If you ever find yourself in Manhattan with an afternoon to spare, try catching the 4 or 5 subway line up to East Harlem. Get off at the 125th station near where the Harlem River snakes its way past Mott Haven up towards Yankee Stadium and walk a block east until you find yourself between First and Second Avenue. Look around. What do you see? Not much. A row of redbrick apartments, a couple of bodegas and auto body shops. The casual tourist would want to go another block north to find legendary street artist Keith Haring’s Crack Is Wack Playground. But the film lover would do well to go back and take another look at the gargantuan brick warehouse straddling 126th and 127th. Today it seems little more than a relic of New York’s industrial heyday, what with its multiple garages and single monolith smokestack. But don’t be fooled. Almost one hundred years ago, that warehouse was the location of Cosmopolitan Pictures’ studio, a movie-making nerve center owned and financed by infamous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
At the time, Cosmopolitan specialized in two things: lavish costume dramas and an ex-Broadway chorus girl named Marion Davies. After falling in love with each other, Hearst turned the full weight of Cosmopolitan towards producing and promoting her films, turning her into one of the biggest movie stars of her day. Though she would later achieve true fame through comedic roles in films like King Vidor’s Show People (1928) and true infamy after being used as partial inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s untalented plaything in Orson Welles’ eponymous 1941 biopic, it was in these high-budget costume dramas that Davies was first introduced to a dazzled public.
Though long unavailable, three of them from 1922 are receiving upcoming Blu-ray and DVD releases through Undercrank Productions thanks to tireless film preservationist, historian, and silent film accompanist Ben Model and writer/film historian Ed Lorusso. Through these films, we see the development of Davies’ onscreen persona from delicate ornament to serious dramatic actress with an uncanny knack for physical comedy.
The first is George Terwilliger’s The Bride’s Play, a romantic melodrama set in Ireland that sees Davies torn in a tumultuous love triangle. She plays Aileen, a beautiful young girl living a picturesque life with her well-to-do father. Despite growing up in a dour convent, she wiles away her young adulthood dreaming of love and the fairy tales that inhabit every nook and cranny of her ancient homeland. One day she falls in love with the warm yet serious nobleman Sir Fergus Cassidy (Wyndham Standing), the Lord of Kenmare Castle. But shortly after the start of their courtship, she also falls in love with Bulmer Meade (Carl Miller), a writer and noted Lothario who penned “The Harp of Seven Strings,” one of her favorite books of poetry. Bulmer is everything Sir Fergus is not: warm and romantic, passionate and doting. Yet when she discovers she is just one of his many lovers, she cuts the relationship off and gets engaged to Sir Fergus. But her feelings for Bulmer remain, feelings that will be put to the test during her wedding when she must take part in the local Bride’s Play ceremony, a medieval ritual where the bride must pick out her groom from a line of potential suitors.
Of the three films released by Undercrank Productions, The Bride’s Play features Davies’ most anodyne performance. Critics and historians note that in the early years of her film career, Hearst convinced Davies to downplay her comedic talents in favor of more serious roles where he could essentially dress her up in ravishing costumes and show her off. That unfortunate tendency is on full display here where Marion is little more than a glimmering bauble to be paraded around in nice dresses and gowns. Hearst even worked in a mini costume drama set in the Middle Ages where Davies reenacts the tragic birth of the Bride’s Play ceremony, allowing her to preen about in exquisite medieval finery.
And yet, despite the tepidity of the role, The Bride’s Play is paradoxically the most interesting of the three films, for the simple reason that it defies melodramatic norms. The film takes great pains to make Bulmer the seductive foil of the somewhat mealy Sir Fergus. He is everything Aileen ever dreamed of since girlhood. And yet it climaxes with Davies rejecting Bulmer in favor of the safe, industrious Sir Fergus. Imagine Mary Pickford rejecting Rudolph Valentino in favor of…well, Wyndham Standing. But then one realizes that such a twist may have drawn Hearst to the story in the first place. A beautiful waif gives up a dream lover in favor of a plain-looking heir to a fortune? It might just be conjecture, but it’s hard not to connect the dots.
In the next film, Robert G. Vignola’s Beauty’s Worth (released a mere two months after The Bride’s Play) we finally get to see the first glimpses of Davies’ considerable talents for physical comedy and pantomime. She plays Prudence Cole, a young Quaker who finds herself thrust into high society at a seaside country club. Once more, she’s pressed into a love triangle, this time between shallow playboy Henry Garrison (Hallam Cooley), her childhood companion and crush, and moody artist Cheyne Rovein (Forrest Stanley). Most of the movie revolves around a traditional fish-out-of-water storyline as the innocent Prudence gets put through the paces of upper class civility—there’s a particularly sad and pathetic scene where she’s mercilessly mocked for showing up to the pool in a swimsuit which, even by the standards of the day, seems hyper-conservative and better suited for mourning than for swimming—and evolves into a “modern” woman. There’s some gentle humor involving her stuck-up aunts “harrumphing” at her audacity to wear non-Quaker clothing and—gasp!—to smart smoking. But it’s all window-dressing for the last act where Davies truly gets to stretch her comedic muscles.
In a sequence as endearing for its sheer preposterousness as its transparency (as yet another excuse for Hearst to dress Davies up in extravagant costumes), Rovein convinces Prudence to act in a number of charades for the entertainment of the country club guests. The first sees Davies dressed as a harlequin clown cavorting about beneath a winking moon seemingly ripped from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902). The second is a ballet where Davies pretends to be a dolly under a Christmas tree that climaxes when a toy soldier kills a frightening jack-in-the-box right as she kisses it. And finally, the third features Davies as a queen from the “exotic Orient” sitting on her throne as a gaggle of scantily clad women prance beneath her. These charades are the highlight of the film, featuring Davies at perhaps her silliest and most exuberant until her late 20s collaborations with King Vidor. Everything else falls into the realm of predictable melodrama: in a reversal of the ending of The Bride’s Play, Prudence gives Garrison the boot and chooses Rovein. Despite her newfound popularity as a society girl, Rovein promises Prudence that he’ll always remember her as the “little girl in the Quaker gown.”
The final film, Vignola’s When Knighthood Was in Flower, is easily the most famous of the three films released. Based on Charles Major’s historical fiction novel set in the sixteenth century about the romance between King Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor and the Duke of Suffolk, the film ranks alongside Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), the biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille, and the historical dramas of D.W. Griffith as among the silent era’s premiere super-productions. Today, the film is a mostly forgotten relic. But in 1922 it was one of the cinematic events of the year. Filmed at the aforementioned East Harlem studio, it was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. As film researcher and historian Lara Gabrielle Fowler writes in her illuminating insert essay for Undercrank Production’s Blu-ray release of the film, every prop had to be either a painstaking historical reproduction or an authentic antique—many of the Tudor-era suits of armor came from Hearst’s personal collection.
The production boasted one of the biggest indoor sets ever built, containing 32 separate buildings and a recreation of a Paris street that spanned two city blocks. The total cost came to a nearly unprecedented $1.5 million, which adjusted for inflation comes to almost $22 million. Today $22 million is mere peanuts for a film production, but in the 1920s the amount was staggering. And that money shines through in every shot.
Davies plays Mary, a headstrong young woman who balks at her brother’s attempts to marry her off to the decrepit King Louis XII of France (William Norris). However, she falls for Charles Brandon (Forrest Stanley, fresh from his role as Rovein in Beauty’s Worth), reworked here from the Duke of Suffolk to a mere commoner. After sneaking out of the castle at night to get her fortune read from the magician and soothsayer Grammont (Gustav von Seyffertitz), she’s attacked and rescued by Charles. However, Charles is framed for the killing of one of the would-be kidnappers and sentenced to death. Mary disguises herself as a boy and helps him escape before running off to the countryside where they’re quickly captured by the authorities. In desperation, Mary agrees to marry King Louis if her brother will spare Charles’ life. His Majesty acquiesces, she marries the old man, and miraculously gets saved from a lifetime of matrimonial misery when her new husband literally drops dead. When King Louis’ evil nephew and successor Francis (William Powell in his second film appearance) tries to marry her, Brandon comes to the rescue. Stunned at their love, King Henry VIII consents to their marriage, joking that he should have saved them all the trouble and given them permission when they first asked.
It’s easy to lose oneself while marveling at the sumptuous sets, costumes, props, and the small army of extras used to create this cinematic universe. Yet it’s also hard to not feel disappointment. For all his skill, Vignola had neither the pictorial bombast of DeMille or the elegant visual poetry of Griffith. It’s staged, shot, and edited much like any of the other historical dramas of its day—with the exception of Grammont’s lair and the wedding scene between King Louis and Mary, few of the scenes leave an immediate aesthetic imprint. What’s worse, the subplot involving King Louis has not aged well at all. Norris doesn’t portray him as a wizened lecher or a senile dodderer; instead he comes across as a deeply lonely man overjoyed at the opportunity to have someone to love again. One scene where he struggles to put on his makeup despite the aid of his royal attendants is downright heart-breaking, yet the general impression one gets is that these scenes were meant to be funny.
But for all its faults, When Knighthood Was in Flower is saved by Davies’ sheer charisma. Whether she’s impetuously scrunching up her face at royal suitors, swaggering across a tavern to challenge a drunken louse to a sword fight, gaily wiggling her naked feet at her brother, or breaking down in weeping hysterics while beseeching the Virgin Mary in prayer, her passionate energy burns right through the screen. She is almost impossible to look away from. And indeed, the same can also be said for The Bride’s Play and Beauty’s Worth. Davies was one of the rare actresses who could transcend uneven material. No wonder Hearst fell in love. And hopefully, with these three new releases, a whole new generation can fall in love, too.
Many thanks to Lara Gabrielle Fowler for her help in researching and writing this article. Her upcoming book has the working title Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies.
Thanks as well to the Library of Congress for all their preservation efforts, including producing new 2K scans off the nitrate for these projects.