Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The Sparkling Marion Davies
One of the most well-known actresses of the 1920s screen, Marion Davies is one of the few silent stars whose personal life was not only inseperable from her career, but in more recent decades tended to overshadow it. But nowadays, as more and more of her films are being restored and made available, it’s become clear that Davies was first and foremost a sparkling talent, and certainly one of our most important pioneering comediennes.
The youngest of five children, most of whom would appear onstage in one way or another, Marion Cecilia Douras was born on January 3rd, 1897 in Brooklyn. Thanks to a stutter that would persist throughout her life, she was in and out of public schools and eventually educated at a convent in Hastings, New York. She and her sisters (her one brother Charles drowned when she was a baby) were encouraged to take ballet and tap-dancing lessons by their mother Rose, who believed careers on the stage would put them in proximity with wealthy suitors. Her stage name was settled early on when her whole family adopted the name “Davies” after seeing it on an advertisement, believing it less “foreign-sounding” than “Douras.”
Although very bright, Davies was bored by school and decided to drop out and pursue the more exciting life of a showgirl. She became part of a chorus line in the 1914 musical Chin-Chin and soon made it to Broadway revues. Her stage work was supplemented by modelling for illustrators like Howard Chandler Christy, known for his World War I posters and picturesque “Christy Girls.” In 1916 the nineteen-year-old Davies became part of the famed Ziegfeld Follies, where she mainly did dancing routines due to her stutter.
The beautiful blonde with the winning smile was soon attracting “stage door Johnnies,” but the most persistent turned out to be William Randolph Hearst, the powerful newspaper tycoon. She recalled him attending numerous Follies shows, always sitting in the front row, and sending gifts of chocolates and trinkets. Hearst, who was in his fifties, was already married and he and his wife Millicent had five sons. Nevertheless, he continued to pursue Davies and she soon became his official mistress.
Just prior to the relationship with Hearst, Davies had written and starred in the modest film Runaway Romany (1917), directed by her brother-in-law. By now she was making a name for herself as a performer and wanted to keep pursuing films. In 1918 Hearst decided to helm her screen career, forming the Cosmopolitan Production Company and giving her all the big budgets and rampant publicity she could possibly need. While it seems certain that Davies would’ve been successful in films on her own, having both talent and show business connections, Hearst’s backing was definitely a huge bonus.
The first film under the new arrangement was Cecilia of the Pink Roses (1918), where Davies played a spunky Irish girl from a poor family. While it’s often assumed that Hearst insisted on putting Davies in costume pictures, most of her films were the kind of dramas and light comedies that were “in” at the time. Interestingly, The Belle of New York (1919) had Davies playing a young woman who joins the Follies, and The Cinema Murder (1919) focused on a love triangle between an actress, her young lover, and a Wall Street tycoon hoping to make her his mistress–both plots surprisingly close to home. All in all, she averaged two to four pictures per year and her star rose steadily.
By the early twenties Davies was playing more flapper-esque characters in films like the big hit Enchantment (1921). The following year Hearst would pour $1.5 million into When Knighthood Was In Flower (1922), making it the most expensive film made at the time. It was one of Davies’ genuine costume pictures, some of the others being Little Old New York (1923) and Janice Meredith (1924). But Davies was starting to prefer comedy, having a knack for timing and funny impersonations. Her turning point was probably Beverly of Graustark (1926), where she plays a student who impersonates her cousin Prince Oscar in order to protect the threatened throne of Graustark. She clearly has fun with the role, and it paved the way for her beloved comedies The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928).
While not making pictures Davies spent much time with Hearst and lived openly with him–Millicent wouldn’t consent to a divorce. At the time Hearst owned multiple expensive residences, including a 14-room beach house in Santa Monica and even a Welsh castle. But these were modest in comparison to his magnum opus, the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Designed by Julia Morgan under Hearst’s close supervision, it was an opulent 115-room mansion set amidst acres of gardens, pools and guest houses. For 30 years Hearst and Davies would be host to countless celebrities, from movie stars to royalty, often dozens at a time.
Offscreen, despite her undeniable privileges Davies turned out to be a rarity: a warm, humble and extremely generous woman much-loved by her Hollywood peers. She contributed a great deal to charity and also established the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic. Throughout the ‘30s she devoted herself more and more to both Hearst and her charitable efforts, although happily she had discovered her stutter didn’t bother her while making talkies. Her last film would be Ever Since Eve (1937), released the year she turned forty.
Powerful as Hearst had been, his business started declining in the ‘30s and Davies eventually started assisting him out of her own pocket. In the ‘40s his health also declined and he and Davies left San Simeon for Beverly Hills. She was at his side when he passed away in 1951, although for his family’s sake she tactfully didn’t go to the funeral.
While she eventually married a man named Horace Brown it wasn’t a happy union and they soon separated. Davies continued to focus on charity work, especially on funding the prevention of childhood diseases. Her long history with alcoholism contributed to her declining health in the late ‘50s and in 1961 she passed away from jaw cancer. Numerous stars attended her funeral and she was laid to rest in the famed Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
For a long time Marion Davies has been strongly associated with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), where she was assumed to be the inspiration for the untalented singer Susan Alexander. This cast a shadow on her legacy which Welles himself tried to counter, stating “she was the precious treasure of [Hearst’s] heart for more than 30 years.” Happily, that shadow has been lifting ever since Davies’ films have been made available. Steadily, and not too slowly, she’s regaining her rightful stature as a bright star and an influential comedienne of the 1920s.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.