Women’s History Month: Marion Davies

By Joan Amenn

Time can permit legends to eclipse the reality of someone’s life, particularly in Hollywood. Some are unjustly lionized and some greatly disparaged but in the history of film few have been as mischaracterized as Marion Davies. She was a success on stage and screen but her long term relationship with a wealthy, married man and her portrayal in a film loosely based on his life is all that is remembered now.

Born into a wealthy Brooklyn family, Marion started out as a model and then a chorus girl on Broadway. She was then featured in the “Ziegfeld Follies’ which was a hugely popular musical revue that launched many careers at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As she rose in fame as a stage comedienne, the new medium of the “flickers,” or silent film, beckoned. Her sister Reine had married a Broadway producer, George Lederer, and soon Marion and he were working on her first film. Marion continued to be quite a celebrity onstage, but in 1917, her film debut, “Runaway Romany” with a script written by her and directed by Lederer was released. This was the beginning of real fame for Marion and she quickly became a fan favorite. But then she met someone who would change her career and her life forever, William Randolph Hearst.

marion when knighthoo
Marion Davies and William Norris in When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922)

“Marion preferred to act in comedies and Hearst preferred to see her in serious dramas. Either way, she was a very busy lady starring in nearly thirty films in only ten years”

Hearst was a controversial millionaire newspaper publisher with a tendency for sensationalism. He was also over thirty years older than Davies and married. Davies was a rising star from her success in her first film and then in her next, “The Burden of Proof” (1918). But Hearst was smitten to the point of obsession and financially backed the creation of the Marion Davies Film Company and his own Cosmopolitan Pictures to showcase her work. Their first collaboration was “Cecilia of the Pink Roses” (1918) which Marion produced and starred in and Hearst spent lavishly to promote.

Marion preferred to act in comedies and Hearst preferred to see her in serious dramas. Either way, she was a very busy lady starring in nearly thirty films in only ten years. Hearst spared no expense in advertising his leading lady, even buying a movie theater in San Francisco and naming it after her. Two of her biggest box office hits, “When Knighthood was in Flower” (1922) and “Little Old New York” (1923) made her one of the top earners in Hollywood but her reputation remained shadowed by the scandal of her relationship with Hearst.

litle olf new
Marion Davies in Little Old New York (1923)

Then in 1924, the whispered innuendos became headlines as a shocking death occurred on Hearst’s yacht. A handful of the famous and powerful were invited for a weekend getaway, among them Charlie Chaplin and producer Thomas Ince. Hearst had been trying to work out a deal with Ince for his Cosmopolitan Pictures. Ince was well respected as a successful businessman who had worked with Mack Sennett previously at Triangle Studios and then founded his own film company. Tragedy struck when Ince collapse in pain aboard the yacht and had to be helped to shore and to medical attention back in Los Angeles where he died. The rumors started flying at once that Hearst had accidentally shot Ince, mistaking him for Chaplin who he thought was having an affair with Davies. None of that was true but the illicit nature of her relationship with Hearst would always undercut any assessment of Marion’s work.

“It is completely unfair that Marion should be remembered for the way she was portrayed in the thinly disguised biography of Hearst, “Citizen Kane” (1941) by Orson Welles.”

Hearst’s domineering nature was no help. Marion would go on to make many successful films which saw her paired with famous leading men such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. She even developed a collaboration with director King Vidor, who recognized her comedic skills despite Hearst’s disapproval. However, not everyone was as keen to work with Marion when Hearst would inevitably be involved as well. Hearst attempted to strong arm Irving Thalberg of MGM into giving Marion the lead in his film, “Marie Antoinette” (1938) but Thalberg was married to actress Norma Shearer. He was of course a little biased as to who he believed should receive the role. Marion was friends with the Thalbergs, but Hearst reacted petulantly to the rejection and moved his film company to Warner Brothers. Marion worked on a few more films but by 1943 she left acting entirely and retired to life with Hearst.

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Marion Davies in It’s a Wise Child (1931)

It is completely unfair that Marion should be remembered for the way she was portrayed in the thinly disguised biography of Hearst, “Citizen Kane” (1941) by Orson Welles. Even Welles himself defended her as a much-loved, active member of film society, not the isolated, embittered drunk that was part of his story. Her offscreen life has eclipsed her onscreen talent but a few of her films can still be found and are worth seeing. She is one of the pioneer women of the early days of film and should be remembered as she truly was, not as others tried to make her out to be.

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