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  • Silence to SoundThe Resilience of Marion Davies
  • Lara Gabrielle Fowler (bio)

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Marion Davies in Hearts Divided (1936), courtesy of the collection of Marion Lake Canessa

[End Page 153]

I thought I didn’t want to go back. I thought I’d like to jump off the boat and wished the earth would open up, because I said “I cannot do sound pictures.”

While much of America was caught in the economic downturn of the late 1920s, Marion Davies’s film career was soaring. She had managed to convince William Randolph Hearst, her studio boss and real-life romantic partner, to cast her in comedies instead of the heavy romantic dramas that had defined her film career up to this point. The results were spectacular. In 1928 alone, Davies made three of her best films, proving her abilities as a mimic and her gifts as a physical comedienne. Silent film was still the industry norm in 1928, though the release of The Jazz Singer the previous October had called its future into question.

In the spring of 1928, Davies took a trip to Europe with Hearst and a large group of friends, including close friend Maury Paul. Upon their return, the group was to spend several days in New York before returning to California. Paul and Davies decided to go to the cinema one evening shortly after their arrival in New York to see a film whose release had been distressing to Davies in Europe. The film was a musical, The Singing Fool, starring Al Jolson. It was a phenomenal financial success upon its release, solidifying the status of talking pictures as the future of filmmaking. As Jolson sang one of the prominent songs in the film, “Sonny Boy,” Paul looked over at Davies and noticed that she had tears in her eyes. He leaned over to comfort her, but as he did, Davies whispered in her friend’s ear the true reason for her tears: “I’m ruined. I’m ruined.”


Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Marion Davies (her birth name was Marion Douras) was the fifth and youngest child of a Columbia-educated lawyer who had a penchant for taking cases he couldn’t win. She grew up lower middle class, raised primarily by her beloved mother, Rose, along with three sisters and a brother, Charles, who died in childhood. Charles had a noticeable stutter, and shortly after his death, when Marion was a toddler, her parents noticed that she, too, was developing the same condition. The stutter was never to leave her, affecting nearly every aspect of her life and becoming a distinct part of her identity.

“Mama Rose” was a doting and concerned mother but did little to remedy her youngest daughter’s speech problems. Marion’s stutter [End Page 154] seemed almost a comfort to her after her loss of a son with the same condition. She worried more about how her girls were going to get on in the world after they left the nest. Mama Rose encouraged her daughters, in what Anita Loos called “the Gigi tradition,” to accept the advances of the older, wealthy men who came their way, with the ultimate goal of settling down and getting married to one of them. Each daughter would do this, with varying degrees of success.

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Cecilia of the Pink Roses (1918), Select Pictures

By the eighth grade, Marion’s stutter proved too frustrating for her to remain in school, though she was a capable athlete and her intelligence was high. She soon left and followed her eldest sister onto the Broadway stage, also following her sister’s decision to take the stage name Davies. From then on, she was known as Marion Davies, though she remained Marion Douras on paper for the rest of her life.

Davies’s bubbly exuberance and charisma ultimately secured her a place in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916, and backstage she entered the world of wealthy men that Mama Rose had envisioned for her daughters. Stage-door Johnnies flocked to the chorus girls of Ziegfeld shows, showering [End Page 155]

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pp. 153-163
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