I watched two silent films yesterday, the 1919 melodrama Dollars and Sense, starring the now forgotten Madge Kennedy, and the 1927 comedy The Fair Co-Ed starring former Official Pre-War Actress of the Day, Marion Davies.
First up the Madge Kennedy experience. I’m a recent emigree to Toronto (from Calgary if you must know), and one of the great benefits of living here is the lively film community. Between the wonderful repertory programmes put together by the Cinematheque Ontario and the Toronto Film Society, and the repertory and indy showings at Bloor Cinema, Toronto is a a grand place to be a film buff. This says nothing of the odd one-off screenings that take place around the city, which is how I happened to see Dollars and Sense.
The Music Hall (formerly the Century, and Allan-Danforth theatre) celebrated it’s 90th anniversary (90 years, wow is there anything that old in Calgary?) yesterday and to commemorate it, they had a plaque ceremony and arranged a special screening of this Madge Kennedy film (the reasoning being that the theatre opened with the Madge Kennedy film Through The Wrong Door, which I presume is lost), replete with live accompaniment. I was very excited to see my first silent with live music, as I’ve been told it’s the pinnacle of cinematic experience. Well it didn’t disappoint, despite some significant technical problems and well the film itself.
As for the technical problems, well the film was screened using a DVD made from the Library of Congress print, and the first 25 minutes of the film featured a ton of skips, and freezing of the DVD, which was frustrating. I felt really bad for the musicians who did there best to try and play along, but gosh there must be no worse feeling than to be so helpless on stage. Thankfully the tickets were only a buck, so no one could feel rightfully cheated, and after a brief intermission to address the technical difficulties, things ran smoothly the rest of the way. The audience of 750 strong was very forgiving as well which turned what could have been a downright disappointment into a memorable night.
As for the film itself, well it’s your standard well-worn (even by 1919 standards) melodrama of a woman (Madge Kennedy) torn between the poor baker that she loves (Kenneth Harlan) and the sleazy but well-off theatrical manager (Willard Louis) who can provide a means to an end. In this case it’s the bakery/bread line that Harlan struggles to keep afloat during a prolonged illness. Kennedy offers herself to Louis in order to ensure the survival of Harlan’s business. The direction by Harry Beaumont is dutiful but uninspired, and there’s nothing to suggest that this film was anything other than a mediocrity, even in its own time. Perhaps the only noteworthy thing about the film is the twist ending (I hate to spoil it, but you’re never going to see the film, so whatever). Louis who for most of the picture, appears lechorous (complete with beady eyes and smarmy demeanor), ends up being the saviour, as it is revealed that he has orchestrated a wedding ceremony for Harlan and Kennedy, rather than making Kennedy his kept woman. It was a twist that elicited gasps and applause from the audience including myself, as I was full on expecting your typical slug ’em in the jaw fistfight with Kennedy’s honor at stake.
Despite the meh quality of the film, it was a lot of fun watching a film in such an environment, and thankfully people were into it. I’d love to have the chance to watch a film with 750 foks on a regular basis.
As for Kennedy, well best as I can tell she was a minor star in the late 10’s-early 20’s for Samuel Goldwyn (soon to be MGM), who later turned character actress working steadily into the 70’s. I’d had never heard of her before last night, and although she has about 6 or 7 existing silent films, none have votes on imdb, and they don’t appear to have a following either. If her performance in Dollars and Sense is any indication, she’s not a particularly memorable performer, she shows a bit of personality, but she isn’t particularly striking. She was also the victim of the transition from the much more Victorian-esque 1910’s to the Roaring 20’s. With a year or two, Kennedy’s look was completely dated, and I see no evidence that she made much of an adaptation.
So with that I’m thinking she’s not well remembered for a reason…she wasn’t particularly memorable.
Now for the complete opposite, the divinely talented, well remembered, but criminally misinterpeted Marion Davies.
I will admit full out that I am a Marion Davies booster, I think she’s fabulous, to use 1920’s parlance: she’s the bees-knees. She’s a great looking gal and a brilliant comedienne, one those rare actresses who mixes beauty with a knack for self-effacing comedy. In essence she didn’t take herself too seriously. Imagine if Jenny McCarthy didn’t suck, and you’d have something close to Marion, a stunning gal who’s willing to play the fool.
Sadly (at least for me), her reputation and career has been irrevocably linked to her long-time affair with the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, and the fictional depiction of Hearst in Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane. In the Welles’ film, Kane falls for a shrill, untalented but good hearted chorus girl named Susan Alexander, whom he builds an opera house for and tries to turn into a star…with spectacularly bad results. Alexander is a dismal failure despite Kane’s best attempts at promotion.
Despite the fact that Susan Alexander is in fact a composite character based on multiple sources, Davies has long been seen as the primary source. This would not be a problem, were it not for the iconic nature of Kane, and the belief by some folk that it is the greatest film ever made. This combined with the belief that Kane is Hearst has lead many people to assume the film is essentially a biography, so therefore Susan Alexander must be Davies. The problem with this is the fact that Alexander is portrayed as a talentless idiot, whereas Davies was in fact a marvellous and very bright performer. But the legend has been built up over the years, that Davies was nothing but a prop for Hearst, as he built her up in his newspapers, financed her movies, and in essence fabricated her career.
The story becomes increasingly fascinating because so much of it is true, Hearst did use his newspapers to promote her, and he did provide lavish budgets for her films, he in essence did try his damnedest to make her a star. But a funny thing happened…she became a star on her own merits. By the mid 1920’s Davies was one of the top stars at MGM, her films made money, and they were often very good. She made bonafide classics like Show People and The Patsy, and a bunch of fun vehicles like The Red Mill and The Cardboard Lover. Not to mention that her career spanned well into the talkie era, as her last film was in 1936 when she 40. She had a movie career that spanned over 20 years. You can’t have that much success through sheer hype and publicity.
But nonetheless the legacy of Hearst and Kane overshadows her considerable talents. Thankfully in recent years with the advent of Turner Classic Movies, her films are becoming more accessible, and she’s even had several released on DVD through the Warner’s Archives. I think as more people see her work, the myth will be diminished, and hopefully die its rightful death.
Now onto The Fair Co-Ed, of which I managed to pick up a copy of dubious origin recently (it appears to be a camcorder dub from a screening).
Marion stars as a conceded college freshman who in trying to woo Johnny Mack Brown, manages to become a basketball star and piss off just about everyone. She does this by being catty, petulant, and smug…gleefully boasting about her list of beaus, refusing to pass the ball to her romantic rival, Jane Winton, and showing off at every turn. The film is pretty much a William Haines vehicle, with Marion playing the typical Haines role of the spoiled athlete who alienates everyone (except the loyal sidekick), quits the team, but has a change of heart…just in time to win the big game. The plot is threadbare and totally formulaic, but Davies is just so great to watch that it ends up being a hoot. Maybe it’s because I’m a dude, but I find Marion’s cocky schtick friggin’ adorable, where Haines’ bit can be pretty grating.
The opening sequence is an odd one, where it is revealed that the students at Bingham University are banned from using automobiles, and so as a means of protest they ride all sorts of ridiculous contraptions to campus, ranging from Brown’s chariot, to a 4-person bike, to some sort of wagon-dealie. The sequence ends up with the crotchety Dean (who says stuff like this and this) vowing never to give in.
There’s also a pep rally sequence that features a massive bonfire and a bizarre tribute ceremony…that may or may not involve human sacrifice…as a means to appease the basketball gods and pave the way for a Bingham victory. This is the climactic scene where Marion begins to realize how many people she’s pissed off, as she is the recipient of a whopping 3 Raspberries!
The final big game sequence is quite fascinating primarily due to the depiction of basketball circa 1927. The game is absolutely chaotic with every player rushing for the ball, and the game looking more like a rugby match than anything. I thought it was interesting how there was jump ball after every basket, and that during a climactic foul shot, Marion only gets one shot rather than the customary two. I thought it was also fascinating how women’s sports was treated without condescension (although the competition aspect plays second fiddle to the love story) and that there was not evidence of a men’s team. Everyone was supportive of the team because it was from their college. An unexpected depiction for 1927.
Anyway Marion wins the day by making the climactic basket…which causes at least one spectator to fall to his death. She also gets her man.
Fun stuff, that will hopefully be restored and see the light of day via TCM.