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Olivia de Havilland Lecture at Oxford and Other Classic Film Adventures in Europe

Readers, I returned to the United States on Tuesday after 2 weeks in Europe, and as my jet lag seems to finally have been conquered, I wanted to write to you about the lecture and the other classic film-related things I did while abroad. It was an absolutely magnificent trip, filled with many wonderful surprises.

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Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

My trip began in Oxford, where I stayed at Lady Margaret Hall with a side trip to Bruern, a small town in the English countryside. At Bruern I attended a lovely dinner with Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers and other guests of the lecture, one of whom happened to be a retired British Supreme Court justice. It was fascinating to talk to him about Olivia de Havilland’s case, and the differences between intellectual property law in the US and in Britain. I learned that in Britain, the press is much more legally restrained than in the United States, where the courts tend to do whatever they can to defend the freedom of the press. I also had wonderful chats with Olivia de Havilland’s daughter, Gisèle Galante Chulack, son-in-law Andy Chulack, and other fascinating people from varied walks of life. It was very intellectually stimulating, and I came away from the evening with many new perspectives on law, life, and politics.

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Flower gardens of Bruern, near the cottage where I stayed overnight.

The next day, the other guests and I returned to Oxford for the lecture. Gisèle gave a beautiful introduction, after which Suzelle Smith and Don Howarth took the podium to talk about the history of the case. Suzelle and Don are Oxford fellows, and go to Oxford every year to talk about various cases that they have argued. They were proud to show me, too, a gate in front of Lady Margaret Hall that is named for them.

They spoke about the cases that Olivia de Havilland v. FX was based on, including Eastwood v. National Enquirer and Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting, and demonstrated the legal precedents that provided evidence for de Havilland’s argument. As I have noted here before, much of the case was terribly misrepresented in the mainstream press, and huge amounts of corporate money was thrown into FX’s defense. One of the judges on the 3-judge panel at the appellate court had served as legal counsel for NBC, and before being appointed to the appellate court had worked for the same law firm that was representing FX against Olivia de Havilland. Ideally, an appellate court judge would be unbiased, but as we know, the legal system doesn’t always work that way.

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Lawyer Suzelle Smith presents the lecture.

The whole event was warm, positive, and communal. I very much felt like I was part of a family, one of dedicated and passionate people trying to advocate for truth in media and corporate accountability. I am currently in the beginning stages of a soon-to-be-determined project about the case. I’m not yet sure what it’s going to look like, but I will be sure to keep you posted as it progresses.

From Oxford I headed to London, where I spent several days exploring. I discovered that the BFI Southbank was playing Letter From an Unknown Woman during my stay, part of their series of free matinées for seniors. Well…I’m far from a senior, but I was happy to pay the nominal fee for non-seniors to attend what I consider to be one of the screen’s greatest dramas.

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Letter From an Unknown Woman tells the story of obsession and rejection in 19th century Europe, with Joan Fontaine playing a girl madly in love with a pianist, whose undying love continues into adulthood. She ultimately finds that the pianist, a charming and uncommitted womanizer played by Louis Jourdan, couldn’t care less about her. If you haven’t seen it, I would highly recommend finding a copy along with a box of kleenex. It was one of Fontaine’s personal favorite projects, and this tragic melodrama shows her acting skill to a tee–as she plays the same character from girlhood through adulthood.

I ended up being the only one there under 80, and I shared the situation with my Twitter followers, as it was simultaneously amusing and par-for-the-course. I received a reply from the proprietor of Knebworth House, Henry Lytton Cobbold, who was rather impressed at someone who would give up an afternoon in London to see Letter From an Unknown Woman. He invited me up to the house to talk about Joan Fontaine, and see some paintings of hers that were there. I decided to go for it, despite the fact that I had a train out of London the next afternoon.

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I awoke at 6 AM, arriving at Knebworth House at 8, in order to make the most of my time before heading back to London for my train. What I found was a magnificent 15th century castle, updated in the Gothic style, which has served as a filming location for such major movies as The King’s Speech and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It has also housed major rock concerts by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Henry Lytton Cobbold is the 19th generation to live there, and he is also a filmmaker and devoted Joan Fontaine fan. He knew her well from the 1980s until the end of her life, and she willed him two portraits upon her death. Those are the paintings Henry was inviting me to see.

The portraits were absolutely beautiful, and after we had seen those (and a room full of Joan Fontaine posters), we went through binders of photos, documents, and letters that Henry has in his possession. I interviewed Joan Fontaine in September of 2013, shortly before she died, and this interview was the last one she ever gave. Our mutual connection provided the fodder for much enthusiastic conversation as we pored over Henry’s collection. I could have stayed there an entire week, as we both noted–I was in my element in a way that I rarely experience.

After several hours at Knebworth House, I reluctantly made my way back to London, where I caught a train to Paris. I wanted to write about going to see a film at my beloved Christine 21 Ciné (which I call the “Rue Christine”), my favorite movie theater in the world. I spent many a homesick hour there while living in Paris 8 years ago, losing myself in My Man Godfrey and Mildred Pierce for the price of 3 euros. Sadly, though, the Rue Christine is on a summer schedule and the movies playing during my brief time in Paris didn’t grab my attention. So alas, no Rue Christine this trip. But you can read about my connection to this theater, and the other theaters of the 6ème arrondissement here.

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The last few days of my trip were spent with a good friend in the south of France. This friend is a close relative of Marion Davies, and I have become very close to her over the past few years of my research. Together we watched Lights of Old Broadway, the movie I introduced at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year. Lights of Old Broadway is a delightful comedy, one of the many early films in which Marion plays a dual role. Here, she plays actual twins, separated at birth and adopted by two very different families–one from the aristocracy, and one from the poor slums of New York. The movie showcases Marion’s skill as an actress, as she plays each twin with really astonishing nuance. One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that the character of Fely, the twin from the slums, is very much like Marion Davies in real life. Anne, the aristocratic twin, is soft and refined, but Marion still inserts just a touch of the real Marion Davies in her, too. It’s a complex interpretation, and Marion’s acting style in this movie really deserves an analysis all its own.

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I began my journey home on June 24, and finally arrived home in the afternoon of June 25. It has been a busy, classic film-filled few weeks, and I feel that there is going to be more to do than ever in the coming months. I will be sure to keep you posted on my Olivia de Havilland project, and anything else that comes of this trip.

Thanks for reading!

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Backlots at the TCM Classic Film Festival–And Lara in Attendance for SHOW PEOPLE (1928)

Dear readers, I have been keeping mum on news about the TCM Classic Film Festival until I got confirmation of some news of my own. That confirmation arrived in my inbox two days ago and was made public today…so here I am to let you know that Backlots has press credentials for the TCM Classic Film Festival, and (my own news) that I will be in attendance to introduce the Saturday night screening of Marion Davies’ Show People (1928).

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Each year, the TCM Classic Film Festival brings together classic film fans from around the world, many of whom know each other already, due to the powers of the internet. It often feels like one big family reunion, where everyone speaks the language of classic film–complete with in-depth references to Barbara Stanwyck’s pre-codes, Ann Miller’s hair, and who should have played Ashley in Gone With the Wind. Nowhere else on earth could these conversations occur at the depth at which they do at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and for many attendees, meeting others with similar interests is a rare and welcome occasion.

This is Backlots’ 6th year covering the festival. This year will be different, as my appearance at Show People means that I will be a very busy person during TCM Festival week. But I will do my utmost to bring you coverage as I have in all previous years–with a live Twitter feed and a blog post every night as I’m able.

Please stay tuned for more updates as I have them!

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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!

Happy Birthday Marion Davies (January 3, 1897)

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I have been living with Marion Davies as a subject since November of 2013.

When you write a biography, your subject stays with you 24/7, informing your interpretations of the world and of the things you see and hear. I often think about how to make a paragraph flow better, and when I read a new bit of information about an era in which Marion lived, I wonder about how to incorporate it into her story. There’s no getting around it–and with Marion Davies, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I often say that Marion Davies is the greatest subject I could have ever chosen. Many people who knew her well are still alive, and further, the first words out of everyone’s mouth seem to be “Marion was a wonderful woman.” Her kind and generous nature, as well as her fun and generous spirit, are palpable even today, 55 years after her death, and I feel like I’m the luckiest writer in the world to have her in my life.

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Marion (left) with her mother and sister Rose, circa 1904.

Her birthday was January 3, 1897, but like many actresses of her era she liked to shave a few years off. She usually gave her birthdate to magazines and interviewers as January 1, 1900, creating a digestible round number that was easy to remember. Sometimes she went further. On her death certificate, it says she was born in 1905–upon her arrival at the hospital for the final time, she told the staff that she was born a full 8 years after her actual birthdate!

Marion frequently celebrated her birthday on New Year’s Day, and often in conjunction with her nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer, who was born on December 31. But her own birthday celebrations paled in comparison to the magnificent and grand celebrations that she organized for William Randolph Hearst, the love of her life and companion for more than three decades. Marion’s own celebrations would be relatively small, and frequently tied to New Year’s Day or Charlie’s birthday. She never thought much of building herself up, and instead threw herself into the celebration of others. For Hearst’s birthday, hundreds of guests would gather at his ranch at San Simeon (today known as Hearst Castle) or Marion’s Santa Monica beach house for a grand party–circus-themed, western-themed, Spanish-themed–and while the two of them organized the parties together, the grandness was all Marion’s doing.

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At the circus-themed birthday party for Hearst, 1937.

Marion’s general attention to her own birthday was typical of who she was as a person–her modesty and lack of pretense defined her, preferring to give a party than receive one. But every year on her birthday I think about how fortunate I am to be her biographer, and how she truly embodies what Tennessee Williams once said about her–remarking on the self-involved, indulgent community that whirled around her, Williams remarked that “Marion Davies makes up for the rest of Hollywood.”

Happy birthday, Marion, I feel lucky every day to be working with her.

Research and Apologies for an Extended Absence

Readers, a quick glance at the history of Backlots tells me that I have not updated since June 10, which feels like a terrible sin on my part. I apologize for my absence, and I promise you that I am alive and have not forgotten about my blogging duties.

There is an explanation for my absence. As many of you know, for the past year and a half or so (it will be 2 years in November), I have been working on a large project about Marion Davies. I have kept it quiet on the blog until now, because I needed to gather steam for the project and do it on my own terms. But the time has come, I believe, to let you all know what I have been doing and why my blogging has been relegated to the back burner of late.

This is the first biography of Marion Davies since 1972, and she is the most wonderful subject I could have possibly chosen. Biographers have to live with their subjects day in and day out, and there is no one I would rather live with than Marion Davies. She has been nothing but a joy from the first moment I began my research, and she fascinates and amazes me more every day.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my research and the contacts I have made, and I have a great deal of support from many important people in the community. It feels like the best and most rewarding thing I have done in my life. I’ve toured Hearst Castle, spoken about Marion at festivals and events, and traveled the world to meet significant people in Marion’s life and story. Suffice it to say that I’ve had quite an adventure since November of 2013. In this post, I would like to focus on a few of the key research institutions that I have found useful in my work.

THE MARGARET HERRICK LIBRARY

The library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills has long been a mecca for film lovers. Deceptively small in size, it boasts a collection of hundreds of thousands of archival documents, photos, periodicals, and clippings from the early days of film all the way up to the present day. The Margaret Herrick Library is a public library, anyone from the public may walk in and view material, though special collections are reserved for people working on an actual project. It has nearly every book ever written on any film subject–every film book I have ever wanted has been at the Margaret Herrick–and a large digital photograph gallery accessible inside the library. If you love movies, the Margaret Herrick Library is a true destination.

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Located just steps from the United States Capitol Building, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  is a maze of rooms and departments organized by a complex color-coding system. Regardless of what you need, the Library of Congress has it somewhere in the building. I spent most of my time in the film department and newspaper archive across the hall, but also accessed the radio archive room and theater department. It is a breathtaking operation, and the archivists are some of the most helpful and dedicated people in the business.

THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

I have found some real gems here. The New York Public Library offers researchers not only a magnificently diverse collection of material, but many varied ways to find and access it. The archives with which I have primarily dealt feature both a card catalog and online finding aids, so information is easily obtained and if you uncover a new piece of information, other references to that information can be found without having to leave the library. It is a real monument to archival skill and one of my primary research locations.

UCLA FILM AND TV ARCHIVE

UCLA is renowned for its Film and Television program, so it is perhaps no surprise that its archive is top-notch. Located inside the Powell Library, researchers may view pre-selected films in viewing rooms or cubicles in a small enclave within the library using headphones for any films that may have sound (the majority of my requests have not had sound). They have home movies, rare films, television shows, and a wide assortment of clips and newsreels that are scarce or nonexistent elsewhere. Much of the work I have done at the UCLA Film and TV Archive has been the catalyst for extensive research at the Library of Congress, and it was one of my first research destinations when I began this project in late 2013.

I have been to just about every research library around, but these are especially close to my heart. I predict that the research and writing will take another few years to complete, so thank you for your patience with my blogging and I promise I will try to avoid going for a month without posting again!

See you next time!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Going Hollywood (1933)

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Readers, it has been an unusually busy month! I apologize profusely for my lack of posts over the past 2 weeks, but between various film-related projects and trying to work to fund them, I have been lax with my blogging. But I am back, and ready to dive back in with another installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive!

This week’s selection is one of Marion Davies’ (and Bing Crosby’s, for that matter) more bizarre films. With a subtly creepy plot and a completely haywire and inexplicable dream sequence in the middle of the film, Going Hollywood is a movie that confuses, amuses, and drives the audience to want to watch it again and again.

Marion Davies plays Sylvia Bruce, a French teacher who, fed up with the teaching life, decides to follow her singing idol (Bing Crosby) across the country in an attempt to get him to notice her. The problem is, he is involved with a rather frenetic French actress named Lily Yvonne (Fifi d’Orsay), who is jealous of Sylvia and feels threatened by her. Much of the movie revolves around Sylvia and Lily going at each other, and Bing Crosby plays the oblivious and helpless man in the middle.

The dream sequence of the movie is one of the strangest things I have ever seen on film, and I am so happy that it’s on YouTube. I find myself watching it constantly, because it is so delightfully nutty that I can’t get enough. Here are some things to watch for:

  • The scary dancing scarecrows
  • The words PINK PILLS written on the roof of the barn
  • The gigantic daisies moving in unison

Without further ado, I give you “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines.”

Off the set, Marion Davies was known for her spot-on impersonations of Hollywood types. Her boss and companion, William Randolph Hearst, would often ask her to do these impersonations at parties to entertain guests and Marion would gladly oblige. This gift for mimicry became her signature around town, and was often worked into her movies both before and after sound came in. In Going Hollywood, she does a devilish impression of Fifi d’Orsay that is a real testament to her talent. I am sad to say that it is not online, but this is another reason to see the movie. It is brilliant.

Marion and Bing Crosby got along well, and often clowned together and pulled good-natured pranks on the set. A problem, though, was the fact that they were both predisposed to alcoholism and this took a toll on both of them during production. There is a moment during “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines” (the “Farmer Doakes” bit) where I suspected for a time that they had been drinking. However, a few months ago, I was lucky enough to hear some outtakes from “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines,” in which Marion flubs a line and reacts alertly, professionally, and soberly. She repeats the scene and nails the line, adding jokingly at the end “Can I go home now?” 100% Marion. I am now of the opinion that that scene was done without the influence of alcohol.

If there is one reason that this movie should be seen, it is for Bing Crosby’s beautiful, emotional, and heartfelt rendition of “Temptation.” Sung in a bar to Fifi d’Orsay, Bing gives this song meaning that I have never heard before. If you are a Bing Crosby fan, this is a must-see, and it shows without a doubt why Bing Crosby was as wildly popular as he was. The man could sing like no one else, and extract subtle meaning from the most obtuse lyrics. See this movie for this scene. You won’t regret it.

If you would like to order Going Hollywood, please do so here. Despite (or perhaps because of!) its bizarreness, it is great fun to watch.

See you next time!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: The Patsy (1928)

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Hello readers! I am happy to report that following a 2-week delay in delivery, the USPS has finally succeeded in delivering my next two Warner Archive titles, and they are great ones. I will start with one of my favorite silent comedies, a great treat from director King Vidor and one of Marion Davies’ masterpieces–The Patsy (1928).

You may notice that I am going very heavy on the Marion Davies titles lately. We are lucky in that the Warner Archive has several Marion Davies films available, and I would like to review all of them for the blog.

Marion Davies is one of the most severely underrated actresses on the screen. She had extraordinary natural abilities for mimicry, physical comedy, and timing, and at times she gives off an almost uncanny Carole Lombard vibe. Indeed, in Captured on Film: The Story of Marion Davies, Kevin Brownlow states that Marion Davies could be called the first screwball comedienne, before the term was coined for Carole Lombard. Critics saw that Marion had a certain charm and a unique ability to portray zany and cunning characters, but they couldn’t attribute her style to any specific type of comedy that had come before. That style, Brownlow argues, was a sort of proto-screwball comedy.

Nowhere in Marion Davies’ filmography is this more present than in The Patsy. Marion had dabbled in comedy since the early 1920s, and always successfully, despite the misgivings of her boss and live-in romantic partner, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst wanted to see Marion in costume dramas, in roles that would put her in an elegant and dignified light, and not in what he considered to be the lowbrow world of slapstick comedy. Though many of her early Hearst costume dramas are not inherently great films, Marion had great dramatic skill and makes them work to the full extent that the material will allow her. Marion did Hearst’s bidding in terms of what he wanted for her pictures, but comedy was always her preference–and where she felt she was at her best. Hearst finally allowed her to test her comedic waters to great acclaim in The Red Mill in 1927, and finally got her wish granted in full when The Patsy came along in 1928.

Centering on the story of a young woman who is picked on by her family and tries to seduce a beau of her sister’s, The Patsy may be Marion Davies’ best film (perhaps a photo finish with Show People from the same year). She gets ample time to show off her delightful comedic skill (at one point doing wicked impressions of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri–so accurate are these impressions that one would think the three actresses were actually in the movie), and deliver some of the most unbelievable lines during a scene when she is pretending to be insane (to get what she wants from her domineering mother). One of my favorite title cards in the movie is “A caterpillar is nothing but an upholstered worm.” It is a comedy that leaves the audience laughing out loud at nearly every line.

Marion’s impersonations of Murray, Gish, and Negri were a familiar sight to Marion’s frequent party guests at Hearst Castle. Hearst, who delighted in Marion’s incredible knack for mimicry, often asked her to perform impersonations to entertain the guests at parties they gave together. Marion Davies was extremely well-liked in Hollywood, and given the fondness that the Hollywood community had for her, nearly all the stars she impersonated were beloved friends. No one was safe from Marion’s wickedly accurate impressions, and everyone seemed to delight in them as much as she did.

The Patsy was also a significant movie for Marie Dressler, who played the matriarch of the family. After 10 years of not working, Dressler returned to the screen in 1927 for several small-scale flops. It seemed as though she would remain in a career slump, until The Patsy. This was the film that singlehandedly revived Marie Dressler’s career, and after The Patsy she skyrocketed into the 1930s, becoming one of the biggest box office draws of the early sound era.

If you would like to order The Patsy, click here. In fact, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to order The Patsy. It is one of the most hilarious movies of the 1920s, and you will not regret it. This movie is also a great introduction to Marion Davies, for people who are not familiar with her work, and I always recommend this and Show People as the masterpieces in Marion Davies’ filmography.

See you next time!