Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in Mank (2020).
By Claire Graman
Who is Marion Davies?
What role does Marion Davies, conflicted comedienne, play in Mank (2020), David Fincher’s recent film on the making of Citizen Kane (1941)?
The rise of streaming services and extended copyright laws have made old films less accessible. However, the legends of Classic Hollywood live on as a glamorous encapsulation of an era when art and commerce collided, often violently. Citizen Kane, considered one of the greatest films of all time, fits this category. Suppressed at its release due to its indictment of the wealthy, specifically newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the film is good and the man was bad.
But that’s enough about them! Today we’re looking at Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress and a talented yet conflicted comedienne still associated with her unflattering counterpart in Citizen Kane.
Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane (1941).
In Citizen Kane, an extremely wealthy and ego-maniacal man named Kane makes his wealth in sensationalist newspapers. After he runs unsuccessfully for office, he dies alone and unhappy in an absurdly large mansion. This story closely followed that of Hearst. Also, in the movie, Kane marries his mistress, Susan, a kind but untalented singer. He then attempts to use his wealth to transform her into an opera star. This fails and she becomes a miserable alcoholic, doing jigsaw puzzles and eventually attempting suicide before she finally leaves Kane. Here, the film deviates from reality.
[I take a brief aside here to note that most of my information on Marion Davies comes from the excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, by film historian Karina Longworth. I highly recommend it.]
Marion Davies as a “Ziegfeld Girl” in the 1910s.
Early life and Ziegfeld Follies
Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Davies began working as chorus girl at the age of 17 for the famed Ziegfeld Follies, a Broadway revue which launched many actress’s careers. Here she met Hearst, who she soon began dating. Hearst, 36 years her senior, invented “yellow journalism,” sensationalist, emotion-based, and often untrue news stories that nevertheless sold well. Hearst’s interests included producing films. He cast Davies as his star.
Marion Davies, Conflicted Comedienne
Davies was also interested in film. She was expressive and photogenic, and did well in silent films (she had a stutter). An example is the popular period film When Knighthood was in Flower (1922). The full film can be seen here. The best part happens about an hour in, when Davies’ character tries to disguise herself as a man and ends up getting in a drunken bar fight. Although Davies was best at comedy, Hearst found it undignified. In the 1928 film, Show People, she played a slapstick comedienne who was supposed to get hit in the face with a pie. Hearst refused to allow it, and Davies arranged for him to be away from the set while the crew shot the next best thing, her getting sprayed in the face with seltzer water. Because of this, the historic consensus is that Hearst both fostered and stymied Davies career.
Marion Davies (center) goofing around in Show People (1928).
Move to MGM
Davies eventually moved to MGM, where her films did fine. The studio, however, valued most the free publicity in Hearst’s papers. Davies and Hearst never married. Hearst and his wife were Catholic and never got divorced. Yet by all accounts, Hearst and Davies did love each other. When Hearst suffered financially during the Great Depression, Davies gave him five million dollars. She stayed with him until his death. They may have even had a secret love child together. After Hearst died, Davies married someone else after his death, unhappily. Until then, she and Hearst threw crazy parties in his ostentatious mansion with Hollywood elites, as seen in Mank. She probably felt the normal amount of existential emptiness I like to imagine absurdly rich people feel, but a far cry from the endless, lonely jigsaw-puzzling of Citizen Kane. But most importantly, she wasn’t talentless nor forced into the spotlight.
Marion Davies (center) in The Patsy (1928).
I’m most familiar with Davies’ work in the late 1920s/early 1930s, the period I studied for the origins of screwball comedy. Her aforementioned film, Show People, directed by the acclaimed King Vidor, is actually pretty delightful. It follows an aspiring slapstick comedienne who loses her roots when she becomes a pretentious, successful dramatic actor (meant to be a parody of Gloria Swanson). Co-starring the underrated William Haines, the film plays with increasingly important themes of love and personal happiness, while giving homage to classic slapstick films.
The nearly 100-year-old film isn’t technically public domain (thanks a lot Disney for messing up our copyright laws), but can be seen here. In another film, The Patsy (1928), Davies does celebrity impersonations and acts alongside the fantastic Marie Dressler. I hope to write a post on her soon.
A Complex Legacy
Other talented actors, like Kirsten Dunst in The Cat’s Meow (2001) and Amanda Seyfried in Mank (2020), well portray Marion Davies’ complex legacy. In the end, even though Marion Davies was a conflicted comedienne, she was also a good actor.
For more about women pioneers in early film, read Animation’s Forgotten Pioneer, Lotte Reiniger.