Lindsay is a working actress and honors graduate of Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre: Film/TV.
Who Was Marion Davies?
Marion Davies was one of the rare silent movie stars to make the successful transition into the talkies. A talented comedienne, she was once credited as a major influence on the legendary Lucille Ball. Unfortunately, Marion's real-life story has often overshadowed her acting career in the public mind. For better or worse, she is best remembered today as the long-time paramour of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and the hostess of Hearst Castle's famous parties.
Hearst actually created his production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, with the primary intention of using it to produce films for Marion. However, it is often debated whether Hearst's interference ultimately helped or hindered Marion's film career. Marion easily excelled in comedies, but Hearst much preferred "more dignified" costume dramas, and it is a shame that she couldn't showcase her comedic talents more often than she did.
But, the biggest blow to Marion's onscreen reputation was the film Citizen Kane. The talentless fictional wife of Charles Foster Kane (a character partly based on Hearst) is often mistaken as an avatar for Marion. In fact, this was not the intention of either of the film's screenwriters (Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz), and both men deeply regretted inadvertently damaging Marion's acting legacy. More recently, Marion Davies has gotten some renewed attention thanks to Amanda Seyfried's performance in the 2020 Netflix film Mank, signaling that it may finally be time to shift the focus to Marion's actual film career.
You'll find a mix of silent films, talkies, comedies, and even a couple of those costume dramas Hearst loved so much on this list. Also, keep in mind that although you may occasionally find copies or clips of some of Marion's silent films without any background music, no silent film is actually meant to be watched in complete silence. So if you do try to watch a copy that is missing its soundtrack, feel free to turn on an album of your own to help enhance your enjoyment.
A Note on This List's Order
I chose the order of my Marion Davies top 10 by considering each film's importance in Marion's overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today, as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes.
Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top 10). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your movie tastes.
Top 10 Marion Davies Films
- Show People
- The Patsy
- The Red Mill
- Page Miss Glory
- Cain and Mabel
- When Knighthood Was In Flower
- Polly of the Circus
- The Bride's Play
- Blondie of the Follies
1. Show People (1928)
The only possible choice for the number one spot, this silent comedy is the first (and so far only) film of Marion’s to be added to the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. If you’re nervous about jumping into silent films, Show People is the perfect one to start with.
It stars Marion as Peggy Pepper, a young aspiring actress who, accompanied by her father, has driven from Georgia to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a movie star. Getting into the movie business proves to be a little harder than she expected, but she catches a break when she meets working actor Billy Boone (William Haines). Billy offers to help Peggy get her first onscreen role by securing her a small part in the movie he’s currently working on.
However, Peggy has second thoughts when she realizes that Billy only works in slapstick comedies rather than the artistic dramas she’s always dreamed of doing. Simultaneously a send-up and a tribute to silent era Hollywood, Show People was actually released a year after The Jazz Singer ushered in the birth of the talkies. In fact, this entertaining comedy was one of the last silent films to be a major box office hit.
Scenes taking place at the comedy studio where Billy works were all filmed at the original Mack Sennett Keystone Studios, known for their iconic Keystone Cops film series. The studio lot was actually demolished shortly after filming ended. Appropriately, Show People features cameos from several major silent era stars, including John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin (appearing as himself rather than his famous “Little Tramp” persona).
The film’s director, King Vidor, also makes an onscreen appearance. Even Marion makes a quick cameo as herself (despite the fact that her character, Peggy Pepper, makes it quite obvious that she is not a big Marion Davies fan).
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2. The Patsy (1928)
Co-produced by Marion herself, this silent screwball comedy was the first of three films Marion would eventually make with director King Vidor. Based on the Broadway play by Barry Conners, the film helped to prove Vidor’s skill as a comedy director after becoming primarily known for directing heavy dramas.
Marion stars as Patricia “Pat” Harrington, the neglected youngest daughter of a domineering mother (Marie Dressler) who focuses most of her attention on her self-absorbed older daughter, Grace (Jane Winton). Pat harbors a secret crush on Grace’s boyfriend, Tony Anderson, but has so far had no reason to believe that Tony will ever reciprocate her feelings.
That all changes when Tony discovers that Grace has been cheating on him, and Pat quickly realizes that this might be her window of opportunity to shift Tony’s attention over to her. So, in an attempt to become as attractive and seductive as her sister, Pat does everything in her power to develop “a personality” to finally win her dream guy’s affections. Pushing her comedic talents to the limit, Marion is delightful as Patricia.
One of the film’s highlights is when Pat does her impersonations of silent actresses Lillian Gish, Mae Murray, and Pola Negri to great comedic effect. The Patsy also served as a major comeback film for Marie Dressler, who had been experiencing a long career slump. Once The Patsy was released, she found renewed success and would continue to thrive past the silent era. Dressler would remain a top box-office star right up until her death in 1934.
3. The Red Mill (1927)
Based on the operetta by Victor Herbert (the composer of Babes in Toyland), this silent comedy stars Marion as Tina, a poor servant girl working in a pub in Holland called the Red Mill Tavern. Tina is immediately smitten when a handsome foreigner named Dennis Wheat comes to town. But, although Tina does succeed in meeting Dennis, she’s dragged back to the tavern by her cruel boss before anything can happen between them.
So, Tina is left to fantasize about her beloved Dennis in the hopes that he may return to Holland again someday, all the while knowing that he doesn’t even remember her. However, Tina may still get an unexpected chance to catch Dennis’ eye again when she decides to help her friend, Gretchen, get out of an arranged marriage.
Hilariously, the main plot of the original Red Mill operetta is turned into the subplot for this adorable silent comedy. Although billed as William Goodrich, The Red Mill was directed by former silent comedy star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. A few years earlier, Arbuckle had suffered a career-ending scandal when he was accused of the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe.
Even though Arbuckle was found to be innocent (even receiving an unprecedented written apology from the jury), his reputation never recovered, and Hollywood essentially blacklisted him. It was only through the help of friends that Arbuckle was able to quietly adopt a career behind the camera under the Goodrich pseudonym.
Producer William Randolph Hearst also hired an uncredited King Vidor to act as an overseer/babysitter for Arbuckle. Vidor found the situation a bit awkward but would later state that Arbuckle handled it all well. Naturally, Marion was the one who had suggested Arbuckle for director to Hearst. Ironically, it was Hearst’s newspapers that had been some of the most vicious in destroying Arbuckle’s reputation in the first place.
4. Page Miss Glory (1935)
Based on the play by Joseph Schrank and Philip Dunning, Page Miss Glory is the first of four films Marion made at Warner Bros. after ending her long professional association with MGM. She plays the role of Loretta Dalrymple, a naive country girl who fulfills her dream of living in NYC by working as a maid in an upscale hotel.
While working at the hotel, she happens to meet professional con men Click Wiley and Ed Olsen. The two men have been staying at the hotel for some time but are quickly running out of money. In an attempt to win enough money to pay their bills, the two con men enter a national beauty contest by submitting a composite photograph of Hollywood starlets under the fake name Dawn Glory.
When their plan works and Dawn Glory wins the contest, the press insists on meeting the lovely Dawn in person. To solve this new problem, plain little Loretta gets pulled into their scheme to become the fictitious Dawn Glory. Although Loretta doesn’t care much for fame, becoming Dawn Glory does have the potential of giving her a real chance with her crush, Bingo Nelson (Dick Powell), a famous pilot who has already announced his affection for the beautiful Dawn.
Unfortunately for Loretta, her possible relationship with Bingo is not very high on Click and Ed’s priorities. Warner Bros. bought the rights to this fun screwball comedy specifically for Marion, and it’s easy to see why. Few actresses of the studio era could have pulled off the extreme transformation from the plain Loretta to the gorgeous Dawn Glory quite as easily as Marion does.
Page Miss Glory also marked the first time Marion got a chance to work opposite Dick Powell, her real-life celebrity crush. Powell was very aware of Marion’s attraction to him and kept a safe distance from her off-screen to avoid possibly angering a jealous William Randolph Hearst.
5. Cain and Mabel (1936)
A sound remake of the silent film, The Great White Way, this fun romantic comedy stars Marion opposite the legendary Clark Gable. It features Marion in the role of Mabel O’Dare, a poor waitress who, by pure luck, ends up becoming the star of a Broadway musical.
When box office sales for the show begin to fall, press agent Aloysius K. Reilly pitches the idea that a high-profile romance between Mabel and another celebrity might build publicity for the show. The perfect choice seems to be the current Heavyweight Champion of the World, Larry Cain. Even though Larry always wins his fights, his popularity with the general public has plateaued, so extra publicity could help boost his box office sales as well.
Unfortunately, Mabel and Larry have already met before and absolutely hate each other. However, at the urging of their managers, they both agree to move forward with this fake romance in the hopes of saving their careers. Although not a fully-fledged musical, Cain and Mabel does include a couple of elaborate Broadway sequences, and the film’s few musical numbers caused a lot of difficulties.
One in particular (“A Thousand Love Songs”) required the set to be lit by 600 arc lights, which brought the temperature up to 110 degrees. Marion trucked in over 100 lbs of ice to make the set slightly more bearable for everyone but would later say that the chorus girls were still fainting “like dead flies”. The initial designs for the Ziegfeld Follies-style numbers also required a larger set than any typical soundstage could hold. So (at the request of Marion and funded by Hearst), the Stage 16 sound stage on the Warner Bros. studio lot was raised to 98 ft to accommodate the filming.
Stage 16 is still in use on the WB lot today and remains one of the tallest sound stages in the world. Cain and Mabel would prove to be one of the last films Marion would ever make. She only appeared in one more before officially retiring from the screen in 1937 at the age of 40.
6. Enchantment (1921)
The earliest film on this list, Enchantment stars Marion as Ethel Hoyt, an egotistical young flapper who is driving her parents insane with her vain antics. Her mother becomes particularly worried when she finds Ethel’s diary and reads that her daughter considers herself more irresistible than Cleopatra. This seems to confirm her mother’s worst fears that her daughter is becoming a shameless vamp.
But, the final straw is when Ethel shows up late to her father’s birthday with a group of her frat-boy suitors in tow and a present she charged to her father’s account. Ethel had, originally, promised to take her father to a production of The Taming of the Shrew for his birthday and, despite her late appearance, the group does manage to arrive in time to catch the play’s second act.
Inspired by the play, Mr. Hoyt gets the idea that his daughter might be similarly “tamed” if she gets a taste of her own medicine. He meets backstage with the play’s lead actor, Ernest Eddison, and recruits him to help pull off his plan. The idea is simple: Ernest will seduce Ethel and then unceremoniously reject her just as she does with all her lovesick college boys. Unfortunately, the plan does not go quite as smoothly as her father anticipates.
This breezy silent comedy features striking Art Deco designs and one of its biggest highlights is the gorgeous full-scale stage production of Sleeping Beauty that is shown towards the end of the film. The movie’s set designer Joseph Urban was, actually, hired specifically by producer William Randolph Hearst to design the sets for this film and all of the movies Marion would be starring in at Cosmopolitan Pictures.
Urban had previously designed sets for a number of the Ziegfeld Follies productions and would continue to do so throughout the 1920s. In 1927, he would even design the actual Ziegfeld Theatre, built specifically to house Florenz Ziegfeld’s productions.
7. When Knighthood Was In Flower (1922)
Based on the novel by Charles Major, When Knighthood Was In Flower also takes heavy inspiration from the stage adaptation by Paul Kester. But, this silent costume drama ultimately takes its inspiration from the true story of Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII of England.
In the film, King Henry wants his sister, Mary (Marion), to marry King Louis XII of France, but Mary is not interested in marrying the aging French king and harbors no desire to become Queen of France. Mary’s rebellion against this political match only intensifies when she falls for the handsome Charles Brandon.
Produced by Cosmopolitan Pictures as a star vehicle for Marion, When Knighthood Was In Flower is notable for featuring a very young William Powell in only his second film appearance, playing the villainous Francis I (heir to the French throne and King Louis’ nephew).
Known for its sumptuous sets and costumes, this film cost over a million dollars (about $1,500,000), making it the most expensive film ever made up to that point. Exteriors were even shot at Windsor Castle in England (where the real Henry VIII lived) with some additional scenes filmed in Connecticut. Marion wears 15 dresses throughout the film, which were all reproductions of gowns worn by the real Mary Tudor.
The film was massively popular when it was first released, making over $1 million at the box office when ticket prices cost less than a dollar. The popularity of Marion’s performance made her the #1 female star of the year, earning her the title “The Queen of the Screen.” Although many editions of this film are now shown in basic black and white, When Knighthood Was In Flower was, initially, color tinted. The color edition has now been restored in the film’s most recent restoration.
8. Polly of the Circus (1932)
Based on the play by Margaret Mayo, Polly of the Circus marks Marion’s first time working opposite Clark Gable. Marion plays the titular Polly Fisher, the headlining trapeze artist of a traveling circus. While performing in a small town, Polly gets distracted by a heckler during her act and ends up falling 50 ft to the ground.
The local reverend, John Hartley (Gable), transports her to his home nearby until the town’s doctor can examine her. But, once the doctor arrives, he advises against moving her any further, forcing Polly to stay with the young reverend while she recuperates from her injuries.
Over time, Polly and John begin to develop romantic feelings. Unfortunately, the church may not respond well to a reverend becoming romantically involved with a former circus performer. Like many of her later films, this sweet romantic drama was produced by Marion herself.
MGM had started planning on making a film version of the play back in 1927, with the original intention of casting Norma Shearer in the role of Polly. Clark Gable was cast against type in the role of the pious Reverend Hartley, a decision some movie fans were not happy about at the time. However, it is refreshing to see this softer portrayal from the frequently macho star.
Appropriately enough, given the film’s circus backdrop, one of the highlights of Polly of the Circus is seeing the real aerial trapeze sequences, which are breathtaking to watch.
9. The Bride’s Play (1922)
Based on the play by Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne, this silent romance marks Marion’s very first time filming in California (despite the story’s Irish setting). The Bride’s Play stars Marion as Aileen Barrett, a pretty young woman who has been courted by her stately neighbor, Sir Fergus Cassidy, for many years.
While Aileen has great affection for Sir Fergus, he is older and not very exciting, so she has always gently turned him down. Despite this, Sir Fergus has always remained a loyal friend to her. But, when Aileen gets her heart shattered by dashing poet Bulmer Meade, she finally decides to accept the loyal Fergus’ marriage proposal, and the two become engaged.
It turns out that the Cassidy family has an ancient wedding tradition called “The Bride’s Play,” during which the bride playfully asks the male guests at the wedding if they are the one she loves best before finally asking the groom (who is the only one meant to say “yes”). But, within Cassidy family history, The Bride’s Play has gone terribly wrong once before, and there’s a chance Bulmer Meade may not be as out-of-the-picture as everyone assumes.
The elaborate pageantry of this film is second to none, featuring incredible sets and striking costumes. The Bride’s Play was shot on location at Point Lobos in Monterey County, California, about 100 miles north of San Simeon, where Hearst was building his famous estate (Hearst Castle).
The most memorable parts of the film are its two show-stopping wedding sequences, one set in the contemporary 1920s and the other in medieval times. Watching the differences and similarities between the two time periods as they perform the same ceremony is genuinely fascinating.
Marion also gets the chance to play medieval maiden Enid of Cashell during the movie's medieval sequences, whose Bride’s Play for Sir Fergus’ ancestor did not play out as expected.
10. Blondie of the Follies (1932)
This dramedy stars Marion as the titular Blondie McClune, a vivacious lower-class girl living in a crowded Long Island apartment with her family. Blondie’s friend, Lottie Callahan (Billie Dove), used to live in the same building but now lives and works uptown as a Follies showgirl, going by the more sophisticated name of “Lurline Cavanaugh.”
When Blondie visits “Lurline” for the first time, she is dazzled by the upscale lifestyle and decides she’d like to join the Follies as well. Blondie also becomes interested in Lurline’s rich friend, Larry Belmont (Robert Montgomery), not fully realizing that Larry is Lurline’s boyfriend and meal ticket. This naive misunderstanding stokes a bitter jealously and insecurity within Lurline that will only get worse as time goes on.
Probably one of best scenes in Blondie of the Follies features a heartbreaking performance from actor James Gleason as Blondie’s father. In the scene, he shows his loving support for his daughter’s new career in the Follies, despite knowing that it will lead her to a life very separate from his own.
This film was written by celebrated screenwriters Frances Marion and Anita Loos (Loos is best remembered today for her novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Both screenwriters were good friends with Marion, and the film parallels some of Marion’s early life as a native New Yorker and Ziegfeld Follies showgirl.
Behind the scenes, Hearst insisted on the removal of some of the more unsavory episodes in the original script, but some elements still remain (such as, the sleazy producers who offer Lottie her first job as a burlesque dancer).
Honorable Mention: Quality Street (1927)
I decided to choose Marion’s last silent “costume picture,” Quality Street, for my honorable mention. Set in the 1800s, this silent romance was based on the play by J.M. Barrie, who is best remembered today as the author of Peter Pan. Marion stars as Phoebe Throssel, a young woman who hopes to marry the man who has been courting her, Dr. Valentine Brown. However, instead of proposing, Dr. Brown enlists in the military to fight in the Napoleonic Wars.
By the time the now-Captain Brown finally returns, 10 years have gone by, and Phoebe is no longer the blushing young thing she used to be. Sensing his disappointment in her current appearance, Phoebe creates a fictional younger and more flirtatious version of herself, whom she dubs “Livvy.”
Once her disguise is complete, “Livvy” re-introduces herself to Captain Brown as a supposed niece of Phoebe’s to test how her former suitor will react to this transformation. But, Phoebe failed to consider what exactly she’s going to do if Captain Brown really does choose the fake Livvy over her.
Although Marion earned glowing reviews for her performance in Quality Street, the actual film disappointed at the box office at the time, earning the lowest gross of any of Marion’s MGM films. That said, the film still managed to earn a profit, demonstrating just how popular Marion’s films were. Quality Street would later be remade as a talkie in 1937, this time with the iconic Katharine Hepburn in the role of Phoebe.
If you would like to learn more about the vivacious Marion Davies, I recommend reading Marion’s own autobiography, The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst (1985), as well as, the book Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies (2022) by Lara Gabrielle. Or if you're a fan of historical fiction, you might like to check out the 2022 novel Blue Butterfly: A Novel of Marion Davies by Leslie Johansen Nack.
© 2021 Lindsay Blenkarn
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on March 14, 2021: