Tag Archives: marion davies

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.

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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!

THE HAPPIEST MARRIAGE IN HOLLYWOOD: The Story of William Haines and Jimmy Shields

William Haines and Jimmy Shields with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and friends.

William Haines and Jimmy Shields with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and friends.

In 1933, a young and successful actor lost his job in Hollywood. His name had been featured in many wildly popular hits in the 1920s, and his appeal was so great that he had been one of the lucky ones to make the transition to sound. The public loved him, and his contemporaries loved him. He was a huge moneymaker at the studio. So what could have prompted Louis B. Mayer to let him go so abruptly?

Louis B. Mayer called William Haines into his office one day in 1933, to deliver him an ultimatum. He had been seen with a man, and to quiet rumors about his sexuality, Mayer wanted Haines to enter into a “lavender marriage” that would save the studio from public scandal. If he did not, Mayer would have to let him go. Haines looked Mayer straight in the eye and stated “But I am already married.” He was referring to his relationship of 7 years with his partner, a man named Jimmy Shields.

Gay classic Hollywood is a topic that is little discussed in mainstream circles, and its neglect in general discourse has led to surprise from an unaware public when they hear of the gay community’s thriving existence in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The beautiful 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet works to ease that surprise and clarify misunderstandings, and it has become essential viewing for anyone interested in the inner workings of Hollywood. But for many, the vibrant gay community of classic Hollywood remains an enigma, and many of the stars who were part of that community have sadly disappeared into obscurity.

For William Haines, the decision to allow his career to lapse was an easy one.

Born in Staunton, VA, Haines became enamored with the movies at a young age. After winning the “New Faces of 1922” contest, he traveled to Hollywood to begin his movie career, which took off the following year with his first film Three Wise Fools at Goldwyn Pictures (a studio that would merge with Metro in 1924 to become Metro Goldwyn Mayer). The studio was impressed with him, and began building him as a star. By 1926 he was an established name, and his role in Brown of Harvard (1926) cemented his onscreen persona as a young man “too big for his britches” that ultimately comes around.

On a publicity trip to New York during the same year, Haines met Jimmy Shields for the first time. It is unclear exactly how they met, but scholars believe that Jimmy may have been down on his luck, working as a prostitute on the streets of New York. Haines picked him up, telling him that he would bring Jimmy out to Hollywood to work as an extra, and soon they fell in love and were living together as a couple.

With Joan Crawford and her husband, Al Steele.

Haines and Shields were very well-liked in Hollywood, counting Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, and Gloria Swanson as close friends. They were invited to all the parties around town, treated just as any other couple would be, with no attention to their sexuality.

Haines, with his melodic and pleasing voice, made an easy transition to sound. The public still flocked to his pictures. But the country remained very religious and intolerant of “alternative lifestyles,” and Louis B. Mayer knew this. If MGM were to keep William Haines on and the public got a hold of the fact that he was in a long-term, committed relationship with a man, it could spell ruin for the studio. By this time, Haines and Shields were inseparable. They were married in everything but name, and Haines refused to give Jimmy up for the sake of his career. So he opted to be fired, and his film career was over.

This could have easily meant financial and emotional disaster for Haines and Shields. But drawing on the huge affection that their Hollywood friends felt for them, they decided to go into business together and open William Haines Designs, an interior decorating company that became very successful. They gave free decorating advice to their friends, and many became loyal clients. Joan Crawford, unhappy with the dark look of her home, hired her good friends to do a complete overhaul and transform it into a softer and more sophisticated style. Crawford was one of Haines and Shields’ oldest and dearest friends, and she called their relationship “the happiest marriage in Hollywood.”

Joan Crawford in the home designed by William Haines and Jimmy Shields.

In 1936, Haines and Shields were staying at their beach home in Manhattan when they were accosted, dragged outside and beaten by 100 members of the Ku Klux Klan, after a neighbor accused the two of propositioning her son. The accusations were wildly unfounded, and the scandal infuriated those who knew the couple well. Marion Davies, another very close friend, pleaded with her companion William Randolph Hearst to use his influence to make sure the neighbor was prosecuted and punished for what she had said about Haines and Shields. But ultimately, Haines and Shields did not press charges, and they were cleared of all wrongdoing due to lack of evidence against them.

The two continued their design business until the early 1970s. Haines’ death from lung cancer came shortly thereafter, in 1973, and after 47 years of companionship, Jimmy Shields could not go on. He slipped into Haines’ pajamas, took a bottle of pills, and wrote a note:

Goodbye to all of you who have tried so hard to comfort me in my loss of William Haines, whom I have been with since 1926. I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely.

They are buried next to each other at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.

A true Hollywood love story.

If you haven’t seen The Celluloid Closet, I would highly recommend it. It is available on Netflix, and it is a loving and informative tribute to a part of Hollywood history that is sadly and unfairly overlooked.

See you next time!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Polly of the Circus (1932)

Upon my return from Los Angeles early this morning, I was thrilled to find my Warner Archive titles waiting for me in the mail, thus allowing me to begin my new collaboration with the Warner Archive sooner than I had anticipated. I had initially projected that “Treasures From the Warner Archive” would begin in June, but I don’t see any reason for waiting any longer than necessary. So without further ado, this is the first installment in this series. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a delightful pre-Code, featuring a young Clark Gable and Marion Davies in one of her best roles–it’s a balancing act of love, passion and virtue in Polly of the Circus.

The film begins with a debate about a circus billboard in a small, conservative town as Polly (Marion Davies), the featured act in the circus, is pictured on a billboard wearing only her leotard. This offends the local townspeople and the police insist on her legs being covered, which leads to elaborate drapings over her legs on every billboard in town. Polly objects to this, and takes up her objections with the minister (Clark Gable), who ignores her and the drapings remain. At the opening night of the circus, Polly is heckled by an audience member about the billboards, which causes her to lose her focus and fall 50 feet from the trapeze.

She is gravely injured, and the minister, Mr. Hartley, takes her in to heal her. During her convalescence, Polly and Mr. Hartley fall deeply in love and eventually marry. His uncle, also a minister, objects to her marrying a circus girl, as does the church, and Mr. Hartley is stuck between the woman he loves and the ministry he has spent his whole life training for. He is left with limited options, as divorcing Polly would be a sure way to be excommunicated from the church. Polly, seeing his pain, does the only thing she thinks she can–she leaves him and rejoins the circus. Severely depressed, facing the stunt that left her injured before, she says to her friend “If I’m supposed to make it, I’ll make it.” Just then, Mr. Hartley appears below her, calling to her excitedly. He has chosen to live openly with her. She smiles broadly. “I’ll make it!” she cries, as she pulls off the stunt with perfection. She joins Mr. Hartley at the bottom of the trapeze, as the movie ends.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

I have seen a great many Marion Davies movies, and Polly of the Circus stands as one of my personal favorites. Not only is it a close examination on the timeless issue of it means to be torn between two serious life choices, but it is also a deft and clever pre-Code, with delightfully suggestive dialogue and witty double-entendres. One of my favorite lines of the movie is one in which Mr. Hartley and Polly are getting to know each other, discussing what it means for Mr. Hartley to be a minister. Polly says “Well I suppose even a minister has his moments. But of course your wife would have to sleep in the woodshed…during Lent.”

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Mr. Hartley laughs heartily at this, showing the audience that we all know exactly what she means. It is a movie that doesn’t overpower the audience, but one that leaves a rich aftertaste when the movie is finished.

Polly of the Circus is the first of two movies that Marion Davies did with Clark Gable, and this one is considered the better of the two. In 1934, Cosmopolitan Pictures (the production company with which Marion was affiliated) moved from MGM to Warner Bros., and Marion made 4 movies there before she retired in 1937. Her second-to-last film at Warner Bros. was one entitled Cain and Mabel, one for which Cosmopolitan boss William Randolph Hearst had high hopes. It was a multi-million dollar production, and again teamed Marion Davies and Clark Gable (on loan from MGM), two stars that were almost guaranteed to bring the studio a profit. However, Hearst overestimated the potential of the production, and Cain and Mabel failed to make a profit. It was a terrible blow to the studio, and its failure at the box office is tragic because, in retrospect, it is indeed a fun movie to watch. The Warner Archive has also made Cain and Mabel available on demand, and that is one that I will be reviewing in the future. Stay tuned!

But as much as I love Cain and Mabel, it is Polly of the Circus that is closer to my heart. A beautiful love story set against the backdrop of a circus is a winning combination, and the movie delivers. I am so glad that the Warner Archive has made it available, and that I could talk about it here.

If you would like to order Polly of the Circus, here is the link to its page on the Warner Archive. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment in this series, when I will talk about Barbara Stanwyck in The Woman in Red.

See you next time!

The Romantic Comedy Blogathon: EVER SINCE EVE (1937)

Ever Since Eve

For my own entry in the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, hosted by Carole & Co. and myself, I have decided to focus on a lesser-known but undoubtedly very funny comedy by the name of Ever Since Eve, made at Warner Bros. in 1937. This was the second time Marion Davies and Robert Montgomery appeared onscreen together (the first was in Blondie of the Follies five years prior) and this movie also marks the final film appearance of Marion Davies.

Ever Since Eve tells the story of Marge, a young secretary who, unable to find a job due to her attractiveness, dresses down and immediately finds employment as an assistant to writer Robert Montgomery. But ultimately when he sees, quite by accident, how she really looks, he falls for her and we are treated to a joyous and clever spectacle of mistaken identities for the remainder of the movie, highlighted by Marion Davies’ comedic talent and that of the delightful Patsy Kelly, who plays her roommate.

Patsy Kelly, a veteran character actress who often played wisecracking maids or roommates, is a gem. Though she is not referenced often, her face is familiar to the vast majority of people familiar with 1930s Hollywood because of the memorable characters she creates and the boisterous energy she exudes onscreen. Kelly has a penchant for stealing the show in any movie she’s in, and this is no exception. Her smart-aleck line delivery and almost manic characters make for a winning combination, and she has some of the best moments in the movie. Ever Since Eve was her 14th movie, and she continued acting through the 1970s in movies like Merrily We Live, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, and even appeared in the classic horror film Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.

Though by today’s standards the basic plot structure of Ever Since Eve, revolving around physical beauty as a factor in whether or not a woman was hired, might be considered rather misogynistic, it oddly doesn’t seem to matter in this film. The comedy is so sharp and the mistaken identities so expertly crafted that one gets the sense of a Shakespearean comedy of errors. The dialogue is witty and the ensemble work is masterful. Ever Since Eve is a great movie.

Despite a widespread publicity campaign, Ever Since Eve didn’t get the attention that Warner Bros. thought it would get upon its initial release. Combined with three prior Marion Davies movies that failed to live up to box office expectations at Warner Bros., this seemed to be the logical end of the line for Marion’s career at the studio. In addition, William Randolph Hearst, companion to Marion Davies and head of Cosmopolitan Productions at Warner Bros., was having severe financial difficulties. Marion thought, for the sake of her beloved “W.R.”, this would be a good time for her leave the movies and act as his full-time companion and caretaker. And that she did, devoting herself to taking care of Hearst, never leaving his side until the day he died. It is said that Marion Davies was one of the kindest, most generous people in all of Hollywood. And this act of sacrificing her film career to take care of her companion confirms it.

Marion and Hearst were together for 32 years, until his death in 1951.

Ever Since Eve is a true delight. I leave you with a fun scene.

This has been an entry in the Romantic Comedy Blogathon. See you next time!