Ever since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane in 1941, Marion Davies has been persistently and erroneously identified with the character of Susan Alexander, Charles Foster Kane’s shrill second wife. In fact, Marion Davies and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had a far more interesting relationship, and Davies was infinitely more intelligent and talented than her fictional counterpart.
Marion Davies was born Marion Cecilia Douras in Brooklyn, New York in 1897. Her two older sisters took the stage name Davies while in vaudeville, and Marion followed them into show business. Marion’s first role was in the musical version of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird in 1914. By 1915, she had graduated to the big time Broadwayin the Florenz Ziegfeld revue Stop! Look! Listen! Sitting in the audience nearly every night was newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst was a regular theatergoer with a fondness for showgirls. Years earlier, he had become infatuated with Millicent Willson, a dancer in The Merry Maidens vaudeville troupe. Six years later they married, and Millicent abandoned show business to raise their five boys. But married life did not diminish Hearst’s interest in showgirls, especially two new members of the Stop! Look! Listen! cast: Marion Davies and Justine Johnstone. He sent a note backstage inviting Johnstone to dinner, but she wasn’t interested and passed the invitation to Davies. She accepted, and thus began their 35-year relationship. Soon Davies was performing every day in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916, and having dinner with Hearst every night. Hearst was 53, Davies 19.
Although Hearst produced movies, Davies entered the industry through her brother-in-law, theatrical producer George Lederer. After Hearst saw her in Runaway Romany (1917), he promised Marion, “I’m going to make you a star.”
Hearst bought a studio in New York City and cast Davies in the drama Cecilia of the Pink Roses (1918). Her fourth feature, Getting Mary Married (1919), was a comedy written by the husband-and-wife team of Anita Loos and John Emerson. The director, Allan Dwan, had worked with Loos and Emerson on Douglas Fairbanks’s comedies two years earlier. Dwan once said of Davies, “She had a sense of humor and if you gave her anything funny to do, she’d do it funny.”
Four Marion Davies films were released in 1919, two in 1920, and two more in 1921. None of these were particularly ambitious, but they gave her the experience she needed to grow as an actress. Hearst’s faith in her talent eventually paid off with the release of When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), and Marion Davies did indeed become a star.
Even so, Hearst didn’t recognize her true talent. His newspaper empire churned out articles that emphasized the production values of the $300,000 epic. Louella Parsons, film critic for the New York Telegraph and a friend and admirer of Davies since Cecilia of the Pink Roses, complained about how Hearst’s papers marketed her films. “Why don’t you give Marion Davies a chance?” she wrote. “She is a good actress, a beauty, and a comedy starring bet. Why talk about how much was spent on the lovely costumes and the production cost?” Hearst told Parsons in response: “I read your editorial. It was good. You should write more things like that.” Some weeks later, Parsons told Davies that she disliked her job at the Telegraph and planned on leaving. Marion relayed the information to Hearst, and soon Parsons was employed by Hearst’s New York American newspaper.
Davies’s films began to feature more comedy. Of her performance in Adam and Eva (1922), Photoplay enthused: “Her work here makes us think her forte is light comedy.” Even in Janice Meredith (1924), an historical epic of the American Revolutionary War, comedy was used to personalize the story, and Davies was again commended.
In 1924, Hearst set up a deal with MGM to distribute Davies’s films made by Cosmopolitan Pictures – his production company – and Marion promptly moved to Hollywood. MGM signed her to a $10,000-a-week contract. When she complained that her studio-provided dressing room wasn’t to her liking, Hearst gave her a “bungalow” a fourteen-room mansion that cost $75,000 to build. The studio didn’t mind; they occasionally commandeered it to throw luncheons for visiting dignitaries.
Hearst and Davies hosted star-studded parties at her Hollywood home, her beach house in Santa Monica, or at Hearst’s ranch in San Simeon. Weekends in San Simeon were legendary; twenty to fifty invited guests climbed aboard a train in Los Angeles on Friday evening and arrived in San Luis Obispo at three in the morning, then took an hour-and-a-half limousine ride to the ranch, where they were treated to breakfast. There was lunch in the afternoon, dinner at eight, and a movie. On Sundays, they played tennis, went horseback riding, and swam in one of the many indoor or outdoor pools. Then there was a return limousine ride to the train, so they could all be back at work by Monday morning.
Hearst also entertained on his yacht, the Oneida. During a weekend excursion in 1924, one of the guests, producer Thomas H. Ince, was apparently taken ill. He was removed from the yacht and, two days later, died. There were rumors that Hearst had shot him, and that the other guests took part in a cover-up. The story has persisted over the years, despite many facts that discredit it.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, another victim condemned by rumor, directed Davies in The Red Mill the next year. The film continued Davies’s shift toward comedy, cemented with the release of The Patsy in 1928.
The Patsy was the first of three Davies comedies directed by King Vidor, followed by Show People (1928) and Not So Dumb (1930), which was a talkie. They marked the high point of Davies’s popularity and profitability. For Vidor, however, their success put him off directing comedy for fear of being pigeonholed.
Davies successfully weathered the transition to sound, and she made 16 more films before retiring in 1937. Her screen test for her first talkie made her particularly nervous, because she stuttered. But as long as she knew her lines in advance, she was fine. Hearst would occasionally drive her crazy by doing a last-minute rewrite of her dialogue, but she inevitably gave in to him. “He had a very good sense of the dramatic, and of comedy, too,” she once admitted.
Despite a long and successful career, Davies was always insecure about her acting ability. Eventually, she justified retirement by saying: “I just didn’t want to work in pictures anymore. I’d been working awfully hard for quite a long time. At that time Mr. Hearst was about 78 or so, and I felt he needed companionship. He was having some financial troubles at the time, too, and he was more upset than people realized. I thought the least I could do for a man who had been so wonderful and great, one of the greatest men ever, was to be a companion to him.” She remained with him until his death in 1951.
SFSFF 2008 with live music by Clark Wilson on the Mighty Wurlitzer