She was a showgirl with ambition.
She wrote and starred in a silent film which showed that she had great promise as a light comedienne. But then her lover, the most powerful man in corporate America, took over and according to her, stunted her career rather than enhanced it.
Today we present a fuller look at Marion Davies, the actress, comedienne and mistress to legendary press mogul William Randolph Hearst. (Our initial assessment is contained in our Dec. 5, 2012 blog, Too Much Publicity.)
Despite what’s thought today, and despite the fictional account of her as the failed, talentless opera singer indelibly portrayed by Dorothy Comingore in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Davies did have talent, and did have a viable career in movies.
Marion’s career was bigger in silents, but she made the transition to talkies, despite a slight speech impediment. Hearst saw to it that she starred opposite the top leading men of the day, such as Bing Crosby, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery and Clark Gable.
Add to that list a young actor by the name of Ray Milland. The Welch-born star of directorBilly Wilder’s 1945 classic, The Lost Weekend (for which he won a best actor Oscar), was generally tart-tongued about his contemporaries. But here’s how he felt about Davies, his costar in his very first Hollywood picture, the 1931 romantic comedy The Bachelor Father:
Over the years my feeling for Marion Davies approached adulation, he wrote in his 1974 autobiography, Ray Milland: Wide-Eyed in Babylon.
She was a little scatterbrained and had a slight stutter, was mischievous and was kindness itself. She was also a very courageous and very generous woman. I always adored her.Milland made several pictures with Marion (including Polly of the Circus with Gable), so he he had a chance to evaluate her closely.
Hedda Hopper, the legendary Hollywood columnist and bete noir of sister columnistLouella Parsons, sparingly praises various notables in her 1963 memoir (written withJames Brough), The Whole Truth and Nothing But. Yet she devotes a lengthy and adoring chapter of her book to Davies, the golden-haired charmer from the Bronx (who) shared many things in life (with Hearst) — laughter, riches, tears, disaster; everything except his name.
Hopper wrote that Hearst first set his sights on Marion when she was just 14, a tyro chorus girl by the name of Marion Douras appearing in a stage production titled Queen of theMovies. This was in 1914. From the moment he saw her, he fell under her spell. She didn’t waver in the affection she gave him.
Hopper also notes that Hearst made decisions about Davies’ career that weren’t in her best interest. He insisted that she play only ingenue roles, though her talent was as a comedienne. If he’d let her play comedy, she could have been the real success he’d set his heart on.
But there were other compensations. To Hearst, she was a golden-haired, blue-eyed princess, and he showered her with treasure until she was worth more than $8,000,000 in her own right. When she died (in 1961) she owned three skyscrapers in New York City, The Desert Inn in Palm Springs, plus an estate in Beverly Hills.
Concludes Hopper: She had a heart as big as the Ritz Tower, which was one of the hunks of New York real estate W.R. owned in those days. In Hollywood she was the queen bee for more than thirty years. Friends fallen on hard times could rely on a check from Marion to see them through.
Davies revealed to Hopper that she was never crazy about making pictures and that she worked largely to please Hearst. Her credo: You only live once; you’ve got to have fun, and you can’t work all the time.
Read Joe’s novel, Murder on the Hearst Yacht, for more info on Marion.