By Tony Williams.
Like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s recently released Endless Poetry (2016) and Samantha Fuller’s tribute to her late father A Fuller Life (2013), the DVD restoration of one of Marion Davies’s most notable films is indebted to those legion of people who have contributed via Kickstarter. Unlike Jodorowsky’s Twitter-funded film, the final credits of When Knighthood was in Flower remain long enough on the screen so that every contributor can be acknowledged by producer Ben Model of Undercrank Films who also wrote the music for this feature and accompanying ones The Bride’s Play and Beauty’s Worth released in the same year. Like the recent appearance of independent presses filling in gaps where market-orientated university and mainstream publications fear to tread economically, such activities are welcome especially when institutions are often so wrong about what the public really wants.
With the exception of many people familiar with her career, the real-life Marion Davies (1897-1961) bore no relationship to Susan Alexander Kane in Orson Welles’s first feature film, as its director regretfully apologized for much later. Marion Davies was a lively, talented, and versatile artist, generous in many ways and no gold-digger as her selling of many of the expensive gifts William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) gave during financially better times revealed when he fell on hard times during the Great Depression. It is true to say that both history and popular film journalism have unjustifiably not recognized her real qualities especially when surviving evidence of her work is much more accessible than is the case of other once-popular figures such as Constance Talmadge and Fred Thompson, to name just a few. Yet, like her fictional counterpart in Citizen Kane (1941), Davies’ association with a financial Titan (to use the title of one of Theodore Dreiser’s forgotten 1914 novels) did not always work to her best advantage. Those who have seen Show People and The Patsy, two 1928 productions directed by King Vidor, appreciate her great talents as a comedian which her austere capitalist protector rarely allowed her to reveal. They are virtually absent in The Bride’s Play and Beauty’s Worth, directed by George W. Terwilliger and Robert G. Vignola (who also directed Knighthood), neither of whom matched the talents of King Vidor. Vignola directed more Davies films than Terwilliger, three before Knighthood, and it seems that, like King Vidor, he intuitively understood the actress’ need to transcend the classy, elegant roles her financial paramour preferred her to portray.
All three films are productions of Cosmopolitan Pictures, a film company owned by Hearst and designed to promote Marion Davies’s film career. Having the name of Hearst’s magazine Cosmopolitan, the publication visually promoted an ideological style in illustrations by artists such as Howard Chandler Christy (1872-1952) portraying affluent lifestyles of the rich and famous and well as tasteful images depicting whatever historical narratives appeared. Although the Cosmopolitan style appeared several years before the American counteroffensive against Pacifism and Socialism that reached its culmination in America’s entry into World War One, the Palmer Red Raids, Warren G. Harding’s definition of “normalcy” and the beginning of the Jazz Age, it is undeniable that these films and others formed a cultural onslaught against the once strong working-class-orientated cinema documented by Kevin Brownlow in Behind the Mask of Innocence and Stephen J. Ross’s Working-Class Hollywood (1999). Like Cecil B. De Mille’s movement towards post-war Paramount lounge lizard domestic comedies, Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures formed part of that twentieth century American fascination with “the culture of consumption” documented in studies such as the 1983 anthology The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980, edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T.J Jackson Lears. Many scenes in The Bride’s Play and Beauty’s Worth evoke the visual style of Cosmopolitan artists such as Christy. The influence of these past ideological fascinations with the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (1984-1995) continue today with Downton Abbey (2010-2015), the hierarchical class successor to Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1975; 2010-2012). As a “New Kid on the Block” I can also see through “The Land of Freedom” and “America as a classless society” deceptive denial fantasies. Despite these reservations, it is important to preserve as much of the “Vanishing American” cinematic heritage as possible for what they reveal about a past, and future that always threatens much more consumerist and vulgar manifestations throughout its national history.
When Knighthood was in Flower is an excellent restoration of one of Hollywood’s early historical epics. It was reconstructed from nitrate 35mm originals at the Library of Congress, which contain tinting instructions as well as directions for a brief hand-tinted sequence of flaming torches towards the end. Producer Hearst spared no dollar in making this lavish twelve-reel production that totaled $1,500 million including expenditure of $954.29 per hour as well as set and costume costs. This was the film that launched Marion Davies into becoming a major star after 14 previous Cosmopolitan films and the end result is certainly not the disastrous Salambo premiere depicted in Citizen Kane. Based on a long forgotten 1898 novel by Charles Major and a 1901 play by Paul Kester, Marion plays Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIIII already casting a lustful eye on (not-for-long) maid-in-waiting Anne Boleyn, who unsuccessfully attempts to avoid a diplomatic marriage with King Louis XII of France. What a great role this would have made for Tully Marshall (1864-1943) had Hearst been insane enough to hire Erich von Stroheim as director! Mary yearns instead for handsome commoner Charles Brandon (Forrest Stanley) and later fights off the advances of future heir to the French throne, Duke Francis, played by even then not so Thin Man William Powell in one of his villainous silent roles.
If Hearst believed that his “little chickadee” was going to play a demure virginal heroine in the Lillian Gish mode (an actress Davies later humorously parodies in The Patsy along with Pola Negri and Gloria Swanson), he had another think coming. Despite preserving her virtue in the acceptable future Hays Code manner, Davies portrays the heroine as an assertive woman who eventually “gets her man with (out) a gun.” She also elicits several comic turns evading the patriarchal censorship of her “Pops” whenever he was on the set or not. Inspected by a potential suitor Davies mimics him “pursing her lips, wrinkling her nose and widening her eyes in mockery” according to Lara Gabrielle Fowler’s description in the DVD “Film Notes” Booklet and revealing her own type of distinctive silent comedy performance. Not only is this another (all too-numerous) contradiction to Laura Mulvey’s dated and dogmatic “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” thesis constantly cited by lazy academics and imbecilic graduate students but also another challenge to viewers to be attentive to what is actually going on in the film itself. Marion’s Mary not only counters the male gaze but overpowers it as in wiggling her toe at “Merry Monarch” Henry beginning his Six Wives trajectory as well as a French Ambassador “Oh-La-La” lustfully ogling what might be a naked body under the sheets but which a few minutes later appears discreetfully covered. When donning drag to make a failed escape with her lover, Marion not only anticipates her cross-dressing in Little Old New York (1923) but also parodies traditional male behavior revealing it to be as much a masquerade as Joan Riviere’s celebrated 1929 article dealing with so-called acceptable female behavior. She not only humorously nearly falls into the fire warming her rear end too near it rather than the more professional posture of Andrew Keir to Barbara Shelley’s puritanical disdain in an opening scene of Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) but also quaffs a flagon for the first time before engaging in a swordfight with a scurvy varlet as if parodying the well-known action prowess of Douglas Fairbanks. Fleeing in male attire with her lover Charles Brandon, Marion becomes a premature silent version of Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Yet her tights cannot conceal the lack of a significant “lack” that would otherwise come to the attention of her lustful tavern male audience. Despite this lack of revealing evidence, she refuses to become the object of any dominant male gaze and takes on her opponents physically and verbally in contrast to Laura Mulvey’s dated and dogmatic thesis still functioning in academic embalming parlors like a superannuated zombie.
Many other gems occur in this film with performances, costumes, and lavish sets designed by Viennese architect Joseph Urban all shot in Cosmopolitan’s Harlem studios, the Bronx Jackson Studio, and the Famous Players studio on Long Island according to Ms. Fowler’s very informative booklet. Restorer Ben Model has composed new musical scores for each film and his organ accompaniment for When Knighthood was in Flower and reveals the same high standards of silent film scoring that I heard several years ago when a guest organist accompanied the restored version of Metropolis (1925) in my hometown, this southern Illinois heart of darkness, providing an artistically brief glimpse of that light which sometimes exists towards the end of any murky tunnel. It is a pleasure to hear such artistry and care given to musical accompaniment as opposed to that hideous score on the Warner Archive DVD version of The Patsy that I had to run silent to avoid irritating acoustic distractions to Marion Davies’ great comedic performance. This restoration is a great achievement, and hopefully more will be forthcoming.
Finally, this appears to be the only surviving silent film version of When Knighthood was in Flower that was remade in 1953 under the title The Sword and the Rose directed by Ken Annakin and starring Richard Todd, Glynis Johns, and James Robertson Justice as Henry VIII. This will stimulate me to running that second hand VHS copy I acquired years ago. Shot a year before Doctor in the House and much earlier than Carry on Henry (1971) with Sidney James in the title role wielding his “big chopper” mentioned in contemporary advertising, I doubt whether either version will contain a variant of that immortal response by Dirk Bogarde’s Dr. Simon Sparrow to James Robertson Justice’s Chief Consultant Lancelot Spratt – “Where’s the bleeding Chopper?” – “In the Bloody Tower.” The reader should excuse my weak attempt to reproduce the humor of that late great Cuban writer G. Cabrera Infante.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international. He has recently authored James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-edited, with Esther C.M. Yau, Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017).