07 January 2008

Marion Davies

Last Thursday (that is, 6 January) was the birthday of Marion Davies--her 111th, to be precise--and somehow, I managed to go without mentioning it until now. For shame, I know, but do give me some clemency; I'm relatively new to the art of obsessing over dead people.

The kind folks over at TCM marked the occasion by airing several of Marion's films, both silent and sonorous. I was able to catch The Red Mill (1927) and Show People (1928), both comedies and both silent. The Red Mill was a good blend of slapstick and situation comedy, which featured more Dutch stereotypes than one could shake a stick at--wooden shoes, cheese barges, windmills and blond pigtails, to name a few. Plot-wise, the film was rather reminiscent of Graeco-Roman New Comedy--Marion plays the role of Tina, the smart and good-natured working girl who, in the manner of Plautus's Pseudolus, manages to outwit Willem (her tyrannical overlord) and to unite the star-crossed lovers Jacop and Gretchen.

Show People was even more entertaining, not in the least because it was apparently based on the career of Gloria Swanson, a contemporary and fellow silent-film hottie of Ms. Davies. Marion plays the role of Peggy Pepper, an aspiring actress who comes to Hollywood seeking to make her fortune as a serious actress, but who is only able to find work in lowbrow comedies. There are several memorable scenes in the film--one of the best is a brief but fantastic bit of meta-theater wherein Peggy Pepper come across an actress she does not recognise--named "Marion Davies"--and eyes her with an expression of mild revulsion. There are also many instances of pure slapstick--Marion is sprayed in the face with a seltzer bottle no less than three times (instances which are, without a doubt, fraught with dreadfully Freudian undertones!)

In addition to being a great comedienne, Marion Davies was also a serious cutie-pie. Little wonder William Randolph Hearst fell for her the way he did.

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