Apr 14, 2016
On DVD: A Trio of Charmers Starring Marion Davies
I know it's unkind to assume that a hardworking actress is simply being herself on the screen, but I've always felt that way about Marion Davies. Perhaps it is because I knew a lot more about her personality, and her popularity in Hollywood, before I saw her in a movie. She was never going to be an acting powerhouse, but Davies was meant to perform and made for the glimmering glamour of the silver screen. She is effortlessly charismatic, playful and lovable. In a trio of new releases from Warner Archive, the actress demonstrates her charms and the development of her talents as a talkie actress.
Based on a stage play, and directed by King Vidor, Not So Dumb (1930) stars Davies as Dulcy, a wealthy young woman who means well, but drives everyone crazy. This includes her fiancé's grumpy boss, who comes to visit her country estate and nearly goes mad surviving her efforts to keep him happy. With eccentric house guests like future screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart as a lunatic golf addict and Franklin Pangborn as a melodramatic movie scenarist, there's not a chance that all will go as planned.
While Davies' ditzy delivery can be a bit too arch, she has the cadence of a screwball heroine down before anyone ever thought of such a thing. Floating around in perfect flapper dresses, her fluffy blonde bob bouncing cheerfully, she's as irresistible as she is maddening. You have to wonder if future screwball matron Alice Brady was taking notes.
There's a bit of that early talkie awkwardness to contend with: strange pauses, odd jumps between group shots and close-ups, that unsettling "sound of silence" on the music-free soundtrack. These elements can make the film feel a bit longer that its 76 minutes, but the sprightly performances help to keep things moving. The jokes usually hit the mark and there's a bit of well-executed slapstick to liven things up as well.
As I watched The Floradora Girl (1930), I kept thinking that this "Story of the Gay Nineties" featured a time period as close to 1930s moviegoers as the 1970s is today. Perhaps this is why the era was the setting for so many films in the thirties and forties. Here the period details are immensely satisfying, with gorgeous costumes and stage sets, and a funny scene with an uncooperative horseless carriage.
In a less-mannered performance than in Not So Dumb, Davies is Daisy, a showgirl who finds herself without a serious beau while her fellow performers easily snatch up rich husbands. She finds comfort in a sometime boyfriend who carts her around on a double bicycle (he's too poor and goofy to be marriage material), well-meaning friends who impede her romantic life, despite their loyalty, and her rumpled father, who in a sweet moment scratches her head when she asks him. She is pursued by playboy millionaire Jack Vibart (Lawrence Gray), but he is looking for fun, not marriage and she is in jeopardy as she falls for him.
Here Davies is at her best when she is playful and in the midst of silly chaos. It's fun to watch her sing and prance around. Despite good comedic chops, her greatest appeal is that she is simply a presence to be enjoyed. It's easy to see why she was so popular in Hollywood; her natural playful exuberance comes through on the screen. Though sympathetic, she is less assured in her dramatic moments.
There's a smattering of music and dance numbers, including a lovely two-strip Technicolor finale that is deliciously bathed in shades of pink. At moments there seemed to be a slight blurriness at the edges of the picture; otherwise the picture is clean and in good condition. The soundtrack is particularly good for an early talkie, without that low grade hissing sound so common for the era.
Davies was at her best in Peg O' My Heart (1933), which was adapted from the stage play by silent scenario superstar Frances Marion. You can see the progression she made from a roughly charming performer in the previous two titles, to a more self-assured and polished actress. Again the picture was a bit blurry in spots, and there were some scratches, but the image was mostly clean and clear.
Here Davies is Peg, a humble Irish lass who inherits two million pounds from her mother's family on the condition that she live with an elegantly snobby, but destitute British family to supposedly class up her act. Her mother has left the family long ago, and she lives happily with her kindly fisherman father. What she doesn't know is that the terms of the will also stipulate that she never see her father again.
But of course once Peg is settled in the mansion, she is the one who already has it together. She doesn't belong in this world of elitism, aimlessness and adultery. Inexplicably, she falls for the bland and rigid Sir Gerald Markham (Onslow Stevens), who is in love with the daughter of her hostess, who is having her own affair on the side. The whole film is essentially Peg's journey back to her roots.
Davies is an amusing sight in the opening scenes: an impoverished Irish teenager with perfectly-plucked brows and thick eyeliner. It doesn't matter though she's always fun to watch, doing an Irish jig, belting out a song or jumping rope with her little, white dog. It's a shame she was nearing the end of her career, because she was clearly developing her craft and she would have been a perfect star for the screwball age if only she'd gotten the right roles.
In fact, this trio of films left me with the feeling that while Marion Davies starred in some great films, she could have done so much more, perhaps with the interest of a strong director who could have created projects tailored to her strengths. While it's fun to watch her develop her skill, it's hard not to pine for what could have been had she continued.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.