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It is 1774, the eve of the American War of Independence. Janice comes from a Tory household. She cavorts with American and British alike, is pursued by Charles Fownes, patriot and friend of General Washington. Fields is a comic, drunken British sergeant. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
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A grand historical epic with the wrong actress in the lead.
It's been said that some film failures gain a charm as time passes; this is certainly true of JANICE MEREDITH, a mammoth film enterprise mounted by William Randolph Hearst in 1924 and starring his mistress Marion Davies. Davies was a first class comedienne, and why Hearst so misguidedly tried to push her stardom onto the public in vehicles that were completely ill-suited for her is one of the great Hollywood mysteries. JANICE MEREDITH is almost enough to make one believe in the CITIZEN KANE inspired legend regarding the Newspaper tycoon and his first love. One can almost envision Davies standing amid the hundreds of extras yelling: "Please Willie, just let me be funny. Forget spending the money!" Sadly, the message never got through to him. As it stands, JANICE MEREDITH is a huge, jumbled, blob of a white elephant that only proves once and for all that for Davies to shine, less was definitely more.
The previous year, Davies made another picture: LITTLE OLD NEW YORK. The film was a success with the critics and public. But if that film just barely managed to skirt a fine line between comedy, romance, and period epic, then JANICE MEREDITH is another matter entirely. The film was long believed lost until a print re-appeared in England several years ago (in fact, all the prints I've seen carry the film's British title of THE BEAUTIFUL REBEL). Watching the surviving print, which is in beautiful condition, you get the feeling that Hearst decided NEW YORK was a success for every reason except Marion Davies! In this Revolutionary War romance, we are treated to lavish re-creations of New Jersey plantations, Philadelphia ballrooms, and Parisian palaces (Joseph Urban's art direction is outstanding). We witness Paul Revere's ride, the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Trenton. George Washington crosses the Delaware and Harrison Ford (no -- not that one) saves the country. It all looks spectacular, and it ought to: Hearst shot the works for this film and in terms of sheer spectacle, there are parts of JANICE MEREDITH that rival any other film of the era -- including INTOLERANCE and NAPOLEON. Money is everywhere, and director E. Mason Hopper does an admirable job of making sure every bit of it shows on the screen, but where is Marion Davies amid all this historical hoopla? Beats me. You'll have to go a long way to find another film that's so un-suited to its star's talents. In the first few minutes of the film, there are dim traces of her comic touch, but it's soon overwhelmed by the plot and all we get is spectacle, spectacle, spectacle that lumbers on for a staggering two hours and twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Marion Davies was one star who could never be at her best in a spectacle. Her talents were always small scale, and against a normal background her subtle and humorous nature shined. Not here. There's so much going on in JANICE MEREDITH that Davies practically becomes a supporting player in a film that was supposed to be designed to showcase her talents. I swear, the aforementioned Harrison Ford, her leading man and love interest, has more screen time.
Because of such lopsided priorities, the end result in JANICE MEREDITH is little short of a grandiose misfire, and very close to a spectacular disaster. And yet, once one has adjusted to the mind boggling ineptitude of the conception, there's a lot of pleasure to be found in watching this gold-plated Titanic go down. It's the film equivalent of the Taj Mahal: a grand, empty monument to one man's love for a woman. An audience today probably couldn't even begin to understand the emotion that inspired it: we're left with an object that's baffling, mysterious, yet strangely inspiring. Maybe it is all wrong, but it aspires to nobility, actually believes in its greatness, and marches forth with a sincerity that is overwhelming. You can't help but get wrapped up in its woozy, drunken, grandiosity. And in truth, there are five whole great minutes in JANICE MEREDITH, which occur about an hour into the film when Davies attempts to secure the release of Ford by flirting with a drunken British officer, played by none other than W. C. Fields. It was his first appearance in a feature film, and the great icon is already completely formed. Davies' eye flutters vs. Fields' inept bungling succeed in raising JANICE MEREDITH -- however briefly -- to something approaching true grandeur, and once again proves that Davies real talent was as a comic (and it was only the best who could hold their own against Fields). That her talent went so largely unexploited is one of those tragedies that will forever be a blot on the names of William Randolph Hearst and Hollywood. For confirmation of that talent, see SHOW PEOPLE (1928), MARIANNE (1929), and NOT SO DUMB (1930).
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