Marion Cecilia Douras was born in Brooklyn on January 3, 1897, the youngest daughter of Judge Bernard Douras. She left school to model for commercial illustrators, and made her Broadway debut as ‘Marion Davies’ in Chin Chin (1914.) In 1916, she joined Ziegfeld’s Follies. Her first film, Runaway, Romany (1917) – which she also wrote – was produced by her brother-in-law, George W. Lederer.
Davies quickly became a popular movie actress, and the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Although Hearst was married, and more than thirty years her senior, they lived together openly and hosted many lavish Hollywood parties at his various homes, including San Simeon (aka Hearst Castle.) In 1918, Hearst founded a movie studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, to advance Marion’s career. Cecilia of the Pink Roses (1918) was the first of these star vehicles.
Marion played Mary Tudor in When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), and the film’s success encouraged Hearst to place her in other costume dramas, including Quality Street (1927), which Davies also produced. She fared better in comedies, such as Tillie the Toiler (1927) and The Patsy (1928.)
It has also been alleged that Marion secretly had a daughter, Patricia, with Hearst during the early 1920s, whom was raised by Davies’ sister, Rose. In 1924, producer Thomas Ince died after a party on Hearst’s luxury yacht. It was rumoured that Ince had been accidentally shot by Hearst during a quarrel with Marion and her supposed lover, Charlie Chaplin. However, Chaplin denied having attended the party, and Ince’s autopsy showed that he had suffered an attack of acute indigestion, and died the following day of a heart condition.
“God, I’d give everything I have to marry that silly old man,” Marion said of Hearst. “Not for the money and security … No, you know what he gives me, sugar? He gives me the feeling I’m worth something … he’s kind and he’s good to me, and I’d never walk out on him.”
The Cardboard Lover
In March 1927, Jeanne Eagels opened on Broadway in Her Cardboard Lover, an English adaptation of Jacques Deval’s drawing-room comedy. She was cast as Simone, the mistress of a man who will never divorce his wife. Desperate to end the relationship, Simone hires an impoverished young gambler to act as a buffer between herself and her former paramour, and finds herself falling in love with him. It was her first role following a sensational four-year run as Sadie Thompson in Rain.
Unfortunately, her performance was less rapturously received than Rain, and some critics thought Jeanne was overshadowed by co-star, Leslie Howard. She was further aggrieved by the news that Gloria Swanson would bring Sadie Thompson on the big screen. When Her Cardboard Lover closed for the summer, Jeanne headed for Hollywood to star opposite John Gilbert in Man, Woman and Sin. The film was produced at MGM, then home to a multitude of stars, including Marion Davies, who had previously met Jeanne at a party in the New York home of Ivor Novello in 1923.
Man, Woman and Sin was a troubled production – Jeanne found the film-making process tortuous, and after a series of rows with MGM executives, plans for a long-term contract were shelved. Nonetheless, the film was a hit, and in October, Jeanne embarked on a nationwide tour of Her Cardboard Lover.
By early 1928, the rigours of touring were starting to show. On March 11, she checked into the Milwaukee Plaza Hotel for a week’s run at the Davidson Theatre. Ticket sales promised a full house on opening night, but two hours before the curtain rose, it was announced that Jeanne would not be appearing that night due to severe food poisoning. The theatre remained dark all week. Jeanne was confined to her hotel room, accepting no calls or visitors. It was hoped that she would recover in time for the St. Louis opening on March 19, but when the company left, Jeanne stayed on at the Plaza Hotel.
John Montague, press-agent for Her Cardboard Lover, told the New York Sun that there were several reasons behind Jeanne’s meltdown. Her marriage to Ted Coy had recently collapsed, and her latest romance with actor Barry O’Neill was also in trouble. Additionally, she had lost the coveted lead role in a new play, Jealousy (though she would later play the role onscreen.)
On the day Jeanne arrived in Milwaukee, she had read in the New York Times that Her Cardboard Lover would soon be filmed at MGM with Marion Davies in the lead. In a production financed by Hearst, Robert Z. Leonard would direct. This was the second role originated by her that she was passed over for in Hollywood. If not for her battle with the studio during Man Woman and Sin, Jeanne might have been their first choice for Her Cardboard Lover.
Montague believed Jeanne was worried that once the play opened in Los Angeles, Davies would be able to closely observe the characterization that she had perfected over the last year. But upon the film’s September release, the Los Angeles Times noted that MGM’s The Cardboard Lover retained “but the merest suggestion of the play of the same name. The characters are reversed in this very free translation of the play.” Davies played the part of an American co-ed, accidentally hired to protect a famous tennis champion from a siren who is pursuing him. “The screen version falls far short of the charming whimsical comedy Jeanne Eagels made it on the stage,” the Buffalo Daily Courier decided, “but still it has another kind of humor, driven home with sledgehammer blows instead of delicacy.”
In July 2015, the Daily Mail reported a remarkable discovery at a recycling centre in Devon, England. Mike Grant and his daughter Rachel had found a dozen reels of film inside an old paint tin, containing almost a hundred silent films, wedged behind a dumped shelving unit – including the first reel of The Cardboard Lover. The archive will be preserved at the British Film Institute. Only one other copy exists, and fortunately it is complete (though in need of restoration.)
“The Cardboard Lover is a clever, well-written comedy in which the primary showcase is Marion Davies’ significant comedic flair,” Lara Gabriella Fowler wrote in a review posted on her classic movie blog, Backlots.net. (Fowler is currently working on a biography of Davies.) “It features a tight plot and solid acting from all the necessary parties, and several subtle gags for which the viewer has to be on the lookout at all times!”
The Times She Had
Marion was credited as executive producer of The Cardboard Lover, and would produce all her subsequent films. She followed it with another successful comedy, Show People. In 1929, Davies remade her final silent film, Marianne, as a ’talkie’, working hard to overcome a slight stutter.
However, her box office appeal was beginning to fade, partly due to Hearst’s interference. Not So Dumb (1930) suffered a loss of $39,000. She went on to star in Peg O’ My Heart (1933), and was paired with Bing Crosby in Going Hollywood. However, her MGM days were numbered after Hearst fruitlessly campaigned for her to be cast in more prestigious vehicles.
Despite Marion’s long-standing friendship with the Thalbergs, Hearst broke off ties with MGM. Davies moved to Warner Brothers, where she starred in Cain and Mabel (1936) with Clark Gable. Her final film, Ever Since Eve, followed in 1937.
Hearst’s media empire was on the verge of collapse, and it was Marion – a formidable businesswoman, who had amassed her own fortune – who helped to bail him out. The Great Depression had hit newspaper sales badly, and as war loomed, Hearst fell out of step with public opinion.
Perhaps the greatest blow to Hearst’s reputation came with the release of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ portrait of a ruthless American tycoon, in 1942. The film was widely perceived as an attack on Hearst, though Kane was actually a composite of several figures.
Most hurtful of all was the depiction of Kane’s wife as a talentless singer whom he casts in a series of failed operettas. Critics and audiences wrongly assumed that ‘Susan Alexander’ was a thinly-veiled caricature of Marion Davies. In fact, Welles had based the character on someone else entirely. Hearst never forgave Welles, and spent his remaining years trying to destroy him.
Upon his death in 1951, Hearst’s family tried to freeze Marion out of his will. She took legal action to secure her inheritance, and shortly afterward eloped with Horace G. Brown, a former sea captain. Their marriage was not a happy one, and Marion reportedly drank heavily to escape her woes.
In her final decade, she produced a TV movie, Meet the Family, and founded a charity for orphans. Marion Davies died of stomach cancer at her Hollywood home on September 22, 1961, leaving an estate worth $20 million.