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'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.
This reassessment of Marion Davies will make you long for the chance to see her movies, many of which are difficult to find. In every excerpt Marion Davies shines! A deft performer of the silent era, she had extraordinary range and a brilliant comic talent. She made a successful transition to talkies, but her physical expression proves she was a kind of female Chaplin. Seeing this documentary has changed my whole perspective on the Orson Welles/William Randolph Hearst controversy over "Citizen Kane"--given the depth of this great actress's talent it's no surprise Hearst fought so hard to keep "Kane" from being released. And now I wish I could have been invited to one of the fabled parties at San Simeon--what a blast they must have been with someone with a flair for joyous expression like Davies as hostess!
"Capturing the Truth: The True Story of Marion Davies" is a pretty good
documentary about the screen comedienne and mistress of publishing
mogul William Randolph Hearst. The documentary was made to dispel
assumptions that Marion is basis of "Susan Alexander," the drunken no
talent opera singer married to Charles Foster Kane in "Citizen Kane."
It goes on to tell of the love story between Davies and Hearst, with a
1951 interview of Marion's occasionally supplying interesting audio
There was definite bias toward Hearst here, saying as much that he was within his rights to attempt to stop the release of "Citizen Kane." In fact he abused his power many times and used it as a weapon. The good part about this documentary is that it shows Marion the actress and Marion the woman with recounts from friends about her sense of fun, her generosity and her devotion to Hearst. It is a good insight into the woman, into the Hearst marriage, and into the 30 years Hearst and Marion had together.
Marion was talented and hard-working - would she have become a star if she hadn't had Hearst's support - given the right opportunities, probably. If her work seems old-fashioned today, it's because that work is 80 years old. Film and film acting were in its infancy. If people appeared in the documentary that were peripheral, as one of the posters here said, it's because it was hard to find people still alive who could speak about Marion or Hearst.
As to was she or wasn't she Susan Alexander, perhaps partially, perhaps not. Hearst was obviously too sensitive about the whole project to be rational. Orson Welles said it was a compilation of tycoons, and it probably was to an extent, but there isn't any doubt with Xanadu, the publishing, etc., that it relied heavily on Hearst.
Welles was a 24-year-old boy who came from radio and the New York stage to make "Citizen Kane," and Marion Davis at the time hadn't made a film in 4 years. Certainly it was well known that Hearst put the power of his publishing business behind her - to some people, that may easily have translated into thinking she had no talent. Frankly, I don't think that notion started with Citizen Kane. What Hearst was most upset about was that Susan Alexander was a drunk, and Marion had a drinking problem. That surely was put into the script to make the character more interesting. There was nothing of Marion's personality in Susan, and people who knew anything about her at all certainly recognized that at the time. Welles may have taken an idea that was floating around in the ozone and created a whole different scenario with it - modeling it, in fact, on Robert McCormick, a publisher who built the Chicago Opera House to promote his untalented girlfriend as an operatic star. It is sad that it remains a pervasive rumor that Susan is Marion - alas, sometimes rumors have more longevity than fact.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Marion Davies is a highly misunderstood and controversial actress.
While "Citizen Kane" did unfairly vilify Marion Davies (as it pretty
much described her alter ego as talentless), she was nevertheless NOT a
brilliant actress--particularly in her later sound films like "Cain and
Mabel" and "Operator 13"--films which just about every critic hated and
fans avoided like the plague. Now she had some very good films (I love
"Show People")--but there is still lots of contention about her talents
as an actress. This controversy is pretty obvious when you examine the
scores on Davies' films on IMDb. Even her worst films have ridiculously
high scores--with a MUCH higher percentage of 10 ratings than even
great films like "On the Waterfront" (26.9%), "Singing in the Rain"
(33%), "The Artist" (22.9%), "The Godfather, Part II" (48.2%) and "Gone
With the Wind" (34.8%)! In fact, one of the only Oscar-winner for Best
Picture that had a higher percentage of 10s than 50% was "The
Godfather"--yet many of Davies' films are scored higher! With these
scores we would assume almost all of her films are simply best films
ever. Some folks obviously feel that Davies has been unfairly forgotten
and most likely have over-scored her films in some weird attempt to
'set the record straight'! Hopefully this film will set the record
straight and put her films in some context--the great, the not so great
and the bad.
Much of the first portion of the film is not about Marion's film career but about her life before films. When she met William Randolph Hearst, he had a strong desire to push her into films. It seemed like he needed her to become a star a lot more than she wanted to be one. Their living together and her numerous affairs following this were discussed in the biography rather matter-of-factly.
Marion's silent films mostly consisted of comedies. For the most part, these are by far the best films of her career. They were fun and hold up well today. However, while she was in her element here, Hearst wanted folks to take her more seriously and pushed her to broaden her appeal--and with very mixed results. He also pushed her into romantic roles later in life when she simply was too old to pull off these younger roles. In fact, Hearst's 'assistance' often hurt her career as much as it helped her. Yes, he financed her films and his newspapers gave the films glowing reviews, but after a while the public started to avoid her films and Davies dealt with this by drinking heavily. Mostly, this is evident in her later films--the talkies.
The final portion of the film is about her life after films. Her life with Hearst, his death, her later marriage to Horace Brown and her 'niece' were all discussed in the biography. It's mostly pretty melancholy--and a bit tough to watch. However, the overall film is quite nice--and pretty balanced even though the film didn't really discuss her flops--which gives a slightly skewed version of her career.
By the way a couple things about this DVD. First, it's nice to see the great Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow discussing his career. Considering what a brilliant man he is and how much of his life has been spent celebrating the greats of film, it adds much to support the notion that Marion is underrated as an actress. Second, one of Davies' best silents, "Quality Street" is included as a special feature on the disc.
Documentary flattering actress Marion Davies (1897-1961), who is
credited with having started the "screwball" comedy genre, and is
called, "arguably, the best female comedienne on the screen," by film
historian Kevin Brownlow. Much time is spent going over the association
of Ms. Davies with the "Susan Alexander" character in Orson Welles'
"Citizen Kane" (1941). The similarity is that Welles' "Kane" is based
on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whom Davies served as
friend and lover.
Mr. Hearst began, in 1917, his effort to turn Davies into the "Greatest actress in the world." There were years of poorly received, but richly produced motion pictures. Davies showed a flair for comedy, but was continuously put in inappropriate roles; apparently, Hearst wanted her to be a combination of Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Ironically, Davies would satirically impersonate those actresses, and others. Hearst's efforts to promote Davies were assisted by his newspaper empire. Charlize Theron is a good narrator.
With columnist Louella Parsons leading the charge, Hearst papers were mandated to deliver positive, daily reports on Davies. When there was no real "news" concerning the actress, she was reported to have simply grown lovelier with the passing day. The studio she worked for also received great publicity; and, this was particularly helpful in building MGM into the world's most successful movie studio. At MGM, in well-produced comedies, Davies became a genuinely successful "box office" star during the late 1920s.
Lost in all the publicity is that Davies' ultimate success was due to years of work. Presented by Turner Classic Movies (TCM), "The True Story of Marion Davies" emphasizes the actress as a comedienne, with very supportive film clips. Davies sexual liaisons, speech problems, and alcoholism are covered. Virginia Madsen, a Davies admirer, appears to explain her portrayal of the famous "mistress" in "The Hearst and Davies Affair" (1985). A real highlight is hearing Davies' own reflections on her life, from a 1951 taped interview; it would have been nice to hear more of this, from Davies.
******* The True Story of Marion Davies (2/14/01) Hugh Munro Neely ~ Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst, Charlize Theron, Fred Guiles
Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies (2001)
*** 1/2 (out of 4)
Highly entertaining documentary that tries to tell the real story of Marion Davies. The film starts off showing clips from CITIZEN KANE, which many feel the "Susan Alexander" from that film is the real Davies. In later interviews Orson Welles would say the only thing he regretted with CITIZEN KANE was that Davies' reputation took a hit. Since Davies left Hollywood rather early, it was this reputation that followed her decade after decade. Everyone knew her for the relationship with William Randolph Hearst rather than her acting in such gems as SHOW PEOPLE, THE PATSY and GOING Hollywood. Davies would grow up on the stage, become a comedy star in the silent era and make the transition to sound only to give it all up to take care of the elder Hearst. The documentary paints her as a very talented woman and tries to stay away from too much gossip, although the William Ince murder is discussed briefly and Davies also comments on it from a 1951 audio interview. Actress Virginia Madsen, who played Davies in a movie, gives a lot of nice comments and various historians, including Kevin Brownlow, comments on the now somewhat forgotten actress. The documentary does a very good job at giving an overview of her career and makes one want to check out her work, which is what a great documentary on someone should do. Charlize Theron narrates.
Growing up, all I ever knew about MARION DAVIES was that she was the
protégé and mistress of William Randolph Hearst and there were rumors
galore that Orson Welles based his CITIZEN KANE on the relationship
between the real life newspaper magnate and an untalented actress by
the name of Marion Davies.
When finally I did get to see a few films of Marion Davies, I remained unimpressed by her so-called "talent" as a comedienne that others refer to. Only one of her pictures, THE RED MILL, even made a favorable impression on me. The rest were mired in old-fashioned acting techniques and staging that belonged more to the silent period than "talkies". In other words, I never warmed up to Miss Davies as an actress. In sound films, there's certainly nothing special about her speaking voice or her appearance and whatever talent she had seemed minimal to me.
Still curious, I viewed the documentary to get a better overall view of the woman and her career and to see whether I would come away with a better impression. I didn't. They say she was the forerunner of the sort of beautiful, funny comedienne that Carole Lombard was. Well, I'll take Carole any day--both as an actress and comedienne.
I'm still left with the impression that MARION DAVIES was a mediocre screen personality with minimal talent and find it difficult to believe that people are talking about her as if she was a truly dazzling comic talent. I just don't see it that way.
And the documentary itself is a disjointed thing--full of film clips, still photos, audio voice-over of Davies expressing thoughts about herself and her career (bad recordings), and a few remarks by people like RUTH WARRICK and CONSTANCE MOORE that bear no more weight than feathers.
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