In the early 1950s, Tennessee Williams, who had a love/hate affair with the movies, said "Marion Davies makes up for the rest of Hollywood." By that time, the actress, who died in 1961 at age 64, hadn't made a film since 1937. She'd been a very successful star in silent films and made the transition to talkies, not without difficulty but still more successfully than her contemporaries.
When Williams knew her, she was still known as William Randolph Hearst's ex-mistress. Hearst was the model for Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. In Hollywood, she was a has-been. To many Americans, she was a fallen woman. To Williams and those who knew her well, she was a kind, witty friend, a savvy businesswoman and a generous philanthropist, especially to children's charities.
Since Citizen Kane, Marion Davies has been almost indelibly identified with the film's fictional Susan Alexander, an untalented singer Kane tries to turn into a star. She leaves him, and becomes a drunk. In real life, as Welles asserted, Davies had little in common to Susan-except they were both objects of a very rich man's obsession.
According to Welles, "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."
It has taken decades for the real Davies to emerge from the cloud of Kane and the shadow of her liaison with Hearst, and many of her films have begun to appear on video, so film historians and new viewers alike can re-evaluate and appreciate a truly unique person.
A good starting point for the uninitiated is the 2001 documentary Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies, co-produced by Hugh Hefner and Turner Classic Movies. Narrated by Charlize Theron, the hour-long doc details how Davies first came to Hearst's attention as a Ziegfeld girl, and his elaborate, costly efforts to make her a major star of the Silent Era. With scenes of her storied film career, Captured on Film also deals in depth with her complicated relationship with the married media tycoon, 34 years older than she. Davies was devoted to Hearst, by his side until he died at 88 in 1951.
Though the details of her life, scandalous and otherwise, are fascinating, Davies is best served today by her films, more and more of which are becoming available, showcasing her real charm and talent.
When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), just dropped in a restored Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, is a great example of the extravagant stardom Hearst envisioned for his young paramour. The kind of historical period piece so admired by Hearst, Knighthood had a total budget of $1,500,000, an absolutely staggering sum for the time. Hearst demanded authenticity, as evidenced by the film's meticulously correct costumes, armor and massive sets.
Supported by an heavy publicity push by Hearst's publishing empire, the movie, based on a popular novel, was a major hit. By today's standards, though, much of the acting is ham-fisted, the plot rather silly.
Davies plays Mary Tudor, feisty younger sister of Henry VIII, who marries her off to ancient King Louis XII of France. Mary loves a young captain of the guards. Fear not-and no spoiler here-it does have the requisite happy ending.
Hearst produced the film to showcase Davies' beauty and talent, but she knew her real strengths were in comedy. She was a gifted mimic and, despite a stammer, was able to use that when the talkies came, an innovation she both feared and loathed.
Her best film-a real comic gem of the Silent Era, among the first movies about Hollywood-is also out on home video, though not yet in HD. In Show People (1928), Davies plays Peggy Popper, a Georgia belle who goes to Hollywoodland with the usual hopes and dreams. Landing a job with a comic troupe (modeled on Mack Sennett's shenanigans), Peggy then forsakes comedy and love for high drama and publicity before she finally comes to her senses.
With cameos by the likes of heartthrob John Gilbert, Charlie Chaplin, William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks and even Marion Davies herself (at whom Peggy thumbs her nose), Show People is a delightful comic romp from beginning to end.
If only her life could have imitated her art, Marion Davies might have had a similar silver-screen ending of her own. She deserved better than she got.