May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
It would be wonderful to contemplate a time in which one could really choose an overrated silent film star, since so few are well enough known today to be that controversial. A few big names of the era are well known—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, et al.—but their work is the work of true genius, and they have been lucky enough to have their films remain accessible.
Pressed to choose someone for the sacrifice, I might suggest the exquisite Louise Brooks, not because she isn’t wonderful—she is—and not because her movies aren’t excellent—they are—but because she made very few films and never achieved the stardom of a Pickford, a Swanson, or even a Colleen Moore (the original wearer of the famed Brooks geometric haircut). Brooks has been the subject of several books and numerous articles and penned her own colorful autobiography. These things contributed to her elevation into an icon of the silent era. She’s never anything less than magnificent, but she was not a major American movie star in her own day. Since her modern reputation is disproportionate to her original fame, she can be called overrated.
In the underrated category there is a long list of choices: John Gilbert, Pola Negri, Mabel Normand, the Talmadge sisters, Clara Bow, the afore- mentioned Colleen Moore, and countless others. My choice, however, is Marion Davies, the beautiful and delicious comedienne whose reputation has been forever diminished by Citizen Kane . Since Davies was the mistress of the alleged model for Kane, William Randolph Hearst, history now defines her as a movie star whose career was bought and paid for by her wealthy lover. That is partially true, but the real damage to Davies was done by the fictional character Susan Alexander, Kane’s untalented true love. It is assumed that Davies was Susan Alexander, and her career is never taken on its own terms or discussed separately from the KaneHearst issue. As a result she is seriously undervalued.
Marion Davies on film is a lovely young woman of spirit and humor. She is always willing to let her beauty play second fiddle to her comedy talent, and she undertook roles that many a glamour girl would have run from. In Beverly of Graustark she impersonates a young man in a shockingly modern, nonchalant manner, carrying off an extended drinking scene with the aplomb of Buster Keaton. In The Fair Co-ed , she plays that most unexpected of silent-film heroines, a female basketball star, dribbling down the floor in gym shorts and sneakers and throwing up a mean jump shot. In Show People , her comic masterpiece, she takes pratfalls with ease, gets squirted with seltzer, throws a few pies, and impersonates Gloria Swanson to perfection, but with charm, not malice. Unlike Susan Alexander, everything about Marion Davies is first-rate. She is adorable, down-to-earth, and honest, and never seems to take herself too seriously. She is totally believable onscreen because her strength lay in her very matter-of-fact attitude toward both wealth and stardom, which was no doubt something Hearst saw in her in the first place. Marion Davies is waiting to be rediscovered, but only if she can escape the curse that Citizen Kane laid over her career.