Marion Davies and William Haines were two of the most popular stars of the late 1920s, and Show People, directed by King Vidor and loosely based on the life of Gloria Swanson, spotlights both stars at their creative peak. Yet unknown to their fans, both lived “alternative lifestyles” in a time when the term hadn’t been invented. Davies had a long-term affair with a powerful married man, and Haines was openly gay to his friends, coworkers, and his boss, if not to the public. And those lifestyles ultimately contributes to the end of their careers.
Orson Welles’s masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), was based in part on the life of millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst and his relationship with Davies. The film portrays the Davies character as shrill and untalented, but in reality, Davies was the opposite. In private life, she was warm and funny and had a gift for friendship. Onscreen, she had a flair for comedy.
Marion Davies was born Marion Cecilia Douras in Brooklyn, New York, on January 3, 1897, the fifth child of Rose and Ben Douras. Rose encouraged all her daughters to pursue careers in show business, and Marion eventually worked her way up to a spot in the chorus in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1914. There, Hearst first saw her and fell in love. Davies genuinely cared for Hearst, and, because of her feelings and strong loyalty, she allowed him to guide her career. She had already written and starred in her first film, Runaway Romany (1917) when she met Hearst, and he persuaded her to move permanently to films, signing her to a contract. Hearst created Cosmopolitan Productions, with Davies as the head of the company, and their 1922 production When Knighthood Was in Flower became the first million-dollar movie to turn a profit. Hearst promoted her career in his vast newspaper empire. In 1924, Cosmopolitan became an integral part of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Davies moved onto the MGM lot into a 14-room “dressing room.”
Davies excelled at comedy, but Hearst preferred her in period dramas. “It doesn’t take any beauty to get a pie in the face,” he said. While making Show People, the cast and crew conspired to get Hearst away from the set so they could shoot the slapstick scenes. In The Patsy (1928) Davies showed off her mimicry skills, performing uncanny impressions of Lillian Gish and Pola Negri. Davies was such a good mimic that Hearst had have her impersonate celebrities during some of their famous parties at his impressive country home, San Simeon. The couple entertained lavishly, with elaborate costume parties for friends such as Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and William Haines.
Haines was actually a bigger star than Davies when they made Show People. Born Charles William Haines on January 2, 1900, in Staunton, Virginia, Haines ran away from home with a buddy in 1914, ending up in the boomtown of Hopewell, Virginia, where they opened up a dance hall catering to the lawless town’s factory workers, con men, and other marginal characters. After a fire destroyed most of the town in late 1915, Haines moved to New York, where he thrived in the bohemian and gay-friendly culture of Greenwich Village. Among his acquaintances were future star Cary Grant and future costume designer Orry-Kelly, but Haines had no interest in an acting career at the time. He supported himself by posing for photos and illustrations and became moderately successful as a model. After winning Samuel Goldwyn’s “New Faces of 1922” contest, he went to Hollywood.
Haines made uncredited appearances in a few films before finally getting his first important role in King Vidor’s Three Wise Fools in 1923. Haines’s screen persona as the wisecracking, scrappy, but still likeable troublemaker took shape, and the studio built up his publicity. He hit his stride in the 1926 film Brown of Harvard, which made him a star. By the time he made Show People, Haines was one of MGM’s top stars and agreed to appear in the film partly to help boost the sagging box office of his pal, Davies.
Haines easily made the transition to sound, starring in MGM’s first sound film, Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928). But, by 1933, the earlier permissive glory days were over, and the Great Depression was choking the country. The off-screen antics of stars were no longer tolerated, and the uninhibited portrayals of some of the films led to the Production Code, which would become the industry’s de facto film censor. Gossip columnists, magazines, and newspapers rejected the carefully controlled publicity doled out by the studios. Rumors about stars who were gay began to appear more frequently, with Haines a primary target. Refusing a marriage of convenience, he also rejected the studio publicity department’s efforts to link him with popular female stars. He deflected questions about his love life with wisecracks, never hiding that he had been living with his partner Jimmie Shields since 1926. Joan Crawford referred to them as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood.”
By 1933, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer was fed up and was only casting Haines in B-films that had been rejected by the up-and-coming (and straight) Robert Montgomery. The films made money, but not as much as Haines’s earlier films. There were rumors that Haines had been arrested after picking up a sailor. Finally, Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: choose his career or Shields. Haines chose Shields.
In 1930 Haines and Shields had opened a local antique store and gave decorating advice to their Hollywood friends. When Haines’s contract ended in 1934, he began a new career, becoming the most sought-after decorator in Hollywood, with clients that included Davies, Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, and George Cukor. Haines’s success eventually led to prestigious commissions, including his designs for California Governor Ronald Reagan and the London home of the U.S. Ambassador. Haines and Shields remained together until Haines’s death from cancer in 1973. A few months later Shields committed suicide.
Davies had made a successful transition to sound, working with top stars such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. But Hearst was unhappy that the prestigious roles at MGM went to production head Irving Thalberg’s wife Norma Shearer. So in 1934, he moved Davies, Cosmopolitan Pictures, and her famous 14-room bungalow to Warner Bros. By 1937, Hearst’s health was failing and he was having money problems. Davies gave up her film career to take care of him, even writing him a check for one million dollars to help save his business. They stayed together until Hearst’s death in 1951. On the night of Hearst’s death in her Hollywood mansion, Davies was so distraught that she was given a sedative. When she awoke, his family had removed all traces of Hearst from her home. Davies died of cancer in 1961.
Near the end of her life, Davies reflected on her relationship with Hearst. Her comments could also apply to William Haines’s relationship with Jimmy Shields: “What difference does it make if you walk up the altar and I say ‘you are now man and wife?’ Does that make love any more potent? Love comes from the heart.”
Presented at SFSFF 2006 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer