The further we get from the silent film era and classic Hollywood, the more its figures become shrouded in a mythology that romanticizes but obscures who they really were. Stars who meant everything to cinema a hundred years ago are boiled down to one or two perceived attributes, if they’re remembered at all. Legacies become stretched, grotesque versions of the truth, and injustices are done. Marion Davies is one of the greatest casualties of this clumsy memorialization, immortalized as she was by the character of Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, widely believed to have been inspired by her relationship with media mogul William Randolph Hearst. In one fell swoop, one of cinema’s earliest female comedians and an incredibly popular film star in her own right became a tragic figure: a talentless alcoholic whose success was entirely dependent on the patronage of a wealthy lover. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it’s only recently films like Mank begin to set the record straight.
Marion Davies had a successful acting career long before she ever even met William Randolph Hearst. Raised by a mother who urged Davies and her sisters to pursue the stage and encourage the attentions of wealthy older men who could provide financial security, she made her Broadway debut in a production of Chin Chin at the age of 16. She found success as a Ziegfeld Follies girl, although her tendency to stutter kept her largely relegated to dancing roles. Davies wrote and starred in her first film, Runaway Romany, when she was just 19. It was only after taking notice of this film and her thriving stage career that Hearst began to pursue her romantically, dedicating himself (and his considerable fortune) to making Davies a star.
That Hearst both bankrolled the films Marion Davis starred in and provided her with endless publicity through his national chain of newspapers is beyond dispute. Indeed, her early string of successes would not have been possible without the attentive eye of Hearst operating behind the scenes. He founded Cosmopolitan Pictures in a bid to enter the film industry, but within a few years of its incorporation it functioned almost exclusively as a vehicle to produce and promote Davies’ projects. Hearst lavished generous budgets on her films, surrounding her with opulent sets in the sort of extravagant costume dramas he believed would help her be perceived as a serious actress. The films they made together had a sense of theatricality and glamour: in 1922, she had enormous success playing Mary Tudor in When Knighthood Was in Flower, a movie that was billed as the first million dollar picture to actually make a profit. The next year, she starred in Little Old New York, a film that cemented her rise to stardom: at an annual theater owners’ ball, she was proclaimed the #1 female box office star of 1923.
She continued to work with Hearst’s company throughout the next decade, starring in nearly 30 films for Cosmopolitan Pictures between 1918 and 1928. But while Hearst was clearly bankrolling her career, it’s unclear how much of her success he could rightfully take credit for. In fact, it’s possible that his control over the films she would work on actually held her back. Marion Davies was a natural comedian. Her greatest strengths laid in impish clownery, impressions and the performance of dual roles for comedic effect. With huge, expressive eyes, a quick wit, and a talent for pratfalls, she was a pioneer of screwball comedy who could headline a film when few other female comedians of her era were entrusted with such a task.
And yet Hearst still insisted on putting her in endless literary adaptations and costume dramas. These roles were well within her range, but they did not take full advantage of her charisma and other natural talents. He also jealously guarded her on-screen behavior; there were films where Hearst objected to Davies embracing her male co-star, even when the story’s conclusion called for a hug or kiss. But at the heart of their disagreement over Davies’ screen presence was that above all, Hearst didn’t seem to want her to be laughed at. So her comedic abilities were used but not fully appreciated, and audiences grew tired of seeing her in over-produced, bombastic dramas. Hearst’s expensive tastes only served to overshadow Davies’ simple and down-to-earth charm.
Nevertheless, Marion Davies was able to shine at different points throughout the 1920s and 1930s, especially when she collaborated with directors who understood her as an actress. King Vidor especially embraced her talents in a film like The Patsy, which allowed Davies the opportunity to do a series of impressions that poked fun at such fellow stars as Lillian Gish and Pola Negri. Disguises, impersonations, even cross-dressing: these were her bread and butter, and she cultivated a reputation as a comedienne that allowed her to soar beyond what Hearst had envisioned for her career. Even when the advent of sound threatened the livelihoods of her fellow silent film stars, Davies rose to the challenges of the new medium. Rather than being cowed by her childhood stutter, she quickly showcased a keen ability for vocal impressions and accents. In an era where stars lived and died on their adaptability, Marion Davies thrived.
Although Irving Thalberg championed for his wife, Norma Shearer, to take on the two high-profile roles in Marie Antoinette and The Barretts of Wimpole Street that Hearst coveted for Davies, she nonetheless released a number of popular films in the early sound era. These successes culminated in Peg ‘o My Heart, one of her strongest performances and Hearst’s favorite of all her films. Indeed, he campaigned (albeit unsuccessfully) for her to receive an Academy Award for her work as a poor Irish girl tempted by the promise of a large inheritance.
By 1937, however, her career was on a downturn. With Hearst in worryingly poor health, she starred in Ever Since Eve, and then retired from acting to take care of her loyal companion in his twilight years. She was active as a Hollywood hostess and was famously generous in her charitable efforts, but for the majority of film audiences, she faded from memory, with so many other bright young actresses to take her place. Just another starlet from a bygone era.
That is, until Citizen Kane was released four years later. Orson Welles’ groundbreaking film was unmistakably based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, a reclusive newspaper baron whose quest for wealth and power were well-known to audiences of the time. And if Charles Foster Kane was William Randolph Hearst, it could only stand to reason that his poor, tragic wife Susan Alexander was Marion Davies. Citizen Kane’s Susan is an aspiring opera singer whose pitifully meager talents are only highlighted by Kane’s relentless promotion of her career: the more she is ridiculed, the more his pride is hurt, and the harder he pushes her. Eventually, she is a prisoner in his ice palace, just another pretty bauble that he admired once, collected, and then cast off when it failed to live up to his expectations.
It didn’t take long for audiences to see Marion Davies in Susan, despite whatever Welles’ intentions may have been. In later years, he would go on the record saying that he never meant for parallels to be drawn between Marion and Susan – that the Susan storyline was actually inspired by businessman Harold Fowler McCormick’s promotion of his second wife’s opera career, that Welles regretted how the film’s portrayal of Susan had impacted Marion’s legacy.
But the damage had already been done. One of the most influential and unique stars of the 1920s and 1930s, a kind, loyal, vivacious woman who everyone in Hollywood adored, saw her fame warped and twisted beyond recognition. As the years went by, public memory of Marion Davies faded, and her legacy became inextricably intertwined with that of Susan Alexander. If she was remembered at all, it was as a talentless mistress of a famous newspaperman. Amanda Seyfried’s effortlessly charming performance as Marion Davies in Mank not only humanized the early Hollywood starlet, but renewed interest in her as an actress and as a person. As we reevaluate the early decades of cinematic history, we can begin to separate the two and see Marion how she actually was: an unconventional Hollywood icon, an effervescent yet flawed starlet, and a woman who rose above the limitations imposed by her wealthy benefactor to establish a new, distinctly feminine brand of comedy.