February 2, 2013
Tonight’s double bill is two films starring Marion Davies. I was introduced to her when I first saw her in tonight’s silent film, The Patsy. I thought she was so charming, funny and pretty. I could certainly see why such a powerful man like William Randolph Hearst would have fallen for her. (Actually, from the sounds of it, reading Marion’s book, The Times We Had, it sounds like he was stalking her since she was in her teens!) I have only seen about half a dozen of her films and decidedly have enjoyed her silent films more than her talkies. However, I thought it would be interesting to see both in one evening so we can see the differences ourselves.
Another perk in our first film is we get to watch the great Canadian actress Marie Dressler pull all the stops with her comedic timing and wonderful acting. She can almost be described in the same words as I described Marion Davies above—charming, funny but not what you’d call pretty. However, she is just as loveable.
Being known as a woman “living in sin” as Hearst’s mistress, Marion was probably considered infamous to some just as much as she was famous to others. And that’s how the second article below starts off.
That most famous film, Citizen Kane will probably forever be associated with Hearst and Marion. As for the character who is Kane’s wife, Susan Alexander Kane, it’s always been inferred that she was based on Marion; the untalented trophy wife/mistress of the powerful publishing tycoon; even down to doing jigsaw puzzles, which Marion loved to do. But all you have to do is watch Marion in films like The Patsy and Show People to know that this depiction is false; Marion was very talented. When I started researching articles for tonight’s two films, I found a bit about The Patsy and close to nothing about The Bachelor Father. But I did find a lot about Marion, Hearst, San Simeon and Citizen Kane. So I have included what I think are interesting excerpts in tonight’s notes.
The Patsy (1928)
A King Vidor Production for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by King Vidor. Screenplay by Agnes Christine Johnston based on the play by Harry Conners. Titles by Ralph Spence. Photographed by John Seitz. Settings by Cedric Gibbons. Costumes by Gilbert Clark. Film editor: Hugh Wynn. Released: April 22, 1928.
Marion Davies…………………………………………………………….. Patricia Harrington
Orville Caldwell……………………………………………………………….. Tony Anderson
Marie Dressler………………………………………………………………….. Ma Harrington
Lawrence Gray…………………………………………………………………… Billy Caldwell
Dell Henderson………………………………………………………………….. Pa Harrington
Jane Winton…………………………………………………………………. Grace Harrington
William H. O’Brien………………………………………………………………………. Waiter
Right after Marianne, which was a talkie, I made The Patsy, a silent film, in fourteen days. It was a very funny picture, and it did very well. (Released in 1928, it grossed $617,000, and MGM reported a profit of $155,000. They also reported that it took twenty-seven days to make.) Marie Dressler and Larry Gray were in it, and King Vidor directed.
I was the patsy, the youngest one in the family, who everybody hated. They’d say, “Run and do this, or do that, and take your elbows off the table, and blow your nose.”
The Times We Had by Marion Davies
At a Metro sales meeting that year, a Philadelphia salesman asked Louis B. Mayer directly why Metro handled Marion’s films. Mayer, unprepared for this broadside, first praised Lights of Old Broadway (six pictures back), which had made some money (The Fair Coed and Tillie the Toiler, both substantial successes, were overlooked in his panic) and then extolled Hearst in such hyperbole it resembled a eulogy.
Mayer knew that at the time of this attack Marion was involved in the first of three comedies she was to do with director King Vidor, namely The Patsy. It was the sort of thing she did best and, if he had not been thrown off balance, he probably would have reminded his salesmen of this. What he did not—could not—know was that The Patsy would become a major success, putting Vidor “in solid” with Hearst, and by the late 1960s a favourite silent film of film scholars and film buffs in general.
Perhaps the Philadelphian had been lying in wait for this moment. Philadelphia is not a
place known to be charitable to mistresses, nor actresses either for that matter. The distribution system in the twenties and thirties called for theatres to accept a block of films, and the salesman’s complaint was that the theatres had to take a Davies film in order to get a Garbo. What is most interesting about this complaint is that during her reign as Metro’s most prestigious and sensational star, Garbo was not a great financial success in the United States where block booking prevailed. Some of Garbo’s films would have been losers had there not been a European audience where lines would form in front of any movie house playing them. Marion’s successful and break-even films (roughly half of her total film production) outnumber all of the American films Garbo ever made. This comment is not meant to elevate Marion Davies above Garbo in audience appeal. Garbo’s films have become increasingly popular in revival, and Marion’s best comedies only recently have been taken out of the vaults and revived.
On July 20, 1928, Hearst and Marion sailed for Europe. They went on separate ships, Marion taking the Ile de France. The Patsy had opened in April and was playing to crowded houses around the country, but the Philadelphia salesman’s challenge to Mayer still rankled. Even Marion was not aware that, with her last three films and continuing on through Show People and half a dozen others, she was far along the way to total critical acceptance. There was drama in them as well as comedy, so it was not acceptance with reservations. Reviewers from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times had come to expect engaging and often exciting performances from her in just about everything she did. In reading these reviews of ten of her films done over a period of six years, the later distortions and absolute falsehoods seem appalling, revealing as they do how easily history of any sort can be distorted. Taken as a group, theses ten films compare favourably and often excel in quality and performance those of nearly all of her peers, including Lillian Gish, Pola Negri, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Colleen Moore, and Constance Bennett. If this surprises some film scholars or some who were around the castle or the beach house when Marion was so terribly social, but not taken very seriously as an actress, let them look at the record—the releases of these stars at the time Marion had reached her peak—not because as her biographer I seek belated tribute to Marion but simply to set the record straight. There were successes and mediocre films scattered through all of these ladies’ careers at the time (and Marion’s last films in the 1930s as well), but somehow for six straight years Marion was endowing all of her movies—with the exception of the 1928 The Cardboard Lover—with some of her off-screen desire to give everyone a good time. Swanson and Garbo were too extraordinary to be considered along with the others, although Swanson was about to enter into a twenty-year period of decline and semiretirement with the advent of sound.
In 1934, during the making of Marion’s film Operator 13, Hearst was nearing a showdown with Irving Thalberg over The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the successful
Broadway and London play, which he wanted for Marion and Thalberg said was purchase for his wife, Norma Shearer. Bosely Crowther writes in his biography of Louis B. Mayer: “In one crisis, however, Mayer backed up Thalberg. That was difficult contention with Hearst as to who, Norma Shearer or Marion Davies, would be given the enviable assignment of playing the heroine in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. The popular play had been acquired for Miss Shearer. Then Hearst got the notion that it would be an appropriate vehicle for Miss Davies. Why he or his blond protégé should have remotely assumed that she could play the delicate role of the invalid-poetress, Elizabeth Barrett, is hard to understand…” Crowther perhaps had never seen Show People, The Patsy, or either of her Sidney Franklin films prior to having written his book, but not to have properly researched Marion’s acting skills seems nearly as careless as the manner in which Orson Welles later denied that the sources for Kane were anything but fictional—almost as though the damage which Welles knew had been done to Marion’s career was a trivial matter to a genius.
Marion Davies by Fred Laurence Guiles (1972)
Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz were far less generous to my father. They wrote and produced the movie Citizen Kane, which was a thinly concealed take on the old man’s life. The picture caused one of the greatest storms of controversy in the history of the film business, although Pop shrugged off the movie and never saw it. He did not, as some claimed, slip into a San Francisco movie house with Marion to see it on the sly.
I have never seen Citizen Kane, out of the principle and deference to the old man. However, our lawyers and others who dissected it scene by scene filled me in on the details. I feel as if I’ve viewed every frame.
The film portrays a wealthy but tyrannically ambitious man who seeks political power. In the failed process, he dies a lonely death in a ghoulish castle. There are many brazen references to my father, portraying him as an arrogant, megalomaniacal newspaper publisher drained of human compassion. His character is framed in one scene of doom after another. The moral is: Having gained the world, he loses his soul.
There is a critical difference between artistic and moral stature. A film can be cinematically outstanding but morally reprehensible. Essentially, I believe that to be the case concerning Citizen Kane.
The movie is presented as a type of docudrama. But even Welles has admitted that the final scene, with Welles himself playing Charles Foster Kane, is a “gimmick.” Kane’s last word is “rosebud,” a bleak, obscure reference to something in his childhood—perhaps recognition of a lost youthful innocence. Welles described it as “rather dollar book Freud.” That was no cinematic artistry speaking. It was box-office bucks. Welles dismissed the staged scene as Freudian subtext of a poor, little, rich boy who never recovered from the loss of his mother. All of this is set in place as part of a moral judgment of my father. It is an inaccurate debasement of his person.
Welles and Mankiewicz targeted my father because his life was big box office. I have been told that, at the time, Citizen Kane didn’t make money.
The film got our company lawyers and Louella Parsons, our influential movie writer, excited. Louella raised all kinds of hell when she and a couple of our attorneys viewed a private screening before the movie was released in May of 1941. Welles apparently was present to get her reaction, but she reportedly stormed out of the showing without speaking to him.
There are some strange sidelights to this mess. A lifetime friend of mine, Robin
“Curley” Harris, blames much of it on Louella. He recalls that she gave the film glowing plugs and “went overboard” for the movie while it was being made. However, in the closing weeks of shooting, Louella learned that Kane was presumably not merely any mean-spirited tycoon but, in reality, her old friend and chief, William Randolph Hearst. Harris, who has written for us over many decades and still does, told me, “Louella really went wild.” I never wanted to become involved in the battle, because I didn’t believe it served any useful purpose. Yet, Louella was, in reality, giving the film a lot of ink and creating a larger audience for it.
RKO Studios, which financed and was about to release the film, realized they had a real fight on their hands. Louella could make or break any film, director, writer, or actor in her columns. She also could spell trouble in the future. Louella was, in the eyes of many, the most powerful woman in Hollywood. Her column was carried throughout this country and abroad.
Contrary to many claims, my father told me that he never made any effort to stop the film, but he asked his newspaper not to ignore it completely. Louella tossed barbs against the film every chance she got. It seems the whole country began talking about the picture and, of course, most people became curious. Many wanted to see it to find out what the uproar was about.
In a bid to make the picture more acceptable, RKO held private screenings in several big cities. The studio invited famous people to see it, in the hope of winning support for the film. Curley attended the New York showing. Sitting near him were Henry and Clare Boothe Luce and Sarah Delano Roosevelt, mother of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Welles was present and tried to get Mrs. Roosevelt to publicize the picture. She said, “It was a very good picture, but it should never have been released while William Randolph Hearst is alive.”
Louella managed to get the film blackballed by most of the big theatre chains. She masterminded attacks on almost everyone connected with it. For example, Mankiewicz was involved in some minor auto accident in Hollywood, but, to hear Louella tell it his car ran over half an orphan asylum.
My basic problem with Citizen Kane was that its portrait of my father was untruthful and unfair. Kane was depicted as a harsh, loud, imperious braggart. Unquestionably, my father was not that. Pop was also portrayed as a man without conviction. Even his bitterest newspaper competitors would never claim that.
Kane’s closest friend ended their long relationship by calling him a “swine,” a characterization that may say more about the Welles and Mankiewicz movie-writing than about my father.
Kane was disappointed in the world and built his own. Pop never kept San Simeon to himself. He shared it with thousands of guests who were made fully welcome. In the end, the castle and gardens were given to the state of California and they are now enjoyed by millions of Americans.
Kane strikes his wife. I am certain that my father never imagined such a contemptible act.
Kane’s girlfriend had no singing talent. Marion Davies became a popular Hollywood actress with good credits. However, Mankiewicz is said to have told friends that the singing failure made for a better plot. That was the one aspect of the film, relayed to the old man, that apparently caused him real pain.
Kane went into rages: smashing his round snow glass as a child, throwing suitcases as an adult. Neither was true of my father.
The portrayal of Kane as my father was completely out of character, as his family, friends, and colleagues would testify. Pop was a soft-spoken man who seldom showed emotion—and certainly never rage.
Neither Welles nor Mankiewicz ever rose to the heights that apparently were expected of them. The two quarrelled over who should get what credit for the film. At the end, the careers of both men appeared as superficial as the treatment they had given my father.
I thought that Vincent Canby, in a New York Times article of April 28, 1991, summed up Citizen Kane better than anyone: “brilliant effrontery.”
In the aftermath of all this Louella Parsons became an even more powerful voice in Hollywood. Nobody wanted to tangle with her, for any reason.
The Hearsts: Father and Son by William Randolph Hearst, Jr. with Jack Casserly (1991)
Comparisons are not invariably odious, but they are often misleading. In their enthusiasm for this truly fascinating book, early readers called Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst “the Jackie and Ari of their day.” And why? Because they had “more glamour, power and money than anyone else.” The truth is that Hearst was never rich in the way that Onassis was rich, and the power of Onassis resided solely in his money. He could buy himself an airline, an island or a Greek colonel, but his place in history is recorded largely in the gossip columns. Hearst published the gossip columns; he practically invented them. The difference is immense.
If Hearst was not a great man, he was certainly a towering figure in the first half of this century. If he had been ten times richer than he was, he would not now be primarily remembered for his millions. Onassis was neither a great man nor a great force in the world; he was—quite simply and purely—a celebrity. “You make the money,” Hearst might well have said to him, “I’ll make the celebrities.”
This, of course, is a paraphrase. When Frederick Remington was dispatched to the Cuban front to provide the Hearst newspapers with sketches of our first small step into American imperialism, the noted artist complained by telegram that there wasn’t really enough shooting to keep him busy. “You make the pictures,” Hearst wired back, “I’ll make the war.” This can be recognized not only as the true voice of power but also as a line of dialogue from a movie. In fact, it is the only purely Hearstian element in Citizen Kane.
There are parallels, but these can be just as misleading as comparisons. If San Simeon hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary for the authors of the movie to invent it. Except for the telegram already noted and the crazy art collection (much too good to resist), in Kane everything was invented.
Let the incredulous take note of the facts.
William Randolph Hearst was born rich. He was the pampered son of an adoring mother. That is the decisive fact about him. Charles Foster Kane was born poor and was raised by a bank. There is no room here for details, but the differences between the real man and the character in the film are far greater than those between the shipowner and the newspaper tycoon.
And what of Susan Alexander? What indeed.
It was a real man who built an opera house for the soprano of his choice, and much in the movie was borrowed from that story, but the man was not Hearst. Susan, Kane’s second wife, is not even based on the real-life soprano. Like most fictional characters, Susan’s resemblance to other fictional characters is quite startling. To Marion Davies she bears no resemblance at all.
Kane picked up Susan on a street corner—from nowhere—where the poor girl herself thought she belonged. Marion Davies was no dim shopgirl; she was a famous beauty who had her choice of rich, powerful and attractive beaux before Hearst sent his first bouquet to her stage door. That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. Hearst built more than one castle, and Marion was the hostess in all of them: they were pleasure domes indeed, and the Beautiful People of the day fought for invitations. Xanadu was a lonely fortress, and Susan was quite right to escape from it. The mistress was never one of Heart’s possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than thirty years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.
Susan was forced into a singing career because Kane had been forced out of politics. She was pushed from one public disaster to another by the bitter frustration of the man who believed that because he had married her and raised her up out of obscurity she was his to use as he might will. There is hatred in that.
Hearst put up the money for many of the movies in which Marion Davies was starred and, more importantly, backed her with publicity. But this was less of a favour than might appear. That vast publicity machine was all too visible; and finally, instead of helping, it cast a shadow—a shadow of doubt. Could the star have existed without the machine? The question darkened an otherwise brilliant career.
As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow—the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane—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. She was also a delightful and very considerable person. The proof is in this book and I commend it to you.
Foreword by Orson Welles, Los Angeles, California, May 28, 1975
The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst by Marion Davies
Edited by Pamela Pfau and Kenneth S. Marx
Vidor is hardly remembered as a director of comedy. But, with his feel for rhythm and the gestural, he could have been up there with Cukor, Sturges, and Minnelli. It was his bad luck to work the genre before talkies, and to have Marion Davies as his lead. Still, his three films for Davies converted her from heavier roles in period romances into a touchingly resilient screwball comedienne.
In even the best of her earlier films, the dramatic challenges tended to highlight her limitations. Sidney Franklin’s Quality Street on the New York Time’s ten-best list for 1927, is crafted to showcase a nonexistent range—Davies ages into a withered spinster who rejuvenates by impersonating her niece. The loving close-ups are to little effect: for happy, we get prancing; for heartbroken, she throws herself face down on the floor. One can understand why Davies remains fated to be best known through Orson Welles’s infectious slander as the talentless tootsie “Susan Alexander,” foisted onto the opera-going public by her Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst. In Vidor’s films, her vitality is her healthy defense against Kane-styled pretensions in high society and art.
Film historians’ emphasis on the more stylized extremes of silent comedy (slapstick or Lubitsch) has tended to eclipse the mainstream of straightforward comedy that dips good-naturedly, but not unpointedly, into satire and near-drama—The Patsy, Show People, and their ilk. Vidor’s first trick with The Patsy was to take the well-received drawing-room comedy of a few years earlier and, by casting Marie Dressler and Dell Henderson as Davies’s parents, infuse a tradition of knockabout farce. Dressler and Henderson had been out of film acting for a decade before returning in 1927 and 1926 respectively, but both here display the broad gestures and timing mastered under Mack Sennett at Keystone. The Patsy’s Cinderella situation lends itself to all manner of treatments: an upper-middle-class family with aspirations to gentility push forward one daughter at the expense of the other, Pat (as in “patsy,” played by Davies), whom they consent to drag along to yacht club dances but assign kitchen chores when prospective husbands appear. With more stress on family discord, it could resemble Mal St. Clair’s Are Parents People? (1925); with more slapstick, it would presage Jerry Lewis’s Cinderfella (1960).
Pretensions to status are deflated here by the family stepping not so much beyond their social station as beyond their physical limits. The rich playboy has a magician’s deftness (twirling plates of crackers, catching dropped saucers in mid-flight). It’s a smart skill (the rich aren’t sub-human) and the physical correlative to his superficiality. The family, with the exception of the mean-spirited sister, are endearingly clumsy. In their mutual lack of pretension, Pat and her father share a bond of put-upon stupor that varies the film’s pace while establishing its humanity—freeing it from a couple of the hazards of silent comedy. Likewise, the handsome object of the sister’s rivalry is made worthy by his architectural dreams (“gas, electricity, sewers!”). Rolling out his blueprints in myopic ignorance of romantic schemes, he’s lightweight brother to the builder heroes of Love Never Dies, Proud Flesh, An American Romance, and The Fountainhead.
The bulk of the film is a broad comedy of manners, of thwarted societal aspiration. Vidor choreographs the family’s pre-dance preparations like a prizefight, the three women’s heads bobbing for a spot in the mirror, Pa hoisted off his feet by Ma’s energetic yank at his bow tie. When they arrive at the yacht club, one adept shot brings the relationships together. The camera dollies with the four down a long aisle, Pat traipsing in a too-long Spanish shawl passed down from her sister. Ma, distracted by greeting others with absurd (for Dressler) little finger-waves, steps on Pat’s shawl and pulls it off; Pat turns round, slamming into the steamroller bulk of her mother, who’s annoyed at her clumsy daughter; Pa saunters off unaware, the sister haughtily, as a waiter stoops for the shawl; and Ma turns with increased disgust to Pat: “Don’t you know it’s not good manners to be polite to a waiter.” The title comes as topper, not an interruption, to the flow of physical comedy.
The Patsy’s stage origins may account for the desperate look of its few exteriors and for the positive lack of sound. The Crowd could signify intrusive city-life cacophony in perfectly satisfactory ways. Here Pat tries for “personality” through self-help guides that require terrible title-card one-liners (“Always remember—Nature gives us many of our features, but she lets us pick our teeth”; “No thank you, Mr. Smith, work is the curse of the drinking classes”). Davies’ impersonations, well-known San Simeon entertainment—here Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri—are amusing enough, but in a context considerably more forced than they would have been had Vidor saved them for Show People or Not So Dumb.
King Vidor, American by Ramond Durgnat and Scott Simmon (1988)
The Bachelor Father (1931)
A Marion Davies Production for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Based on a play by Edward Childs Carpenter. Settings by Cedric Gibbons. Cinematography by Oliver T. Marsh. Film Editing by Harry Reynolds. Released: February 1, 1931.
Antoinette ‘Tony’ Flagg………………………………………………….. Marion Davies
John Ashley………………………………………………………………… Ralph Forbes
Sir Basil Algernon ‘Chief’ Winterton………………………………… C. Aubrey Smith
Geoffrey Trent…………………………………………………………….. Ray Milland
Richard ‘Dick’ Berney……………………………………… Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams
Dr. Frank ‘Mac’ MacDonald………………………………………….. David Torrence
Mrs. Julia Webb……………………………………………………………. Doris Lloyd
Bolton, The Second Butler………………………………………………. Edgar Norton
Maria Credaro…………………………………………………………….. Nina Quartero
Larkin, the Butler……………………………………………………….. Halliwell Hobbes
Mrs. ‘Aunt Molly’ Berney……………………………………………….. Elizabeth Murray
Mr. Carson Creswell, a Lawyer…………………………………………. James Gordon
Harry, the First Airplane Mechanic…………………………………………. Harry Allen
Hortense………………………………………………………………… Rina De Liguoro
We had to do a scene where I rush in a doorway and the rug slips and I am supposed to do a fall. But the rug wouldn’t slip. The director said I didn’t run fast enough, but the rug was practically glued down: there was rubber underneath. Bob Leonard said, “I’m not trying to protect you. I’m trying to do a scene.”
But the property man, Jimmy, had been working with me for quite a while and he didn’t want me to break my neck. They fixed it, so my magic carpet and I made one big entrance, my legs went up in the air and that scene was finished with. I was a little bit sore, but I wasn’t really hurt. I had to take a lot of falls and I got used to them. I’d take it easy and go limp.
Ray Milland used to talk about England and Ireland. He was very pleasant. We never had any trouble at all.
The Times We Had by Marion Davies
Two weeks later I was given my first legitimate part. It was in a picture called Bachelor Father, and it starred Marion Davies and the Englishman C. Aubrey Smith. It was the story of an old reprobate who had fathered three children in his youth without bothering to get churched. One in America (Marion Davies), one in England (myself), and one in Spain (Nina Quartero). Now in his dotage he found himself saddled with them. The movie was directed by an elephantine gentleman named Robert Leonard, who immediately restored my faith in American directors. He was well-mannered and patient and very much respected. The film was produced by Cosmopolitan Pictures (owned by W.R. Hearst) and released through MGM. Before the actual shooting began it was decided that we should all go up to “the ranch” to rehearse for two weeks. This meant San Simeon, the Camelot of California. Just the four members of the cast and Mr. Leonard. But that didn’t mean we had the place to ourselves, far from it. Because when we got on our palatial private train for the two-hundred-odd-mile trip, there were at least twenty other guests. From all over the world apparently, very regal indeed.
Now I don’t intend to go into a long, descriptive panegyric about San Simeon, because that has been done before by people much better qualified than I, and in some cases by people not as qualified. But there are a few things worth mentioning. For instance, the only time I ever saw paper napkins and bottles of ketchup and other condiments scattered down the length of the dining table was at breakfast, which was run rather like breakfast in an English country house, guests dragging in at different times. Lunch was quite formal, and dinner was served with all the panoply of Saint Petersburg. As a matter of fact, I think the dinner service once belonged to a Czar. I was invited again about three months later, the only difference being that the dinner service had once belonged to Napoleon. Black tie was obligatory, and drinking was not allowed until the meal was over. After that, though, any toddy our heart desired.
There were about twenty-five guests all told, and a very mixed bag they were. I got to know only about six or seven. One of the nicest was a man named Ed Hatrick, who was one of Hearst’s executives, very droll and slightly world-weary. His descriptive rundown on the other guests was funny, penetrating but never cruel. His daughter Gloria is now married to Jimmy Stewart. He also warned me about three of the other guests, two well-disguised faggots and a woman in her thirties known as the Burlingame Barracuda. I stuck pretty close to Ed. Our rehearsals took place in Hearst’s private theatre, but they never lasted more than an hour each morning, so there was plenty of time for swimming, tennis, or riding. Most of my time was spent at the stables attempting to master the restrictive Western saddle and trying not to castrate myself in the process. The ranch had between thirty and forty head but nothing very good, mostly range ponies and quarter horse types with mouths like iron. I’d go out with the head wrangler, whose name I think was Morgan, who told me that there were over two hundred thousand acres in the spread.
One night at dinner, toward the end of our stay, Mr. Hearst announced that we were all going on a picnic the next morning, to a spot ten miles from the castle. Those who wished to ride could ride, and for the rest there would be cars. It would be a real Western barbeque, he said. Those who chose to go on horseback would leave at ten A.M. and the others traveling by car would leave at eleven. Ah, I thought, finally a taste of the real West! It was a beautiful morning, and at ten I was ready at the foot of the steps. Morgan was there with a couple of wranglers and a string of saddle horses. Then I looked to the right and got a bit of a shock. There were five limousines parked in a line. Two Lincolns, a Cunningham, a Pierce-Arrow, and a bloody great big Belgian Minerva. All glittering. I looked at Morgan popeyed. He said, “Better get mounted.” There were five others who had chosen to ride: the two masquerading mackerels, the Bay Area dame, Ed Hatrick, and a bubbly character named Kane.
Only one thing untoward happened on that lovely ride. The wranglers were riding one and leading two, and a jack-rabbit jumped up under the nose of one of the lead horses.
He spooked, broke a rein, and took off with me right after him. He and I had a lovely time; I got him in about a mile and an eighth. Twenty minutes later we topped a rise and there below us, in a stand of live oak with a stream running through it, was a shallow dell and the damnedest setup you could possibly imagine. There were six low Japanese-style tables decked with white linen and crystal, three stainless-steel grills each about two feet by seven, a bar nine feet long with bottles and bowls of ice, three chefs and four waiters all dressed in white, caviar from the Black Sea, lobsters from Morro Bay, and on the grills boned squab, ducklings stuffed with tangerines, and a baked salmon that must have weighed forty-nine pounds. Sitting at the head of it all, looking like the Sultan of Zamoanga, was W.R. I got through the meal with only one thought in my mind; Clarence E. Mulford, you stepped on your cock again.
Later that afternoon the ride home almost made up for it. The two fugitives from Fire Island and the Lily of Laguna decided to return by limousine, so Hatrick, Kane, the wranglers, and I quietly ambled home, riding one and leading two. Halfway back, the mountains faded and I was back in Surrey riding morning exercise with Gillam beside me and Dunbar whistling “Cock o’ the North” and B 63 just waiting to take off. Suddenly I felt very lonely, and nostalgia came again, only this time it was more insistent. Pedants have said it is a childish emotion that should have no place in a mature mind. If this is so, then I am a child still. It is always with me and will be until I die.
There is not much more I want to say about San Simeon, except perhaps to point up a few peculiarities that other diarists seem to have missed. For instance: On the night Mr. Hearst announced the barbeque we were told that if we needed riding clothes the housekeeper would outfit us completely. We were taken down to a room that looked like a combination of Berman’s and Western Costume. Everything was there, and in all sizes up to and including costumes for the entire cast of Aida. And all of it immaculate. Mind-boggling.
Another thing: I never slept in Richelieu’s bed. According to all reports, that must have been the most overworked bed ever made, although I was lodged in a most beautiful guesthouse, called, I think, “Casa del Sol,” a mixture of Byzantine, Moorish, and Spanish, but everything of museum quality. But the bed was French by the feel of it, because in the center was a slight depression. It must have been either Madame de Montespan’s or the Du Barry’s.
Throughout the castle grounds and far into the distances of the ranch were telephones, usually in the trees so that one was never out of touch, all necessary to the Hearst operation. However, each call made by a guest had to be paid for. Except mine. This is how that came about. I had talked to Mr. Hearst perhaps three times. On the last occasion I had told him that when I was a youngster I had raided his orchard at his castle in Wales many times. He gave me a sharp, intent look with his frosty gray eyes, and then he chuckled, although I don’t think he was a man of much humor. In a sort of stage whisper he said, “Just for that, feel free to use the telephone at any time. There’ll be no charge.” He was a strange and forbidding man, about six feet three and quite heavy. I imagine that if Oscar Wilde had been able to beat the rap and had lived to be the age of Hearst they would have looked like twins.
Over the years my feeling for Marion Davies approached adulation. She was a little scatterbrained and had a slight stutter, was mischievous and was kindness itself. She was also a very courageous and very generous woman. I always adored her. Following Bachelor Father I made another picture with her called Polly of the Circus, in which her leading man was Clark Gable.
Wide-Eyed in Babylon, An Autobiography by Ray Milland
I’ve always felt that Marion Davies has been unfairly overlooked by writers on the film and unjustly maligned by those who point only to her sponsorship by William Randolph Hearst. It’s true, of course, that Hearst did force Metro into starring her in expensive pictures at a time when her name was not “box office.” But, after all, many a studio has followed this path with contract stars, and it seems unreasonable that just because the mechanics were a little different in this case, it should be singled out for condemnation. All the fuss over the ultra-determined push to establish Marion Davies as a top-rank star has quite obscured the fact that she had what it takes to achieve star status on her own and, indeed, would probably have emerged as a much bigger star had she been able to chart her own course and achieve the top more slowly, with exhibitor support rather than antagonism. Miss Davies herself has always been discreetly silent on this point, and charitably passive to those who have attacked her. Now wealthy, happily married and a successful businesswoman, I hope she occasionally looks at her early talkies on television, and becomes aware of the pip and charm she put into films like Peg o’ My Heart.
Marion may not have been one of the top box office stars of the 20’s, but in retrospect one can see that she appeared in some mighty good pictures—from spectacular period pieces like When Knighthood Was in Flower and Little Old New York to modern, zippy comedies of the calibre of The Fair Co-Ed, The Patsy, and Show People. King Vidor, who directed her in the latter, obviously has a high regard for her abilities as a comedienne, and praises her work at length in his autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree. Marion is much more a veteran of the silent screen than most people realize. She entered show business in a typically decisive fashion, leaving a convent to becoming a dancing girl with a Chu Chin Chow troupe. She was in films by 1918, with Pathé’s Runaway Romany, and followed that with one or two films for Paramount (Restless Sex, April Folly) before signing with Metro.
Marion would be the last to regard herself as a great dramatic actress, though she was at least a good one. But her greatest gifts lay outside the fields of realistic drama; she could ring a tear effortlessly in a piece of schmaltzy sentiment, and she could mimicry (she and Jimmy Durante kidded Garbo and Barrymore in Blondie of the Follies).
Classics of the Silent Screen by Joe Franklin (1959)
Research Assistant: William K. Everson
“Dedicated to my wife Lois and my son Brad—
without whose cooperation this book was written.”