Reviews

King Vidor

USA, 1928

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 14 February 2009

Source TCM broadcast

Categories The Silence After Sound: Hollywood’s Last Silent Movies

From its first moments, depicting a middle class family eating their Sunday lunch in mechanical unison, the King Vidor-directed silent comedy The Patsy has a wonderfully satiric bent. It’s the kind of picture that finds Marie Dressler, as an overbearing matriarch intent on social climbing, spitting one-liners like “Don’t you know it’s bad manners to be polite to a waiter?” and it’s great fun.

But it’s impossible to write about The Patsy without expounding on the spritely comic charms of its star, Marion Davies. She sparkles here as Pat, the put-upon, Cinderella-like young woman who finds herself washing the dishes while her mother dotes on Grace, Pat’s poised (but not particularly interesting) sister. The film has the simplest of plots – it’s a farcical little romance – but Davies lends it heart.

“I’d like to be entrancing, alluring, and ravishing—like a stocking advertisement,” Pat tells her sympathetic father in one amusing scene, but Pat is endearing because Davies gives her the goofy, human, down-to-earth qualities that stocking advertisements rather obviously lack. Though Davies is movie star beautiful, and her audiences both then and now are often pointedly aware of her extravagant lifestyle as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, she still exudes a breezy underdog appeal here. While even some of the most hypnotic silent film performances are deeply mannered, Davies comes across as au naturel. (It’s little surprise that she was among the small population of silent stars who successfully weathered the transition to sound.)

One of The Patsy’s most famous scenes finds Pat attempting to woo her sister’s boozy beau Billy (she actually loves her sister’s jilted former boyfriend Tony, but needs to convince him that she’s in love with someone else… don’t ask) by impersonating a series of female film stars: Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. Contemporary audiences are less likely to be versed in the personas of the three stars imitated by Davies, but the scene works anyway: Pat’s hilarious posturing underscores how far she is (indeed, how far most real women are) from the virgins and vamps crowding the silver screen. It’s a refreshing sight even today.

So it remains a shame that Davies is often more likely to be remembered for her relationship with Hearst than for her films. Critic and historian Jeanine Basinger calls it “the curse of Citizen Kane” in her book Silent Stars writing that, “Over [Davies’] successful career hangs the ghastly shadow of Susan Alexander, the no-talent wife of Charles Foster Kane. […] Since Hearst allegedly was the model for Kane (which Orson Welles and others deny) and Davies was his mistress, it must follow that Davies has no talent.” The work of Basinger and others in recent years has aided the rehabilitation of Marion Davies’ reputation as performer, but the change still faces a very serious impediment: Davies’ films are not an easy find, many of them never released on home video. Those interested in her career are much more likely to have the opportunity to watch Kane, or even The Cat’s Meow, the 2001 film that stars Kirsten Dunst as Davies, than the opportunity to watch Davies herself. Yet it is plain, even before The Patsy wraps up with its star coaxing her leading man into a delightfully sweet kiss, that Davies provides her own best defense.

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