Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Patsy (MGM, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Divine Lady TCM showed The Patsy, first of a pair of films in which MGM teamed director King Vidor and star Marion Davies for the first of two films (Show People, an inside-Hollywood story, was the second) that are Exhibits A and B for the defenders of Marion Davies against what’s become the consensus view of her that she was an untalented bitch who got big parts only because she was the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Hearst bought her way into the movie business. The consensus came about mainly due to the wicked portrayal of their personal and working relationships by former Hearst friend Herman J. Mankiewicz in his script for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane — a film Hearst tried his damnedest to suppress not, as the popular belief goes, because of how it portrayed him but because of what it did to her. The real problem with Davies’ career was that Hearst — who, like a lot of film producers and directors intimately involved with their stars — way overestimated her range and insisted on putting her in big-budget costume films and melodramas instead of the light comedies with contemporary settings in which she was at her best. Screenwriter Frances Marion, who’d made her reputation writing for Mary Pickford, recalled being approached by Hearst and asked to become Davies’ writer. Marion was reluctant until Hearst said, “You don’t understand. I’m prepared to spend at least a million dollars on each of Marion’s pictures.” Then Marion was even more reluctant. “That’s just the problem!” she told Hearst. “Marion is a great light comedienne, and you’re drowning her in production values.” When word of that got around Hollywood, a lot of people who’d met Hearst and talked to him about his problems trying to make Davies a bona fide star thought, “At last! Someone told him the truth about her! The rest of us never dared!”

By 1928 Hearst had apparently got the message and realized that he’d have a better chance of attracting movie audiences to his girlfriend’s films if he gave her lighter, modern-dress roles, so he turned her over to MGM (The Patsy is variously billed as “A Marion Davies Production” and “A King Vidor Production,” though Vidor’s actual function on the film was director, not producer) and they bought a reasonably successful play by Barry Conners, a fluffy story about the Harrington family. Dad (identified only as “Pa Harrington”) is a henpecked husband; and mom (Marie Dressler at her most ferocious) is a nag who blatantly favors her glamorous flapper daughter Grace (Jane Winton) over her sister Patricia (Marion Davies), called “Pat” throughout. We know Pat is basically the “good girl” and Grace the “bad girl” because Grace’s dark hair is cut brutally short in the “flapper” style of the period while Pat’s, though medium length instead of long, is blonde and styled more femininely. Though a very different sort of film than The Divine Lady, The Patsy features two of the same behind-the-camera talents, screenwriter Agnes Christine Johnston (though Ralph Spence was the title writer and he supplied a lot of the written wisecracks that make this film so funny) and cinematographer John F. Seitz (his last name spelled correctly this time); Davies was about a decade too old for her role but Seitz does the best he can with her, and her quite remarkable talent shines through even in a relatively unchallenging plot. The gimmick is that Pat has developed a crush on sister Grace’s boyfriend, Tony Anderson (Orville Caldwell), while Grace is attracted to rich speedboat owner Billy Caldwell (Lawrence Gray — an odd name to see in a silent film because he was mainly famous as a stage operetta singer, appearing in shows like the George Gershwin-Herbert Stothart show Song of the Flame), who crashes the Harringtons’ table at the Yacht Club pretending to be a waiter and doing stupid juggling tricks with the plates. The Yacht Club is described as a place in which Mary’s little lamb would cost at least $4.50 a plate, and the Harringtons have gone there for a benefit dance at which Pat vainly tries to get Tony to dance with her after Grace runs off with Billy.

Later on both Harrington girls get invited to Billy’s home — represented by a spectacular living-room set built the year before for Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil, the famous first joint film of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, and which is familiar to modern audiences because MGM got it out of mothballs in 1952 and used it as the living room of Gene Kelly’s character in Singin’ in the Rain. Billy gets drunk and the reputations of both Harrington girls are compromised — though, true to form, mom blames only Pat — and Pat is in a funk for a reel or two because she’s been telling Tony that she’s in love with a man who doesn’t notice her, but hasn’t let on that she means Tony himself. Grace warns Pat that Tony won’t like being lied to when he finds out Pat doesn’t really have someone else — instead, of course, he’s overjoyed and sufficiently sensible at the end to realize it’s Pat whom he really wants. Along the way Pat discovers a copy of a book called How to Talk and Act — an obvious parody of Emily Post’s Etiquette, whose first edition came out in 1922, just six years before this film was made — and gleefully utters a series of non sequiturs that supposedly represent advice from this book: “When in Baghdad, do as Baghdaddies do!,” “Don’t cry over spilt milk. There’s enough water in it already,” “It’s a good thing it rains, or else there’d be no hay to make when the sun shines,” and, “Many a live wire would go dead if it weren’t for his connections.” When her mom and sister hear her rattle off these lines and wonder if she’s going crazy, Pat decides to play up to them and do a Hamlet-style impersonation of madness for a reel or two, even pretending that she’s expecting a phone call from Napoleon Bonaparte. (Well, there could have been a living person in 1928 named Napoleon Bonaparte, and he might even have been a distant relative of the original.) The Patsy is pretty lightweight but it’s infectious and a lot of fun, and (as at least one imdb.com reviewer, “mikbyr,” suggested) in some ways it’s a beta version of the “screwball” kind of movie comedy that came along in the 1930’s: fast-paced stories about families caught in amusing jams that democratized movie comedy by creating a sort of funny film normal actors and actresses could do instead of the specialized clowns like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

It’s long past time to end the critical dissing of Marion Davies: she was not Susan Alexander (the pathetic — in both senses — version of her played so movingly and indelibly by Dorothy Comingore in Citizen Kane), and as Gary Carey said about her in his book on MGM, “She got good reviews, and not just from Hearst reviewers.” She had difficulty with the silent-to-sound transition — she had a bad stutter, though it was considerably worse when she spoke in private conversation than when she was singing or speaking memorized lines; she was reaching her early 30’s, a danger time for actresses then and now; and she also had something of the same problem John Gilbert had: she never really learned how to act with her voice, how to vary her inflections to convey emotions. Even so, there are some quite entertaining Davies talkies — her first, Marianne, is quite good, and so is Five and Ten — and her two late-silent comedies with King Vidor, this one and Show People, are generally considered (at least by those who concede her talent) her best films. Incidentally TCM’s print of The Patsy was from a 2004 version they used for one of their silent-film scoring competitions, and the winner was a composer named Vivek Maddala. For some reason Maddala chose to score The Patsy with an odd style that resembled 1950’s “cool school” big-band jazz, which took some getting used to — a score closer to the actual pop music of the film’s time (more Paul Whiteman than Stan Kenton or Shorty Rogers) probably would have worked better, but as the film progressed I got used to Maddala’s music and it certainly didn’t get in the way of my ability to laugh at and enjoy this quite remarkable, charming movie!