The 21st century has been far kinder to Marion Davies thus far than the 20th century was.
In 2001, Turner Classic Movies premiered a documentary film about her that restored her reputation as an extremely talented actress, a great star and an extraordinary woman.
And, then, several months ago, the Annenberg Foundation announced that it was making a $21 million grant to the City of Santa Monica to restore what remains of the Marion Davies estate on the beach.
Next Monday, TCM will screen the documentary again, along with two of her more memorable films, as if to secure her place in the Hollywood pantheon. It’s about time.
As Clarlize Theron, narrator of Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies, says early on, Davies’ questionable reputation was based on a film she wasn’t even in.
A headline on the 2001 TCM press kit sums up the star’s fall up succinctly: “Born in 1897. Buried in 1941. Died in 1961.”
The documentary sets the record straight — emphatically. Davies was the longtime pal and mistress of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, but she was nothing like Susan Alexander, the shrill, boozy, selfish, untalented mistress of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ masterpiece that was inspired by Hearst.
According to the documentary, Welles reportedly said the only thing he regretted about Kane was the damage it did to Davies. But the Hearst family played a role in the deconstruction of Davies, too, crediting the Hearst papers and newspapers with making a minor showgirl a star, but dismissing her as a fortune hunter.
In fact, Davies was, by all accounts, an extremely talented, beautiful, bright, witty and accomplished actress, who was, among other things, film’s first and, some say, funniest screwball comedienne.
She was also a good businesswoman who made a lot of money on her own and gave much of it away — quietly giving a hand to anyone who needed it — from stage hands to Hearst himself. In 1937, when Hearst was broke and on the verge of losing everything, Davies wrote him a check for $1 million.
The late playwright Tennessee Williams is quoted as saying that Marion Davies made up for the rest of Hollywood.
Nearly everybody in Hollywood was crazy about Davies. MGM’s head of production Irving Thalberg, the era’s leading screenwriter Francis Marion and director King Vidor were among Davies’ most ardent fans. She made three movies with Vidor, and one of then, Show People, is generally regarded as a masterpiece.
Marion Cecile Douras first appeared on stage when she was 16. When her sister took the name “Davies” from a shop sign, Marion changed her name, too. When she met Hearst, she was 19 and he was 53, and they were together for the rest of his life.
When they moved to California, he bought a house in Beverly Hills and commissioned Julia Morgan to build Davies’ estate on the beach. It had 118 rooms, cost $7 million and was called “The Versailles of Hollywood.”
Later, she helped Thalberg’s wife Norma Shearer design their house, which was just down the beach from Davies’.
She made nearly 50 films and made her last film in 1937, retiring to spend more time with Hearst, whose health was failing. He died in 1951. Davies died a decade later, leaving an estate of $8 million. She sold the beach house in the mid-1940s for $600,000.
Co-written and produced by Santa Monica resident Elaina B. Archer, the documentary combines archival film clips, interviews and home movies to explore Davies’ life and work.
The video also includes Davies’ brilliant performance in the rarely seen classic Quality Street.
Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies was directed by Hugh Munro Neely, and written by Neeley, Archer and John J. Flynn, and produced by Timeline Films in association with The UCLA Film and Television Archive.It will air on TCM Monday, April 25, at 4:30 a.m. and will be preceded by a screening of Show People at 3 a.m. and followed by Blondie of the Follies at 5:30 a.m.