–I thought I didn’t want to go back. I thought I’d like to jump off the boat and wished the earth would open up, because I said “I cannot do sound pictures.”
While much of America was caught in the economic downturn of the late 1920s, Marion Davies’ film career was soaring. She had managed to convince William Randolph Hearst, her studio boss and real life romantic partner, to cast her in comedies instead of the heavy romantic dramas that had defined her film career up to this point. The results were spectacular. In 1928 alone Davies made three of her best films, proving her abilities as a mimic and her gifts as a physical comedienne. Silent film was still the industry norm in 1928, though the release of The Jazz Singer the previous October had called its future into question.
In the spring of 1928, Davies took a trip to Europe with Hearst and a large group of friends, including close friend Maury Paul. Upon their return, the group was to spend several days in New York before returning to California. Paul and Davies decided to go to the cinema one evening shortly after their arrival in New York, to see a film whose release had been distressing to Davies in Europe. The film was a musical, The Singing Fool, starring Al Jolson. It was a phenomenal financial success upon its release, solidifying the status of talking pictures as the future of filmmaking. As Jolson sang one of the prominent songs in the film, “Sonny Boy,” Paul looked over at Davies and noticed that she had tears in her eyes. He leaned over to comfort her, but as he did, Davies whispered in her friend’s ear the true reason for her tears: “I’m ruined. I’m ruined.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1897, her birth name was Marion Douras, the fifth and youngest child of a Columbia-educated lawyer who had a penchant for taking cases he couldn’t win. She grew up lower middle class, raised primarily by her beloved mother, Rose, along with three sisters and a brother, Charles, who died in childhood. Charles had a noticeable stutter, and shortly after his death when Marion was a toddler, Marion’s parents noticed that she, too, was developing the same condition. The stutter was never to leave her, affecting nearly every aspect of her life and becoming a distinct part of her identity.
“Mama Rose” was a doting and concerned mother, but did little to remedy her youngest daughter’s speech problems. After the loss of a son with the same condition, Marion’s stutter seemed almost a comfort to her, a reminder of what she had lost. She worried more about how her girls were going to get on in the world after they left the nest. Mama Rose encouraged her daughters in what Anita Loos called “the Gigi tradition,” to accept the advances of the older, wealthy men who came their way, with the ultimate goal of settling down and getting married to one of them. Each daughter would do this, with varying degrees of success.
By the 8th grade, Marion’s stutter proved too frustrating for school, though she was a capable athlete and her intelligence was high. She soon left and followed her eldest sister onto the Broadway stage, also following the change in last name that her sister had adopted. From then on, she was known as Marion Davies, though she would never legally change it and she remained Marion Douras on paper for the rest of her life. Davies’ bubbly exuberance and charisma ultimately secured her a place in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916 and, backstage, she entered the world of wealthy men that Mama Rose had envisioned for her daughters. Stage door johnnies flocked to the chorus girls of Ziegfeld shows, showering them with what chorus girl Elsie Janis called “coffin-like” boxes of flowers, candies, and jewelry. Davies was frequently on the receiving end of these gifts, but from the beginning she displayed a staggering generosity herself, showing little regard for material possessions and frequently giving away her jewelry and clothes to friends and family. Her entire salary while in the chorus was given to Mama Rose. Each night after work, Davies would walk into her mother’s bedroom, put the money on the bedside table and say “Here it is, Mama,” curling up beside her beloved mother before going to bed herself.
Davies’ stage door gifts came primarily from a suitor by the name of Paul Block, the publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Taking her mother’s advice to heart, Davies accepted his advances. Before long they were a couple, and Block would take Davies to parties at the Delmonico, where she charmed his publisher friends with her wit and effervescence. One of these friends was William Randolph Hearst, the legendary publisher of close to a dozen newspapers who had just begun to try his hand at filmmaking. Though Hearst was married, he had been spending more and more time away from his socialite wife, who preferred New York City’s upper crust while Hearst preferred to be around people who could have a good time. He found Davies appealing, but she was “Paul Block’s girl,” and his interactions with her were limited to the parties at the Delmonico and semi-frequent visits to the stage door at the Follies.
By early 1917, Block felt that Davies would be a welcome addition to the new crop of movie stars popping up in New York and California. She had the charm and the street smarts to make it work for herself, and Block approached his friend Hearst to ask him to finance Davies in a movie. No, he said, she was not experienced enough, and Hearst wasn’t willing to take a risk on a newcomer. So Block took it upon himself to create a film for Davies–a drama entitled Runaway Romany, written in a single night by Block’s reporters for the price of $25 plus beer and sandwiches. Circumstances around the filming of Runaway Romany proved Davies’ iron will and grit–she had to dive into the freezing Hudson River twice–but the final product was below standard. Hearst ribbed Block, saying that he was glad he didn’t finance the film, but Block convinced him to come see a preview. When Hearst saw Davies’ angelic face and big eyes flickering on the silver screen for the first time, he was captivated and hypnotized. By the time the film was over, Hearst was determined to make Marion Davies a star.
Hearst signed Davies to his newly formed Cosmopolitan Studio, where he cast her in roles similar to what he had seen in Runaway Romany–those of naive, saintly young women. Since the time of Runaway Romany’s release, Hearst had fallen almost obsessively in love with Davies, and wanted the public to see her in the way that he did. Often, the films were period pieces, with Davies buried underneath heavy, expensive costumes, overpowered by lavish sets. But even in this stifling environment, Davies’ natural comedic abilities could not be contained. It was clear to her directors, her co-stars, and everyone who knew her outside of work that Marion Davies was a comedienne, and her full potential was not being realized. But to Hearst, putting Davies in a comedy would diminish her worth. She did as Hearst told her, more for his sake than for hers. She had fallen in love with him, too.
Marion Davies relaxes on the set of The Red Mill (1927)
After eight years of this kind of monotony in her work, Davies became restless. She desperately wanted to play a “modern girl,” and began to take steps to make that happen. In 1926, she approached Irving Thalberg, who wrote a carefully-worded letter to Hearst asking him to let Davies branch out into comedy. Hearst reluctantly agreed, and she made a few light comedies shortly thereafter. But it wasn’t until Hearst approached King Vidor about making a film with Davies that significant changes began to happen. Hearst and Davies alike had been thrilled with Vidor’s World War I drama The Big Parade, and Hearst wanted Vidor to make a drama with Davies. Seeing the opportunity before him, and aware of her desire to play a funny, modern woman, Vidor insisted on making a comedy with Davies instead. Due to Hearst’s respect for Vidor’s talent and vision, he gave the go-ahead and The Patsy began filming in late 1927.
The Patsy was unlike anything that Davies had done before–it allowed her free rein to express her comedic abilities and she shines brightly in it, evoking the type of screwball comedy that we have come to associate with Carole Lombard and Lucille Ball. Watching the film, it is clear that she is enjoying herself immensely, imitating the stars of the day with devilish accuracy.
King Vidor directs Marion Davies on the set of The Patsy (1928)
During the filming of The Patsy in October of 1927, the film industry was hit with a wallop as The Jazz Singer, the first film with a synchronized music and dialogue track, was released in New York. It was unclear what kind of an impact it would have–whether it would be a passing phase, or whether talking pictures would be the future of filmmaking. The cost of talking pictures would be dizzying. Stars and studios alike began to wring their hands over the revolution that would engulf the industry–the astronomical amounts of money that would need to be spent converting equipment, and the vocal anomalies that threatened to ruin careers.
Initially, Davies was unfazed by The Jazz Singer. She possessed a cool and happy personality, one that took each day as it came. Her stutter, she felt, would prove too much of a barrier to continue working in films if sound were to become standard. But she preferred not to think about it. She felt sound was a passing phase, anyway–as did many in the industry. She finished filming The Patsy and followed it with Show People and The Cardboard Lover. Each was a smashing success, and Davies was at the apex of her career.
But while vacationing in Europe, Davies heard about the triumphant release of The Singing Fool and realized that sound had indeed come to the movies for good. She now began to panic. “I thought I didn’t want to go back,” she recounted later. “I thought I’d like to jump off the boat and wished the earth would open up, because I said ‘I cannot do sound pictures.’” The viewing of The Singing Fool with Maury Paul in New York shocked Davies back to reality. This wasn’t a passing phase, the future of film was in sound production and her career was in jeopardy. She returned home from the screening in tears, and Hearst wondered what had happened. Davies went to her room and didn’t want to speak to anyone.
“‘Sonny Boy’ got her down,” Paul told him.
Hearst went to talk to Davies, and assured her that they would do everything in their power to ensure that she would continue to be a success, that she would be comfortable in sound, and that her screen career would go on. Soon, speech coaches started coming to work with Davies nearly every day, to try to build her confidence around her voice to prepare for her screen test. These were dramatic dialect coaches, not speech language pathologists, and they did not understand Davies’ disorder. Every day the sessions ended in frustration. A peculiarity in the situation is that like many with Davies’ condition, she did not stutter when she sang, read in an accent, or recited memorized lines. The issue seemed to lie not in Davies’ fear of stuttering, but rather in her self-consciousness around her voice itself.
The day for her screen test came, and Davies was convinced that she had failed. Distraught and depressed, she returned home from the studio and faced her waiting sisters. “Don’t ask anything, don’t talk to me, please,” she told them. “I’m going to sleep and I hope I never wake up.” The following day, however, she received a call from the studio. The stutter was a bridge that they would cross later, but the timbre of her voice was perfect for talking pictures. It had registered beautifully on the dialogue track, and Davies’ low alto with just a hint of a singsong quality to it accentuated her natural charm. She had a chance after all.
Following several false starts and shelved films, the first time audiences heard Davies’ voice was in song. She sang a number called “Tommy Atkins” in Hollywood Revue of 1929, and followed that with Marianne, where she spoke in a French accent throughout the film. She never stuttered once, and her charismatic presence lit up the screen in fifteen sound films. In spite of her speech difficulties, Davies became one of the few silent film stars able to make a seamless transition to talking pictures.
Davies’ sound films were not always easy for her. She still feared her voice, and was never fully able to replicate the fearless humor that had become her trademark in the silent era. Her sound performances are sometimes stilted, punctuated by odd mouth movements that the speech coaches had taught to her. Nonetheless, her iron determination and resolve ensured that she continued working. She tackled radio for the first time in 1934 and made a handful of radio performances over the next three years, speaking with complete fluency. The only time she stuttered was during a post-performance interview.
Davies continued working in films until 1937, when she decided to retire in the wake of financial problems that had engulfed the Hearst Corporation. Due to his wife’s refusal to grant a divorce, Hearst was never able to marry Davies, and in spite of Mama Rose’s best efforts, she had fallen in love with a man she couldn’t marry. In his final years, after more than three decades of companionship, she took devoted care of Hearst, occupying herself with sewing and domestic tasks. She kept a loyal vigil by his bedside on the night before he died in 1951.
The selflessness that Davies displayed as a teenage chorus girl continued throughout her life. Shortly after her retirement, she helped to rescue the Hearst Corporation from financial ruin with a $1 million loan, scraped together from jewelry and clothing in less than 48 hours. Years before, in 1926, Davies had seen the need for a children’s clinic in west Los Angeles, and she created one. The Marion Davies Children’s Clinic served the low-income children of Los Angeles free of charge, and every Christmas clinic children received toys and a visit from Santa Claus, and clinic families received a turkey and a bag of groceries. The Marion Davies Children’s Clinic was transferred to UCLA in 1952, and in its expansion, meaningfully, a speech language pathology department was added. In 1958 Davies dissolved the foundation altogether, gifting the university with $1.9 million to continue the clinic’s operation. It continues today as a part of the UCLA Medical Center.
In spite of their 34 year age difference, Davies only outlived Hearst by ten years. She married a family friend, a Merchant Marine captain by the name of Horace Brown, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hearst. The marriage was unhappy, but she found solace in other pursuits–philanthropy, the clinic, and real estate. After years of poor health, she succumbed to jaw cancer in 1961. Davies’ life of determination, defying the odds and advocating for her own independence, is summed up in her own words, from her autobiographical tapes recorded in 1953: “I’m the captain of my soul. Therefore, what I want to do, I want to do myself, regardless of what other people think that I should do.”