The Patsy (1928)
Marion Davis is best known these days as the long time mistress of William Randolph Hearst and the inspiration for Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane. While both of these facts are indeed facts, the portrait they paint is of Davies is not only unfair, it’s flat out erroneous. Davies was already building a nice little reputation as a comedienne before she met Hearst. But when he assumed management of her career, Hearst insisted she be cast in high-brow, “noble” historical dramas and the like, roles for which she was not entirely suited. King Vidor’s The Patsy (1928), is one of the few feature comedies she managed to make under Hearst’s control, but it reveals the extraordinary talent and charm she could unleash on screen. The Patsy proves that Marion Davies was flat out funny.
Davies plays Pat Harrington, the “ugly sister” of a middle class family that busies itself with putting on airs. Pat constantly plays second fiddle to her more glamorous sister Grace (Jane Winton)) who gets all the attention and all the boyfriends. In fact, she’s seeing two boys at once, her steady standby Tony (Orville Caldwell) – the object of Pat’s unrequited infatuation – and a cad playboy with a fast boat, Billy (Lawrence Gray). Mother (Marie Dressler) plays favorites, pouring affection on Grace and making Pat’s life a misery. Henpecked Pops (Dell Henderson) prefers Pat, but is too weak willed to defy his domineering wife.
Oddly, The Patsy, based on a play of the same name by Barry Conners, is an awfully talkie silent film. Much of the humor revolves around wordplay and linguistic puns, all deliver via intertitles. I’ve seen some silent movies that tack this tack as well, but it stands out as a tremendous failing, as if the movie is to be a talkie. In The Patsy it works and that’s on the amazing physical comedy of Marion Davies. Her physical presence and the personal she creates for Pat via body language means you can practically hear her sassy little mouth delivering these verbal jokes. “When in Bagdad, do as the Bagdaddies do” or “Don’t cry over spilt milk – there’s enough water in it already” come off as the smart-ass teenage jokes they were meant to be.
And there is what must be the most famous sequence in both The Patsy and Marion Davies entire film career. In an attempt to woo Grace’s playboy paramour, Pat imitates three of the Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. Davies zeros in on the mannerisms of these three leading ladies to deliver a pitch perfect mimic, but all like good comic impersonators, it’s ultimately Davies personality that shines through. But seriously – if you never watch The Patsy, at least watch this sequence. I’ve even conveniently provided the clip below!
In Citizen Kane, Susan Alexander Kane is an aspiring chanteuse who has no business carrying on in an opera. Her failure and humiliation is compounded by the hyperbole Kane spews in his newspapers. That’s an exaggerated version of the fate of Marion Davies, but it’s not so far off the mark. Davies had no business carrying heavy dramas like The Knighthood was in Flower (1922) or serious adapted stage plays like The Lights of Old New York (1925), but she’s not so bad in those movies, really. She couldn’t, however, live up to the Hearst produced hype in those films. When you seek out Marion Davies, watch this one or the other two comedic features directed by King Vidor in which she starred – Show People (1928) and Not So Dumb (1930). These films are Marion’s vindication.
A lovely restored version of The Patsy with a new score by Vivek Maddala is available from the Warner Archive Collection for $14.95.
Gallery of Images from The Patsy