Marion Davies, actress and mistress of William Randolph Hearst, was portrayed as untalented in Citizen Kane.

Was the Actress Marion Davies Really As Untalented As Citizen Kane Made Her Out to Be?

Was the Actress Marion Davies Really As Untalented As Citizen Kane Made Her Out to Be?

The secret history of Hollywood.
Sept. 24 2015 12:58 PM

The Mistress, the Magnate, and the Genius

Was actress Marion Davies really as untalented as Citizen Kane made her out to be?

Marion Davies
Marion Davies.

Photo by Alfred Cheney Johnston via Wikimedia Commons

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, has joined Panoply. And when each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in a transcript excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 2 below, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

Thanks to Orson Welles’ groundbreaking 1941 epic Citizen Kane, the showgirl-turned-actress Marion Davies is enshrined in memory as the gorgeous but embarrassingly untalented mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. After all, that’s how she’s portrayed—or at least, how Dorothy Comingore played a Davies-esque singer in Welles’ film. But Davies was not an exact real-life dupe for the character in Welles’ film. In real life, Davies’ involvement with the much older Hearst both ensured she would have a movie career, and also doomed Davies to ridicule and limited stardom. Her competition with the wife of MGM’s Irving Thalberg soured the mutually beneficial relationship between Hearst and the studio—but nevertheless, on Hearst and Davies’ behalf, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer tried to destroy the greatest American film ever made.


In 1918 Hearst signed Davies to a contract with his newly-formed production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, at $5 a week. Davies had a stutter, but that didn’t matter—she had big, expressive eyes, highly photogenic blonde hair, and an adorable pout. Even Davies’ detractors would have to admit that she was incredibly photogenic, and she could sell a joke. Davies’ memoirs reveal the actress to have a dry sense of humor, above all about herself. As she would crack about her career beginnings, “I couldn’t act, but the idea of silent pictures appealed to me because I couldn’t talk either.”

Hearst’s stroke of genius when it came to Marion Davies was to use what he had already proven had worked when it came to selling newspapers, and more than that, manipulating reality: If he wanted something to happen, he would report that it was happening, and then it would happen. And so Hearst put the weight of his newspaper empire into spreading the news about this amazing new star, Marion Davies, and then he found some movies for her to star in. By 1920, Davies had appeared in seven films, and had working with top talents including screenwriter Anita Loos and Director Alan Dwan. She still hadn’t really proved herself as a performer.

By now, it was common knowledge that Davies was Hearst’s mistress. Around 1919, she moved in with W.R. at his newly constructed California estate, San Simeon.* The Catholic Hearst hadn’t divorced his wife, Millicent, and he never would—but Davies would live with Hearst openly for decades. By 1921, non-Hearst papers had begun to insinuate that Davies’ movies were merely vanity productions. Reviewing Marion’s reincarnation movie Buried Treasure, the New York Times predicted viewers would wonder, “Why do they do this, when they have so much money to spend on something good?” It was true that Hearst’s wallet knew no bounds when it came to Marion Davies movies. At the same time, another thing that was undeniable about Davies was that off screen she was fun, funny, and liked by just about everyone, and other papers were starting to take notice of Davies’ beauty and vitality, particularly after the 1921 film Enchantment, in which Davies played a flapper a full two years before the Colleen Moore film Flaming Youth, which is all but universally considered to be the flapper type’s on-screen debut.*

But the fun-loving modern Davies played in Enchantment was an anomaly, because Hearst was extremely controlling about his girlfriend’s on-screen image. He was a product of the 19th century, and as much as he was living out a very 20th-century situation with his mistress in California while his estranged wife cashed checks in New York, Hearst was determined to keep Davies’ on-screen image pure to the point of being Victorian. In fact, some have suggested that it was exactly their non-conventional relationship that made Hearst so intent on protecting Davies’ persona. Hearst knew he and Marion could never marry, and because of that he knew that she would always be considered by many to be a fallen woman, living in sin. In insisting that she never lose her quote-unquote dignity on screen, Hearst was in a sense trying to restore the virtue he had felt he had robbed from her in life.


In February 1923, Hearst found a distribution partner for his production company in Goldwyn Pictures. A little more than a year later, the struggling Goldwyn company was bought by Loews Inc. and folded into their newly formed conglomerate, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Goldwyn’s assets were brought into the new company, including their studio lot, and their contract with Hearst, which meant that Davies and her movies were now de facto property of MGM. Hearst went on to negotiate an unprecedented deal for himself and Marion, who he had named president of his Cosmopolitan Pictures in order to ensure that she would get a sizable share of the profits, and have money of her own. Under the MGM deal, the studio fully financed the movies, and turned 30 percent of the profits over to Hearst and Davies, who was also paid a salary of $10,000 a week, of which MGM paid 60 percent and Hearst paid the rest.

Louis B. Mayer of MGM didn’t make this deal because he was so enamored of Marion Davies’ talent. He made this deal because it bought him publicity that money ordinarily couldn’t buy. In exchange for financing and distributing Marion’s movies, MGM had unlimited access to Hearst publications for the promotion of its films. This was a huge deal, effectively making sure that MGM movies got more press, in more prominent publications, than productions of any other studio.

In 1928, after the release of his masterful silent film The Crowd, the great King Vidor approached Marion about starring in a Hollywood satire he wanted to make, spoofing Gloria Swanson’s transition from physical comedienne to grand dame. Vidor, like everyone who knew Marion socially in Hollywood, knew she had a gift for impressions; he also knew she had a gift for physical comedy that hadn’t been fully tapped on screen, and he knew she would be perfect for the part that required her to both mock-swan and take a pie in the face. When Vidor presented the idea to Davies and Hearst, Marion was into it. Then, a couple of days before the film was to begin shooting, Vidor was called into Mayer’s office, and found Hearst sitting there. Hearst told Vidor flat out: “I’m not going to let Marion be hit in the face with a pie.” Davies made the movie, which was called Show People, and there was no pie. But she managed to arrange to have Hearst called away to his newspaper office one day so that they could shoot her getting a spray of soda water right in her pretty face.

After Show People, Marion, W.R., and 12 of Marion’s closest girlfriends went off to Europe for three months. By the time they got back, sound had taken hold at MGM. They were the last studio to adopt the new technology, and by late 1928, they couldn’t hold out any longer. That fall, Warner Brothers released the The Singing Fool, the second Al Jolson musical, after the groundbreaking The Jazz Singer. After returning from Europe, Marion went to see the film, in which Jolson sang the tear-jerking song “Sonny Boy” in blackface. Marion walked out of the theater weeping—not because Jolson’s performance had had the intended affect on her as an audience member, but because the triumph of sound scared her to death. Marion secretly stuttered. She was sure her career was over.


The dreaded time came to test the sound acting abilities of all of MGM’s silent stars. Marion nipped brandy just to get through it, and when it was over she was sure she’d failed, but Thalberg told her that in fact, her test was the best of the lot, and he extended her contract that night. Now, knowing what we know, we could suspect that Thalberg’s effusive praise of Davies’ sound acting abilities had nothing to do with her actual sound acting abilities—that she and Hearst were merely too valuable to MGM to be let go. But Thalberg immediately rushed Davies into production on her first sound film, called Marianne, which he personally oversaw. Marianne, in which Marion played a French maid, was shot as both a silent and a talkie, but because the talkie worked so well, the silent version was never exhibited. Here’s a clip from the film, in which you can hear Davies’ surprisingly moderate voice—and her really solid French accent.

So Marion Davies survived the transition from silents to sound. But she couldn’t get the really good parts that MGM had to offer, because they went to another aging female star—Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg’s wife. Davies would later call Marie Antoinette “the straw that broke the camel’s back at MGM.” She did extensive research on the controversial queen of France, reading Stefan Zweig’s biography at Hearst’s urging, and she really seemed to believe that she had a chance at winning the part over Shearer, even though she had been told repeatedly by MGM that they didn’t see her as a serious actress. When Shearer was cast, Hearst declared that he and Davies were leaving MGM and moving their operation to Warner Brothers.

Marion’s MGM bungalow was dismantled and moved in pieces on a truck to the Warner Brothers lot, where it was reconstructed. Davies claimed Mayer wept watching it go.

* * *


At Warner Brothers, Davies made four features, and then in 1937, at the age of 40, she announced her retirement. Marion and W.R. settled in at San Simeon. Hearst, now 74, was watching the collapse of his empire—he was financially overextended, and his politics, in particular the harsh criticism of Roosevelt espoused in his papers, were out of step with the times. The Hearst corporation was reorganized, and Hearst himself was forced to give up his film company. He was so short on cash that he had to start selling off art and antiques. Marion reached into her own savings and gave her long-term benefactor $5 million—you know, walking around money.

In 1941, Hollywood started buzzing that an upstart writer-director-actor had made a film about Hearst. Orson Welles would later say that Citizen Kane is not a biopic about William Randolph Hearst—that he intended Kane to be a composite of a lot of powerful men, including Chicago press baron Robert McCormick, and that Susan Alexander, the blonde singer who Hearst leaves his wife to be with, and whose career Hearst invents by using his newspapers to print false reports of her success, was by no means intended to call to mind Marion Davies.* But the parallels between the film and Davies and Hearst’s lives were hard to ignore. It was in the broad strokes, like Kane’s habit of making up the news to further his own agendas, and it was in the little details, like the jigsaw puzzle that represents Susan’s passage of time in Kane’s castle, and her drinking—Marion did while away hours working on jigsaw puzzles, and she was a drinker. But Welles would point out a key difference between the real woman and the one invented for his film: Kane married Susan.

“The wife was a puppet and a prisoner,” Welles would write. “The mistress was never less than a princess. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.”

Back in 1941, Hearst knew there wasn’t enough in Welles’ film to constitute a slander or libel suit, and he didn’t want to draw attention to the movie by trying to sue. So he did the opposite: Hearst banned all of his papers from covering Citizen Kane, and initially other RKO movies as well. Then Louella Parsons, the gossip columnist employed by the Hearst corporation, got into the act.* She started calling studios and threatening to release all of the scandalous information she had been holding on to if they didn’t all band together and shame RKO into dropping the movie. Fox, Warner Brothers, and MGM each announced that their theater chains would not exhibit the movie.

And at the behest of Louis B. Mayer, Loews, MGM’s parent company, went a step further. Lead executive Nick Schenck approached George Schaefer, the president of RKO, and offered him $800,000, the reported budget of the movie, if RKO would destroy the negative and all prints that had been struck. Schaefer refused—without consulting his board, who he thought might be persuadable. Schaefer stuck by Citizen Kane, releasing the film into all the theaters that would take it, and buying ads in every non-Hearst publication he could find. But the campaign against the movie hurt it, and the film now basically agreed upon to be the greatest Hollywood production of all time was considered a financial under-performer in its time.

Marion Davies said she wasn’t personally bothered by Citizen Kane—she had been taught well by Hearst to ignore bad press. She said she never even saw the film, and claimed Hearst hadn’t either. And unlike Susan Alexander, Marion Davies stayed with William Randolph Hearst until he died, in 1951.

Correction, Sept. 25, 2015: This article originally misspelled Colleen Moore’s first name, Louella Parsons’ first name, and Robert McCormick’s last name. (Return.) It also misstated that San Simeon is in Santa Barbara, California. It’s not. (Return.)