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A Cinderella fable for the Jazz Age, King Vidor's The Patsy (1928) is a perfectly-tooled vehicle for the comic talents of Marion Davies. The actress stars as Pat Harrington, the neglected daughter of a would-be society matron (Marie Dressler) and a brow-beaten father (Dell Henderson). While Pat's older sister Grace (Jane Winton) is encouraged to dress well (freely borrowing Pat's new clothes) and date the most eligible bachelors at the Yacht Club, Pat is expected to blend into the background and tend to her kitchen chores. Pat harbors a secret crush on Grace's boyfriend Tony (Orville Caldwell), so when Grace steps out with a debonair playboy (Lawrence Gray), the blond wallflower seizes the opportunity to snare Tony's attention. Acting on Tony's own advice, Pat attempts to win his favor by "cultivating a personality," which in her mind means spouting nonsensical platitudes from self-help books.
Davies's career has always been overshadowed by her mentor, sponsor and lover, William Randolph Hearst. As Vidor recalled in his memoirs, A Tree Is a Tree, Hearst "built a two-story house of Spanish architecture on one of the grass plots between the big stages on the Metro lot. Here Mr. Hearst conducted the affairs of Cosmopolitan Films and many other elements of his vast empire; here Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and George Bernard Shaw visited; and here Marion Davies changed her costumes and put on her make-up." Hearst exerted his substantial power to insure her success at every endeavor -- resulting in an anti-Davies backlash that persists to this day.
Although her screen presence cannot compare to the likes of Greta Garbo or Gloria Swanson, Davies was genuinely talented and might have had a more rewarding career if not saddled with the responsibilities of carrying entire films on her shoulders and living up to the hyperbole generated by Hearst's network of newspapers. Near the conclusion of The Patsy, Davies's personality absolutely sparkles, as she performs impromptu impersonations of several silent movie divas: regal Mae Murray (The Merry Widow, 1925), virginal Lillian Gish (Broken Blossoms, 1919) and the exotic Pola Negri (Forbidden Paradise, 1924). Incidentally, Murray and Negri were personal friends of Davies, and among the elite visitors to Hearst's legendary San Simeon estate.
Co-star Marie Dressler was also a visitor to San Simeon, but one particular visit more closely resembled an outtake from one of her Mack Sennett comedies. When a group of Hollywood dignitaries were being led on a grand tour of the estate's massive menagerie, one chimpanzee became agitated and hurled feces at Dressler, Elinor Glyn and the Countess Dorothy di Frasso. According to Marie Dressler: A Biography, the unruly chimp "lived out his life at a midwestern zoo."
Dressler enjoyed a career as a comic actress on the stage and screen in the 1910s, but was blacklisted after helping to form the Actor's Equity Union. Ten years passed before returning to screen in a series of comedy roles in 1927. This climb back to popularity peaked with George W. Hill's Min and Bill (1930) and George Cukor's Dinner at Eight (1933). Like Dressler, co-star Dell Henderson was also a comic actor under Mack Sennett in the early 1910s, and staged a comeback after a decade-long absence. In Henderson's case, the hiatus was due to his pursuit of a directing career, generally of B-grade adventure films such as Gambling Wives (1924) and The Girl from Porcupine (1921). After returning to the screen in 1926's The Clinging Vine, he remained a popular character actor throughout the 1930s and '40s.
In the struggle to escape from under the Hearst cloud, The Patsy was a victory of sorts for Davies, as the film turned a healthy $155,000 profit for MGM and earned positive reviews, "and even got some good reviews outside of the Hearst press" as Vidor quipped (since favorable reviews were guaranteed from any of the Hearst-owned papers).
Davies was not the only person to benefit from the success of The Patsy. "I was in solid," proclaimed Vidor. The film proved him as adept at romantic comedy as the heavyweight social drama for which he is still known (The Crowd , The Big Parade ). Although a departure from serious subject matter, The Patsy managed to reflect some of the political attitudes of Vidor's more weighty films. In crafting this frothy romantic comedy, he parallels the values of the irresponsible playboy -- darting about in a speedboat, mocking the working class when he poses as a butterfingered waiter -- with Tony's more admirable pursuits. Tony epitomizes the hands-on optimism of Vidor's other heroes. Idealistic Tony is designing an ambitious suburban development ("Gas, electricity, sewers!") and, ever-industrious, when he visits the Harrington's house, he cannot help but try to repair their malfunctioning doorbell with a pocketknife.
Vidor also lances class pretensions by allowing Pat's mother to reveal her ignorance and shallowness even as she vies for upward mobility. "Don't you know it's not good manners to be polite to a waiter?" she asks Pat in one scene.
One cannot help but wonder why a socially-minded anti-capitalist such as Vidor would direct not one but three vehicles (the others are Show People  and Not So Dumb ) for the mistress of one of the wealthiest men in America. As Vidor explains, "The approach came in the form of a request to do a favor for [studio head Louis B.] Mayer and, in addition, earn a substantial income. W.R. would always pay high when he thought anyone could do a good job for Marion...Mind you, this was not an unpleasant chore. I directed Marion in three comedies and I considered her to be a most accomplished comedienne."
* For more information about Vivek Maddala's score for THE PATSY, visit Vivek Mandala's website. To purchase THE PATSY score on CD visit, The Patsy soundtrack page.
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Agnes Christine Johnston
Based on the play by Barry Conners
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Vivek Maddala
Cast: Marion Davies (Patricia Harrington), Marie Dressler (Ma Harrington), Dell Henderson (Pa Harrington), Jane Winton (Grace Harrington), Orville Caldwell (Tony Anderson), Lawrence Gray (Billy Caldwell).
by Bret Wood