The stories former Ziegfeld girl Marion Davies told screenwriter Frances Marion about her time hoofing on the stage form the basis of the lively and often touching backstage film Blondie of the Follies (1932). The work of that sharp duo was further enhanced as scribe Anita Loos was hired to punch up the dialogue with real showgirl patter.
Paired with Billie Dove, another former Follies performer, Davies is at her most charming and touching as Blondie McClune. It's the perfect role for her, requiring a down-to-earth personality, but also giving the actress the freedom to cut loose and entertain her audience. The film is one of several newly available titles from Warner Archive which have increased my appreciation of the often misunderstood Ms. Davies.
Blondie lives with her parents and her sister's (Zasu Pitts) family in a New York tenement building. Her friend and former neighbor Lottie (Dove) has hit it big in the Follies. When the showgirl comes to visit one Mother's Day, she convinces Blondie to come spend time with her at her plush apartment. There she meets the man Lottie loves, the handsome and charming Larry (Robert Montgomery). Blondie doesn't know about her friend's crush, and when the two spend a wild night drinking and watching the Follies from backstage, Lottie is furious. She is even more green-eyed when Larry finds Blondie a spot in the show and she quickly becomes a success.
When Blondie learns of Lottie's crush, she tries to distance herself from Larry, though he isn't having it. All sorts of jealousy, and violence follow, much of it making me wonder if Joe Eszterhas watched this film with a notepad on his knee before writing his glorious trashterpiece Showgirls (1995). No one here runs off the rails talking about eating dog food though; there's a busy, chaotic tone to the action that makes it feel real. You can imagine the backstage dramas really happening, and the sight of men carrying set equipment back and forth and crumpled paper on the floor makes it feel all the more authentic.
|Davies and Dove|
Dove and Davies are a solid comic team, though it's obvious that producer, and Davies sugar daddy, William Randolph Hearst had influence over the final cut. While both actresses have the kind of faces that were meant to be carved into marble and displayed in a temple, it is Davies who gets the loving close-ups. While it is said that Dove left the movie business after this production to raise a family, you can't help but wonder if understandable frustration and envy over the attention her co-star received might have played a role in her retirement.
Of the uniformly pleasing supporting cast, James Gleason stands out as Blondie's father. He is heartbreakingly humble and salt of the earth in the midst of all the film's glamour. When he realizes he must let his daughter grow up and live life her own way, there's a sweet resignation to his acceptance. You can almost sense him envisioning Blondie as a baby and wondering how the years got away from him.
Jimmy Durante gets a prominent spot in the film's billing, but his only appearance is a performance with Davies in a brief party scene. It's a memorable bit though, a spoof on director Edmund Goulding's own hit Grand Hotel (1932) in which Durante is John Barrymore and Davies plays Garbo. I thought it was a clever way to incorporate the actress' talent for impersonations into a film. I'm guessing that skill was typically relegated to being a party trick in her real life.
Overall it's an interesting take on the life of a show girl, though who knows how much of it is actually on the level. Perhaps the most fascinating element of the film is that while Blondie's relationship with Larry is given a lot of weight plotwise, it is her connections with Lottie and her father that seem to hold the most meaning for her. In fact, Blondie only truly gives herself to Larry when those bonds are no longer able to sustain her. It's an unusual comment on movie romance, and you wonder which of the film's authors thought to present those relationships in that way.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.