'Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies' is one of several documentaries directed by Hugh Munro Neely and produced by Hugh Hefner, each one spotlighting a legendary actress of silent films. Full disclosure: I've had some minor interaction with Mr Neely and I consider him a friend, so I may be slightly prejudiced in favour of this movie. But I genuinely enjoyed it.
Any appraisal of Marion Davies's life and career must necessarily examine her relationship with William Randolph Hearst. 'Captured on Film' goes to great lengths -- protesting *too* much, methinks -- in its insistence that Hearst and Davies were *not* the inspiration for the fictional relationship between Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander in 'Citizen Kane'. Unfortunately, this documentary offers a series of talking heads making that disavowal, but provides no real evidence. I wish that 'Captured on Film' had mentioned, even briefly, the two real-life couples whose relationships probably inspired Orson Welles's depiction of Kane and Susan Alexander. Jules Brulatour was an early film producer who tried to build up an acting career for his untalented mistress Hope Hampton (whom he wed secretly); their relationship strongly resembles the Kane/Alexander liaison. An even stronger inspiration was undoubtedly the life and career of newspaper publisher Colonel Robert McCormick, who built the Chicago Opera House so that he could groom his beautiful but tone-deaf mistress for a career as an opera diva. Anyone familiar with McCormick's career will realise that his life, and his relationship with his mistress, resemble Citizen Kane and Susan Alexander far more closely than Hearst and Davies ever did. It's a shame that Hugh Neely never mentioned any of this while making his argument. I predict that future generations will continue to 'know for a fact' that Citizen Kane is Hearst and Susan Alexander is Davies, and will be uninterested in learning otherwise.
This documentary features some delightful excerpts from Davies's more obscure films, but does not always identify them. We see a brief (and funny) clip of Davies walking down a street with a procession of men following her, but we're not told that this is from 'Tillie the Toiler'. We also see a brief clip of Davies with a chorus line of Coldstream Guards from 'Hollywood Revue of 1929'; I wish that this documentary had included her entire musical number from that film. More favourably, I was pleased when narrator Charlize Theron mentioned that Davies was production manager of her films: unlike Susan Alexander, Marion Davies was *not* some brainless bimbo living off a sugar daddy! Also, I was gratified that Neely and his crew got the name right for Davies's film 'The Florodora Girl' ... because that show's title is often misspelt as 'FlorAdora'.
We're shown a brief clip of Davies in 'The Red Mill', but this documentary never mentions the tremendous irony behind that film: 'The Red Mill' was directed (under an alias) by silent-film comedian Roscoe Arbuckle, after Arbuckle's acting career was ruined by the publicity-hungry Hearst. We get some sound bites from two matronly ladies who knew Davies when they were girls: these ladies are daughters of King Vidor, the man who directed Davies in some of her best films (including her best and sexiest performance, 'The Patsy'). I wish that this documentary had done more to establish the working relationship between Davies and the underrated Vidor, since he did so much to mould her career. Hearst liked to showcase Davies in elaborate costume dramas that would position her as a 'serious' actress, but Vidor recognised that Davies's true talent was for light social comedies.
I was pleased that this documentary entirely avoided a device that has been overused in several other showbiz documentaries: re-enactments of key incidents in the subject's life, performed by modern actors with their faces out of frame. Hugh Neely's documentaries often feature elaborate and imaginative visual sequences that must have been complicated to set up. We get one of those here, as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle conjoin themselves to form a head shot of Davies, which then dissolves into a publicity photo of Davies. It's clear that Neely and his crew must have done this sequence backwards: duplicating the vintage photo, then cutting up the duplicate into a jigsaw puzzle, then disassemblng the pieces. The effort involved is impressive. I'll rate 'Captured on Film' 9 out of 10. I would have rated this enjoyable documentary a perfect 10 if only it had included a brief mention of Colonel McCormick and his mistress ... the *real* inspirations for the Citizen Kane story.
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