By Thomas Gladysz.
Davies was at her delightful best in comedies with a contemporary setting…. Nevertheless, her earlier costumes dramas and period pieces, like Zander the Great and Beverly of Graustark as well as the 2019 Undercrank release, Little Old New York, still have considerable charm.”
The inherent contradiction in Marion Davies’ film career centers on her relationship with media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. At times, he either advanced, or warped, her career. The two lived together for decades, but not as man and wife, and Hearst’s spare-no-expense approach to funding her career kept her famous throughout the 1920s and 1930s. With success, however, came doubters.
Their relationship – as caricatured in Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941) – pretty much reduced the actress’ reputation to a cynical joke, despite Davies’ considerable talent and many achievements. Her reputation began to fade in the late 1930s, following her last film. And then came Kane. Film critic Pauline Kael attempted to rehabilitate Davies’ reputation in the 1970s, as did Welles himself. The famed director wrote, “I rejoice in this opportunity to record something which today is all but forgotten except for those lucky enough to have seen a few of her pictures: Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened.”
Today, a century after Davies first began to ascend the heights of stardom, her critical and popular reputation is on the rise. In fact, there is a kind-of slow-burn revival taking place. Over the last ten years or so, there’s been a steady stream of DVD & Blu-ray releases, as well as theatrical screenings (some at film festivals), television showings, articles, and books. All this activity is spearheaded by a group of devoted fans who are also film historians, writers, bloggers, and musicians.
The two most recent releases are Zander the Great (1925) and Beverly of Graustark (1926). Both were issued earlier this year. Zander the Great is a new 2K scan of a 35mm preservation print with its original color tinting reinstated, while Beverly of Graustark is a new 4K restoration that includes the film’s original 2-color Technicolor ending. Both films look very good. Both are joint releases from Undercrank Productions and the Library of Congress, and both feature a sympathetic new musical score composed and performed on theatre organ by the talented Ben Model, the head of Undercrank and producer of the DVDs. Edward Lorusso, author of 2017 book, The Silent Films of Marion Davies, also had a hand in helping bring these two films to home video.
In Zander the Great, Davies plays Mamie, a girl rescued from an orphanage by Mrs. Caldwell (Hedda Hopper), the mother of a small child whom Mamie calls Zander. With the passing years, Mamie grows up and Mrs. Caldwell dies; Mamie and Zander (and a pair of pet rabbits, a running gag that become dozens by film’s end) go in search of the boy’s missing father. Once out west, Mamie finds shelter at a ranch where a cowboy (played by Harrison Ford, no not that Harrison Ford) and his two bootlegging cohorts are hold-up; they have a sheriff (Hobart Bosworth) and a group of bandits on their trail. It’s a simple adventure story, drawn from a screenplay by Frances Marion. As Lorusso notes in his book, “Zander the great marked a return to normalcy for Marion Davies in a film that was not an epic-scale costume drama.”
Although Davies’ 20th film, Zander the Great marked Hearst’s first production under a big new distribution deal with MGM. It was also another Davies’ production that saw constant meddling by the larger-than-life media mogul. He fired director Clarence Badger and brought in George W. Hill, who re-shot extensive sections of the movie. (Hearst reportedly had Badger’s original footage burned.) Hearst also demanded the sand storm finale outdo the storm scene in D. W. Griffith’s celebrated Way Down East (1920); critics were not impressed, and said it was overdone to the point of being “claptrap hokum.” Despite it all, the film was a hit, thanks to Davies.
In the opening scene, for example, Davies subverts her natural good looks, emerging from a pile of laundry (a la Mary Pickford) with pigtails and a freckled face. Despite her awkwardness, what’s not to love? Though the story revolves around the search for Zander’s father, the film itself is a kind-of character study, as we watch Mamie grow from troubled orphan girl to daring young woman. And that’s where Davies shines in this sometimes dusty melodrama.
Released the following year, Beverly of Graustark is a costume drama, though on a less epic scale compared to some of Davies’ earlier films like When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922). In this light-hearted, gender-bending rom-com, Davies plays a plucky American co-ed whose cousin Oscar (Creighton Hale) is a Prince and heir to the throne of Graustark. Due to a twist of fate (a skiing injury), she must switch places with her cousin to prevent the oily General Marlanax (the always great Roy D’Arcy) from taking over. Along the way, Beverly as Oscar encounters dashing goatherd Dantan (Antonio Moreno), hires him as her bodyguard, and falls in love. Along the way, there are clothes swaps, close escapes, mistaken identities, chases, palace intrigue and swordfights. And in the end, the outed Beverly winds up with the goatherd, and cousin Oscar becomes the new King.
The film is based on one of the romantic adventure novels by George Barr McCutcheon, which were hugely popular at the time. In fact, the Davies’ film was the second adaption of this particular novel. The first, from 1914, starred one-time Biograph girl Linda Arvidson (Mrs. D.W. Griffith).
Beverly of Graustark couldn’t help but succeed, as it was a “return to formula” for Davies and Hearst. In this her 22nd film, Davies starred in yet another dual role, and for the second time, she impersonates a male, as she had in Little Old New York (1923). To help suspend our disbelief, Davies had her hair cut – quite severely for the time; the cut, dubbed the “Beverly Bob,” even caused a bit of a fashion craze. Director Sidney Franklin, expert at big-budget vehicles featuring strong actresses, excels while handling everything with brisk assurance. Critics and audiences applauded the effort, and the film proved to be a smash hit.
Today, Zander the Great and Beverly of Graustark remain enjoyable films, though Beverly of Graustark is better made, and a better silent.
Arguably, Davies was at her delightful best in comedies with a contemporary setting, like The Patsy and Show People; both were adeptly directed by the legendary King Vidor, and both were major hits in 1928. Nevertheless, Davies’ earlier costumes dramas and period pieces, like Zander the Great and Beverly of Graustark as well as the 2019 Undercrank release, Little Old New York, still have considerable charm.
If you’re interested in checking out this singular actress, track down any of the above-mentioned movies, or Hugh Neely’s 2002 documentary Captured on Film – The True Story of Marion Davies, narrated by Charlize Theron. Due out in September from the University of California Press is a big new biography of the actress, Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies, by Lara Gabrielle. Pre-pub notices suggest this new book will prove to be the definitive biography of Davies – just as its evocative title suggests Davies was far more than merely Hearst’s mistress.
Thomas Gladysz writes about early film. He is the author/editor of four books, including Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film, and Louise Brooks, the Persistent Star. In 2019, he delivered the keynote address at the 92nd Rudolph Valentino Memorial in Hollywood. His current book projects include The Street of Forgotten Men, from Story to Screen and Around the World with Louise Brooks.