- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2001


''Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies" has film critics and historians praising the actress even before its opening credits roll and blaming the neglect of her work today on the perceived trashing of her in "Citizen Kane."

It's as if the documentary is coming at you with a polemical chip on its shoulder. That's not how it should be for an hourlong biography of an actress whose talent was as a light comedian. "Captured on Film" should have the fizzy feel of a champagne party, not the stern tone of score-settling.

Turner Classic Movies is playing the film Wednesday as part of a Valentine's Day package with 13 of Miss Davies' movies. It gives some sense of Miss Davies' skills as an actress and comedian but not nearly as much as a similar TCM documentary last fall did of silent-film star and character actor Lon Chaney.

"Captured on Film," to a small extent, even contributes to the problem it decries by devoting as much time to Miss Davies' relationship with communications magnate William Randolph Hearst, known as "W.R.," as to her movies.

Orson Welles' 1941 film "Citizen Kane" was based loosely on the life of Hearst, who backed the films of Miss Davies, his lifelong mistress. One of the principal characters in "Kane" is Susan Alexander, Kane's second wife, widely believed to be based on Miss Davies. "Captured on Film" describes the character as a "no-talent," a "drunk" and a "gold digger."

This isn't the place to launch a detailed defense of "Citizen Kane," except to note that the film is much subtler and more sympathetic in its treatment of Susan.

Ironically, "Captured on Film" states quite clearly that Miss Davies had a thing for the sauce and that in her later years, after the death of W.R., her drinking became an increasing problem. The voice-over narration says Marion's mother also pushed her daughters into show business because she believed romantic love must fade and that show biz was a good place to meet wealthy elder men.

The highlights of "Captured on Film" come when it cuts the gossip and shows us clips from Miss Davies' work. Although I wanted more, there's more than enough here to show that she really could act and clown.

As film historian Richard Brownlow says, Miss Davies was ahead of her time in creating the persona of the screwball comedienne in such silent films as "Quality Street" (1927), "The Patsy" (1928) and "Show People" (1928). She had a bright, bubbly screen persona that could play dizzy — but dizzy like a fox in the mold of Carole Lombard or even Gracie Allen.

She also was a master of disguise and dual roles and even had a bit of an androgynous quality about her. In her first talkie, 1929's "Marianne," we see her imitate a French soldier, and in her last film, 1937's "Ever Since Eve," she looks perfect playing a dowdy secretary (think Lily Tomlin) who tries to get back the job she lost as herself, a traditional 1930s blonde (think Jean Arthur).

In a similar vein, she could do fine imitations of other actors — we see scenes of her character hamming it up as Lillian Gish, Pola Negri and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

Although Miss Davies' films and talents obviously are awaiting rediscovery after decades of neglect, I wonder just how much her reputation suffers today from "Citizen Kane," 60 years after its release.

That film's titanic reputation far outdistances the gossip of the 1930s and 1940s. I doubt that very many people beyond hard-core film buffs make the connection between the fictional Susan Alexander Kane and the real Miss Davies. Those who do probably also know enough of the whole story. For example, "Show People," which shows how good Miss Davies could be and is widely considered one of the last great silent movies, is not difficult to find (by silent-film standards) in video stores and on cable TV.

I don't doubt that few filmgoers my age know much about Miss Davies — I have only seen three of her movies myself. Her fading, however, probably has much more to do with time and much more recent mistreatment by people other than Mr. Welles.

To its credit, "Captured on Film" shows Ruth Warrick, who played Kane's first wife, saying that Mr. Welles was mortified by the comparisons being made. It also shows clips from a 1957 tourist-promotion film of the Hearst estate at San Simeon in which Randolph Hearst, W.R.'s son, name-drops some of the celebrities who were there. "Marion Davies" never crosses his lips.

We also hear of how on the night of his death, W.R.'s family removed his body and all trace of his presence from Miss Davies' house after sedating the now-faded star.

What the documentary doesn't say (but the press notes do) is that Mr. Welles wrote a foreword to Miss Davies' 1975 memoir in which he not only pointed out the many ways her life differed from Susan's, but also spoke highly of Miss Davies as an actress and comedian.

That's all the recommendation I need. TCM's airing of 13 of Miss Davies' movies Wednesday and Thursday gives viewers a chance to judge for themselves. They can be seen from 9 p.m. Wednesday to 7 p.m. Thursday.{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies"WHERE: Turner Classic MoviesWHEN: 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Feb. 14

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