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!