Marion Davies’ 121st birthday

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Marion Davies was born on this date in 1897. She and her nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer, always celebrated their birthdays together on New Year’s Day (Lederer was born on December 31), but January 3 was the actual date of her birth.

January of 1897 is one of the warmest Januarys on record for Brooklyn, where Marion was born. The fact that she was born during a warm spell is symbolic of her life–Marion became known as one of the warmest and most tenderhearted people in the entire film colony, generous to a fault, with always a nice and encouraging word to say to the underdog. She was a vivacious, bubbling personality, with a true gift for comedy and mimicry that shone through in many of her film roles.

Marion Davies has been the focus of my life for the past 4 years. In November of 2013, I began the process of writing a biography about Marion–and have traveled the world in search of people and information relating to the life of this remarkable woman. Every moment has been a joy. A biographer lives with the biographical subject all day, every day, and I can’t think of anyone in whose presence I would rather spend my days than Marion Davies. I really like her immensely, which is a true gift for a writer.

As the book enters its final stages of completion, I will keep Backlots readers posted about its progress. In the meantime, in honor of Marion’s birthday, I would highly recommend checking out a few of her movies. Here are a few of my recommendations, with clips for each:

Show People (1928)

Probably Marion’s finest film from a technical standpoint, Show People is tightly woven, funny, and self-aware. In the clip below, you can see how Marion enjoyed herself on set, and how adept she was at using her face for comedy.

The Patsy (1928)

This is where Marion really gets to show us her stuff. The Patsy is the film that demonstrates the best of what Marion was capable of doing, and it’s a knockout. Her talent for mimicry is shown in impressions of silent stars Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. If you’ve never seen a movie with any of these stars, rest assured that these impressions are spot on.

Quality Street (1927)

Though primarily known among silent film fans for her comedic work, Marion also had a significant talent for drama. In drama as well as in comedy, she uses her face in subtle and meaningful ways, unique even for a silent actress. Quality Street is not very easily found, but if you can manage to get your hands on a copy, it’s a very worthwhile movie. Here is one of the few clips available online from it–apologies for the shots of the crowd.

The Red Mill (1927)

Marion was covered in freckles from head to toe. Normally they’re covered with makeup, but in The Red Mill, one of Marion’s most whimsical movies, we see them out in full force. This is perhaps the closest we get to the way Marion was in real life–from her au naturel makeup, to her impish, prankster character.

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

I’m sorry to say that there seems to be no clip online of Blondie of the Follies, which is really too bad, as it’s one of her greatest roles. Earlier in her career, Marion had been resigned too often to two-dimensional characterizations–due to fears on the part of Cosmopolitan and her real-life romantic partner William Randolph Hearst that the public would see her as imperfect. But here, she is finally given a meaty role, and she’s marvelous in it.

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Marion was never terribly comfortable in talkies, and as a result her screen presence in talkies sometimes reflected her discomfort. She had a significant stutter from early childhood, and speaking made her self-conscious onscreen. But a common characteristic among people who stutter is the ability to speak fluently when reciting memorized dialogue…and this was the case with Marion. She never stuttered onscreen, and had a beautiful deep alto speaking voice. So that you may hear Marion speak, I am including an amalgam of clips from her final film, Ever Since Eve (1937).

If you’d like to learn more about my project and about Marion Davies before my book comes out, visit my book’s website/my author page at http://www.laragfowler.com. Thank you for reading!

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