private Hollywood screening in order to generate good word of mouth.
Beyond their professional connection, Vidor and Davies met in social circles. In 1926, the director’s wedding to his second wife, actress Eleanor Boardman, was held at Davies’ Santa Monica home, and Vidor had witnessed Davies in her role as scintillating hostess at San Simeon. “[At] the Hearst ranch”, he recalled to Richard Schickel for The Men Who Made the Movies, “I noticed that Marion Davies was a darn good comedienne. Used to entertain people and do imitations of people, and she had a great sense of comedy.” (8) According to John Baxter’s Vidor biography, the director agreed to work with Davies mostly because he had “rashly signed away his percentage of The Big Parade at the behest of a fast-talking MGM lawyer, was always aware of the need to keep working, even on minor films, to keep one’s name alive” (9).
Known today primarily for his silent-era social-issue dramas The Big Parade and The Crowd (1928), and his illustrious and long-running talkie career, Vidor had no intention of making the usual Marion Davies fare. “I didn’t want to do one of the films as she had been doing them – they were all costume pictures, which I had no interest in whatsoever” (10). Since becoming a filmmaker, Vidor had always aspired to make meaningful films. On the occasion of the opening of Vidor Village in 1920, a First National production entity, he took out an advertisement listing his six-point manifesto in which he vowed to make “only those [pictures] founded upon principles of right” (11). But he also had experience in comedy, having directed his former wife Florence Arto in comedies and, later, two starring comedienne Laurette Taylor and written by her playwright husband. Both adaptations did well at the box office, earning Vidor the bankable goodwill of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer.
Supported by the impeccable comic timing of Marie Dressler as her mother and Dell Henderson as her father, Marion Davies finally found her niche with The Patsy. The director makes good use of her mimicking skills with a quick succession of instantly recognisable impersonations of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri in order to get the attention of another of her sister’s suitors. Davies’ natural charm is employed in just the right doses, as she wins our hearts and gives her mother and sister hilarious comeuppance, as the black sheep finally once gets her due. Vidor’s second film with Davies, also from 1928, Show People, further exploited Davies’ comfort zone, with a story of a rising ingénue set inside the film industry.
Vidor directed her in one final comedy, the 1930 talkie Not So Dumb, and went on to make many meaningful pictures with the industry’s biggest stars, earning five Academy Award nominations for Best Director, finally receiving an honorary Oscar in 1978. Davies, who always seemed to put her career second to her role as the Hearst consort, had made her sound debut as part of a star-studded cast of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Charles Reisner) and followed it up with Marianne (Robert Z. Leonard, 1929), a musical adaptation of The Big Parade built around the experiences of the Renee Adorée character in the original film. Her subsequent roles relied on her comic talents, and many of them followed a formula drawn from her own life: the showgirl trying to make it big.
Afflicted with a Victorian sense of female dignity – odd for a man who bedded showgirls – Hearst continually sought roles for Davies that she was ill-suited to play, moving her from MGM in 1934 because production chief Irving Thalberg cast his own wife over his star in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934) and also promised Shearer the lead in Marie Antoinette (W. S. Van Dyke, 1938). His ambitions for Davies – and his power to achieve them – might well be the main reason that she is remembered more as a mistress than as an actress. He interfered with scripts, forbidding slapstick routines in Zander the Great (George W. Hill, 1925) and refusing to let Davies get hit in the face with a custard pie in Show People (Vidor substituted a soda siphon). For her part, Davies seems to have put up little fight.
David Robinson summed it up best in a London Times article in 1992, 75 years after the start of her Hearst-propelled rise: “Professionally at least she might have prospered better unaided. Hearst’s adoration tended to push her into dressy, romantic, idealised roles, when her great strength was in broad comedy. She overcame, rather than benefited from the excessive personal publicity in the Hearst press, year after year.” (12) Her final film, Ever Since Eve (Lloyd Bacon), came out in 1937. Three years later, Hearst got out of the movie business altogether.
- Louis Pizzitola, Hearst Over Hollywood: Power, Passion, and Propaganda in the Movies, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, p. 115.
- Pizzitola, p. 134.
- Pizzitola, p. 133.
- Pizzitola, p. 175.
- Pizzitola, p. 187.
- John Winkler, William Randolph Hearst: An American Phenomenon, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1928, quoted in Fred Lawrence Guiles, Marion Davies: A Biography, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1972, p. 83.
- Guiles, p. 150.
- Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies, Atheneum, New York, 1975, p. 146.
- John Baxter, King Vidor, Monarch Press, New York, 1976, p. 34.
- Schickel, p. 146.
- Baxter, p. 10.
- David Robinson, “Paper Napkins for the Press Baron; Marion Davies”, The Times (London) 4 June 1992, News, p. 3.
The Patsy (1928 USA 81 mins)
Prod Co: Cosmopolitan Productions/MGM Dir: King Vidor Scr: Agnes Christine Johnston, based on the play by Barry Connors Phot: John Seitz Ed: Hugh Wynn Settings: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Marion Davies, Orville Caldwell, Marie Dressler, Dell Henderson, Jane Winton, Lawrence Gray