History has been uncommonly cruel to Marion Davies, the vivacious star who graced the silver screen from the silent era through the late 1930s. Many film scholars have rudely dismissed her as lacking talent and too many people have mistaken the egregious caricature from “Citizen Kane” as being a genuine representation of the lady and her skills. The long absence of Davies’ films from retrospective reappraisal further clouded her name, demoting this once-stellar personality to near-footnote status.
Mercifully, the superior documentary “Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies” rescues the star’s reputation, both on-screen and off-screen, with a stylish presentation of Davies’ extraordinary biography plus an intoxicating line-up of scenes from her rarely-revived movies. What emerges in this film is astonishing: a representation of Marion Davies as an immensely talented actress and a portrait of a woman of peerless sincerity and generosity.
Brooklyn-born Marion Davies first came to attention in the mid-1910s as a performer in New York’s musical theater. She caught the eye and then won the heart of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who bankrolled her career in films from her 1917 debut “Runaway, Romany” to her 1937 swan song “Ever Since Eve.” Davies’ detractors have long bitched that her stardom would never have occurred without Hearst’s millions. However, the evidence presented in Davies’ film performances clearly discounts this claim–whether through Hearst’s backing or from other sources, Davies was clearly meant for stardom.
Unfortunately, Hearst’s preference for somewhat soggy romantic drama initially kept Davies in a series of extravagant weepies such as “When Knighthood Was in Flower” (1922) and “Beverly of Graustark” (1926). Yet if these films failed, it was not by Davies’ doing. In fact, her great beauty and natural charm buoyed these dramas and offered Davies the opportunity to essay a wide degree of versatility, and later drama including the forgotten classic “Quality Street” (1927) served irrefutable proof that Davies was equal to the challenge of any excellent dramatic script.
However, Davies was best in light comedy and “Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies” provides a surplus of evidence which reaffirms her place as one of the true great comediennes of the cinema. Films such as “The Patsy” and “Show People” (both from 1928) offered Davies the chance to present her peerless gifts of mimicry and physical comedy. Whether playing a vivacious flapper happily breaking societal protocols or taking a wild spin as a star-struck girl trying to crash Hollywood, Davies had an amazing sense of comic timing matched with a natural charisma that made her a natural for the screen. At a time when women were not being presented as comedy stars, Davies was the rare exception and earned the designation as being the sole funny lady among the clowns of the late silent era.
The coming of sound to motion pictures should have seen the end of her career, for Davies spoke with a slight stammer that became pronounced when she was under stress. But the actress worked intensely and emerged into talkies without a trace of this speech defect. In fact, her sound films further enhanced her versatility, offering her multiple chances to display rich dialect mastery in films like “Marianne” (1929) and “Peg o’ My Heart” (1933) and to stand as an equal in song with the likes of Bing Crosby in “Going Hollywood” (1933).
To its credit, “Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies” downplays the sensationalist nature of Davies’ long romantic relationship with the married Hearst (his attempts to gain a divorce in order to marry Davies were aborted when he balked at his wife’s demand that she receive ownership of his beloved Cosmopolitan Magazine). Unlike the bitter caricatures of Hearst and Davies portrayed in “Citizen Kane” of the megalomaniacal tycoon and the shrill floozy, the couple had a deep love and affectionate emotional bond which transcended trying circumstances for both of them, including Davies’ long-running and tragic bout with alcoholism and the financial fraying of Hearst’s publishing empire (which Davies single-handedly saved in advancing her lover the millions needed to stay in business). Following Hearst’s death, Davies devoted herself to charitable work and her immense generosity in philanthropic gifts is a testament to her boundless love of life.
“Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies” is the rare show biz documentary which leaves the audience enriched with new knowledge and a greater appreciation of a celebrity’s world. In restoring Marion Davies’ reputation and bringing her amazing work back into view, the film provides an invaluable rescue to one of the finest stars from the golden age of movies.