Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Marion Davies in King Vidor’s… The Patsy (1928)

This was the first time Marion Davies had worked with King Vidor and this film foreshadowed Davies’ comic tour de force in Vidor’s Show People released later in the year.

The Patsy has just been screened at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and the tireless Silent London included a clip on her blog of the sequence in which Marion Davies character, Pat, impersonates not one but three of Hollywood’s finest. In three absorbing minutes Davies is Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri…

Having seen her "Murray" in Show People I wasn’t surprised but seeing her rip into Gish and Negri was genuinely shocking and funny. Pola I am sure could take it on the chin or take it out on Davies’… but Gish? I’m sure she looked down from her exalted position and smiled a pained smile.

Vidor had seen Davies’ comic turn at parties and noted her natural instincts as a crowd-pleasing comic, even if the laughs were at her own expense. Not quite what hubby William Randolph Hearst had in mind for her at all… but The Patsy became her biggest hit to date.

Davies is funny throughout this film which shows her to be a natural and exuberant comedian. She plays Pat, the youngest member of the Harrington clan, who is forever being picked on by her Ma (Marie Dressler in a career-rescuing and, as legend has it, life-saving performance) who favours her more elegant sister Grace (Jane Winton).

Pa Harrington (Dell Henderson) tries to stand up for Pat but is usually slapped down…outnumbered by Ma and Grace. The family dynamics are well handled from the opening Sunday lunch in which Pat tries to work out the correct way of eating soup to her getting the scrag end of the chicken and having to fend for her own new clothes that are borrowed by big sis.

Orville Caldwell
Yet Pat would like to do some borrowing of her own with Grace’s boyfriend, Tony (Orville Caldwell) who is completely oblivious only having eyes for Grace and an odd obsession with fixing the family door bell.
They go to the Boat Club Dinner where the wealthy gad-about Billy Caldwell (Lawrence Gray) arrives fresh from his speed boat to spy Grace. He makes a bee-line for their table in the guise of a waiter, much rude waiting is delivered – a celery stick ends up down the front of Ma’s dress - until Billy is revealed and the attitude of the Harrington table turns from disgust to deference.

Grace begins to encourage Billy’s advances but still wants to keep hold of her “second best toy” much to Pat’s frustration. She can’t get Tony’s attention and makes up a story of an un-named man she admires but who doesn’t know she exists.

Obtuse Tony offers to help her attract the sap’s attention…boy is he… oblivious!

 Marie Dressler and Jane Winton 
He gets Pat to read lots of self-improvement books so that she can develop a personality and she walks around spouting nonsensical quotes that in the context of the family living room just persuade Ma that she has lost her marbles. But Dad understands and will do what he can to aid the cause.

So things proceed in amusing fashion, Grace’s sisterly competitiveness leads her to blackmail Pat so that she can seal the Tony “deal” again… Pat needs to pull a big one out of the hat.  Bingo! Go round to Billy’s and pretend he’s miss-treating her! Sounds a bit much too modern minds but it’s here we see the triple impersonation… Billy will be alright, it’s just a laugh…

Tony rescues Pat but things backfire as he can’t believe she’d risk being alone with such a player. Now the worm finally turns as Pa stands up for Pat and against his harridan of a wife. It’s as humorous as it’s inevitable but well handled by the excellent cast.

Marie Dressler is fantastic, her every action pops out of the screen and she is brilliantly over-bearing. Henderson is good at hen-pecked and his revolt at the end is all the sweeter for it – two real craftsmen at work here.

But full marks go to Marion Davies for creating the perfect comic storm. She obviously had no qualms playing alongside the demure Jane Winton and doesn’t hold back on the face-pulling, prat falling and un-glamorous looning throughout. Not the Patsy at all just the Funny.

The Patsy is available from Warner Archives accompanied by her stirring new score from Vivek Maddala which really enhances a fantastically clear print. Annoyingly, Warners keep on having really good sales offers for the US-only, still, at least we can buy through (nope, I’m not on commission).

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