Although Marion Davies is best known these days as the presumed prototype of Charles Foster Kane’s second wife, she was nothing like the screechy, pathetic, and talentless creature ridiculed by Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz. The current Film Forum series (20 of her 46 features) gives ample evidence of her good work. At her best, Davies was an actress of considerable grace. She had a bouncy, elfin personality, she was a natural clown with a great gift for mimicry, and her porcelain prettiness photographed like a dream. Unfortunately, her talent was often buried in costume stories and serious dramas, made at the insistence of her lover, patron, and producer, William Randolph Hearst.
With the right material, she could equal any comedienne on screen. In the two earliest films in the series, Beauty’s Worth and When Knighthood Was in Flower, both directed by the plodding Robert Vignola in 1922, she was not yet fully confident in front of the camera. In the first, she’s a demure Quaker girl transformed into a society belle; in the opulent Knighthood, she portrays Princess Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, who consents to a marriage with the elderly king of France in order to save the man she loves. This dull pageant is notable principally for its lavish sets, designed by the great Austrian architect Joseph Urban. Mary flees the court, disguised as a boy—and this is just one of the many pictures in which Davies dons male attire. Hearst’s fetish for seeing his mistress in trousers gave rise to reports that he would buy any film property in which she was called upon to wear the pants.
He does seem to have cornered that market for his lady love; Davies masquerades as a man, in natty fancy-dress uniform, during most of Beverly of Graustark; in Operator 13, she’s a Northern spy disguised as a Confederate soldier; in Her Cardboard Lover, she’s irresistible in a form-fitting bellboy’s costume; and in Little Old New York, while in tight boy’s slacks, disguised as her dead brother, she falls in love with her male cousin.
Davies came into her own in 1928 with two outstanding comedies, The Patsy and Show People, both directed by King Vidor with an unpretentious lightness of touch lacking in most of her other vehicles. She’s hilarious in Show People (loosely based on Gloria Swanson’s rise to stardom), a witty, affectionate satire of Hollywood. That same year, she appeared in Robert Z. Leonard’s zippy romp Her Cardboard Lover, in which she’s a coed touring the Riviera who falls in love with tennis champ Nils Asther and proceeds to “save” him from his predatory femme-fatale love, Jetta Goudal. The sets are gorgeous; there’s more than a bit of salty pre-Code humor, as well as a long, quasi-experimental, and quite Lubitschian scene in which only the characters’ legs are visible. Davies is the personification of the high-energy ’20s flapper, independent and aggressive; it’s she who does the chasing in this surprising, reputationless film, the revelation of the series.
Davies went on to make 16 talkies, but although her voice recorded well, her position in films became increasingly unstable. In her penultimate picture, Cain and Mabel (1936), she and Clark Gable are teamed as a boxer and a showgirl who spat like cats and dogs and then suddenly fall madly in love. At 40, the actress was hard put to portray a coltish chorine half her age. Mabel may be a stale affair, but it’s a must-see for one truly memorable sequence: a vast production number ordered by Hearst, staged by Bobby Connolly, and intended as the apotheosis of Marion Davies. A guilty pleasure if there ever was one, this spectacularly baroque wedding-cake monstrosity, with its alabaster palaces and Venetian canals, is the kitschiest concoction imaginable. Presenting the actress in the guise of glamorous ladies of legend and history, it looks as if it had been perpetrated by a brain-dead Busby Berkeley.