Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Marion Davies Broke Into The Movies

Portrait from How I Broke Into The Movies

The best silent film actors allow the viewer to hear their voices despite the silence (and the piano); this talent makes Marion Davies one of the loudest of the era. Watching her lampoon her own image in King Vidor's superlative 1928 comedy Show People is a revelation. As Peggy Pepper she conveys naiveté, passion, humor, poignance and arrogance without uttering a sound. This becomes even more fascinating when you read her 1975 (transcribed from tape) autobiography The Times We Had. When she speaks of her time as a performer - which started on the stage at 13 years young - she remembers only how bad she was.

Even before meeting William Randolph Hearst, the man who became her benefactor, mentor, and life-long lover, Marion's career was in gear. She had always wanted to be a performer and followed in the footsteps of her older sister as a pony girl (small dancer of any age), a chorine and a Ziegfeld showgirl in the New York theatre. By 1917, she had written a photoplay called Runaway Romany; the script was directed by her brother-in-law and gave Marion her first (starring) role in pictures.

The article continues after this WORLD INTERNET PREMIERE

This is an article written by Ms. Davies for a book published in 1930 called
How I Broke Into The Movies. It contains similarly written articles by Joan
Crawford, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Al Jolson, Greta Garbo
and 53 other notable actors. Right click to open the image in a new tab.

Marion's affair with the married William Randolph Hearst was fodder for gossip columnists throughout her life. Initially it was their relationship alone and the 25 years age difference. In the early 20s came the death of Thomas Ince aboard the Hearst yacht (fictionalized in the 1997 play The Cat's Meow) and the financial success of her (Hearst produced) Cosmopolitan Pictures dramatic vehicles such as When Knighthood Was In Flower and Little Old New York. In the later 20s, Hearst and Davies were building the Santa Monica Beach House in Southern California and Hearst Castle at San Simeon in Northern California while Marion's career rose to even greater heights, financially and critically, with breakout comedy roles in Quality Street, The Patsy and the aforementioned Show People.

The full movie is on

When films started to speak, Marion was worried about her transition. She had always fought a childhood stutter - way into adulthood - and didn't think she could speak lines without it getting in the way. But she did! Although none of her sound pictures reached the classic heights of her silents, she co-starred with some of the (soon to be) biggest stars in Hollywood: Bing Crosby in Going Hollywood (1933), Gary Cooper in Operator 13 (1934), Clark Gable in Polly Of The Circus (1932), Dick Powell in the Napoleonic era semi-musical Hearts Divided (1936), Cain and Mabel (1936) and Robert Montgomery in Ever Since Eve, her last film made in 1937. (Davies is also credited as producer on many of her films, both silent and talkers.)

This clip from the 1930 musical The Florodora Girl
not only shows her comic expertise and musical
background but proves Marion was game for anything.

In 1941, a film was released that cemented a skewed image of Marion in the minds of the public for decades to follow. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane concerned the titular newspaper magnate and his no-talent wife Susan Alexander. Because it was commonly agreed that Kane was a thinly veiled version of Hearst, it came to be that Alexander must be a thinly veiled version of Davies. With a poor self-image, Marion herself undoubtedly believed the gossip.

Fortunately, Welles himself set the record straight in the foreword he wrote to Marion's autobiography. And in 1992 This is Orson Welles, a book by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich (director of the 2001 film version of The Cat's Meow) confirmed that Samuel Insull's building of the Chicago Opera House, and business tycoon Harold Fowler McCormick's lavish promotion of the opera career of his second wife, were direct influences on the Citizen Kane screenplay. Welles called Marion an extraordinary woman.

After leaving her career, Marion spent the rest of her life caring for the elderly Hearst (who died in 1951) and doing charity work. Davies had always been a very astute business woman, investing in California real estate rather than the stock market; this simple decision left her very well off and she even gave $1 million to Hearst himself at a time during the 1930s depression era when his fortunes were turning to bankruptcy.

Marion married 11 weeks after Hearst's death. It is said that Horace Brown encouraged her drinking - which was always somewhat out of control. (Hearst was a teetotaler.) Although she filed for divorce twice it was never finalized before Marion died of stomach cancer on September 22, 1961.

An odd postscript to the Hearst/Davies love story became a newspaper headline on October 3, 1993 when Marion's niece Patricia Lake died of lung cancer. Part of the decades of gossip concerned Ms. Lake who is the daughter of Marion's sister Rose. Right before her death she proclaimed that she was indeed the daughter of Davies and Hearst; Marion had told her this when she was a young girl of 11 and Hearst confirmed it on her wedding day when the couple gave her away. Although published in her obituary, the claim could never be verified and has never been commented on by the Hearst family.


The relationship of Davies and Hearst was fictionalized in the 1985 television movie
The Hearst and Davies Affair starring Robert Mitchum and Virginia Madsen.
The movie is not great but tries hard. If you're a fan of Marion it is very watchable
with Virginia Madsen turning in a charming performance. It has never been released
digitally but if you'd like a rip of the VHS tape, leave a comment with your email.
I also have downloads of the out-of-print (and unavailable elsewhere) When
Knighthood Was In Flower
, Quality Street, Marianne and several others.

More Marion Davies digital ephemera including a documentary on her life

The Brat starring Marion Davies and Joel McCrea aired
as an episode of the Lux Radio Theater on July 13, 1936.

See my Pinterest page for a slew of
pictures of Marion from throughout her life and career.

Finally, Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies was produced in 2001
and narrated by Charlize Theron. Out of print, the DVD goes for hundreds of dollars but
the documentary is available for viewing on MySpace. Watch it now before it's removed!


  1. Hi Im one of Ms.Davies biggest fans. I ran across your blog online while looking for some of her films and I really cant find many of them. I read on your blog how you would offer some of her films for download if I asked ya real nice. I would really like to see especially Quality Street and Not So Dumb. So please, please msg me back ok. I like your blog its hard to find things about Marion. Everyone should know how funny and pretty Marion Davies was. Here's my email I hope to hear from u soon.

    1. I just forward the link to your email address. Enjoy!

  2. Hi there!!I just wanna say that you blog is so great.... I'm very interested in this love story between Ms. Davies and Mr.Hearst...I would appreciate soo much if you could say where to find this movie about the affair between them...My email is if you care to answer...oh, and sorry for my english...greetings from brazil!!!

    1. I just sent you out the link, Naty. Cheers from NYC!

  3. I like your blog and this piece on Marion Davies. I've seen quite a few of her silent movies lately on TCM. I think she had a heart of gold she once said that she stayed with Hearst because he really cared for her and made her feel important. He really promoted her pictures in some ways it hurt her career. People looked more at the money behind her than her actual talent, but she was a very good actress.