Tag Archives: Orson Welles

Mank (2020): a short note about Marion Davies

Can a fictional film damage a real person’s reputation? William Randolph Hearst certainly thought so, as he mobilised to stop the screenplay of Citizen Kane being turned into a movie. Charles Foster Kane was modelled, blatantly and pointedly, on Hearst himself, and within its fiction, Citizen Kane contained some painful, and subversive truths. That’s a moment captured in David Fincher’s fascinating new film Mank, which dramatises the process by which Herman J. Mankiewicz, holed up in a desert ranch with a collection of broken bones, wrote that incendiary movie script. And also, how his words were received in San Simeon, Hearst’s famous Californian castle.

Naturally, the film unfolds via a series of flashbacks, Kane-style, including a fun scene in which the MGM writing room pitches a remake of Caligari to Irving Thalberg, off-the-cuff. The central dramatic tension here is not between Mankiewicz (played here by Gary Oldman) and Tom Burke’s Orson Welles (although there was plenty of aggro there), but Mank’s previous encounters with Hearst (Charles Dance), and Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more than studio politics at stake, but actual politics too – here we see the genesis of Citizen Kane, which is here explicitly Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst. But while there no love lost between the men at the table, Mank does have a soft spot for Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, played here radiantly by Amanda Seyfried.

This is a platonic, playful friendship, and among Mank’s cast of fulminating and frustrated men in suits, Marion’s scenes leap off the screen. Marion and Mank chat while admiring the San Simeon elephants, while sipping from a flask hidden in one of the terraces’ stone benches – what’s not to love? Mank and Marion are great pals, who enjoy each other’s company and see the best in each other. Seyfried’s performance is every bit as captivating as Oldman’s, bursting through the heavy makeup she wears as Marion. Their dialogues are wonderful, but there is one devastating scene in which Marion sits silently horrified while Mank delivers a bitter, drunken monologue to her and Hearst’s guests at San Simeon. Seyfried proves an excellent silent actress, which is just as well, because she doesn’t have any lines.

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in Mank (2020)

Which brings us to an uncomfortable problem with Citizen Kane. Why did Mankiewicz expose his enemy Hearst by writing the undignified truth about him, but also humiliate his friend Davies by distorting her image with untruths? To summarise, a little bluntly: in the movie, Kane’s mistress and second wife is a talentless and lonely alcoholic with naïve dreams of being a great opera singer. Davies was a talented comic actress, whose films were very profitable. She was also an extremely popular person, whose career was stymied only because of Hearst’s insistence that she play prestige dramatic roles. Welles ferociously denied there was any connection between Davies and the fictional character of Susan Alexander Kane:

“That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. … The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than 30 years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.”

And yet Hearst read the script as an insult to Davies and many people fear that the mud, as it were, has stuck. Mank explains in full why Mankiewicz wanted to attack Hearst, but offers only one reason why his screenplay diminished his friend Davies. Some people, Mank asserts are headliners, and others are merely secondary characters. That’s a dramatist’s distinction, not the words of a friend.

Marion Davies

What makes Davies a secondary character though? I can’t possibly imagine. Mank tantalises the audience by giving us a glimpse of Davies’s brilliance, and then pushing her back to the sidelines. Because … she’s a secondary character, a distraction from the wranglings of men over their own legacies. Davies has a legacy worth protecting too, as anyone who has seen The Patsy or Show People, or any number of her other films, can tell you.

If you want to discover the truth about Marion Davies, you can read the many testimonies of her Hollywood friends in their own memoirs, you can even read her own autobiography of sorts (The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst) if you can find it. But I recommend you wait a little, until 2022, and the publication of Lara Fowler’s impressively researched biography, Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies (University of California Press). It’s bound to be worth a read, because the work Fowler has done already is exemplary, and because Davies deserves to be more than just a secondary character in someone else’s life story – whether that story belongs to Hearst, or Mankiewicz or anybody else.

  • Mank is released on Netflix on 4 December
  • Citizen Kane is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
  • I programmed a film season! Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love Again plays at BFI Southbank in December and includes the wonderful silent film she starred in: The Three Lovers/The Woman Men Yearn For (Curtis Bernhardt, 1929)
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.

Too Much Johnson (Orson Welles, 1938): Pordenone review

Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli
Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli

I have just attended the world premiere of an Orson Welles movie.

The above statement is almost true. What we saw tonight in Pordenone was the restoration of a work print, not even a rough cut, of a theatrical device. The scenes Welles filmed in New York in 1938 were to be shown as part of a Mercury Theatre production of the 1894 play Too Much Johnson. It’s an elegant solution: replacing pages of expository dialogue with silent prologues, shot slapstick-style to suit the on-stage farce and add a wash of nostalgic charm. Welles never completed editing the prologues, and in any case, the theatre the play first appeared in could not accommodate the projector. In fact, Too Much Johnson folded due to bad reviews before it ever came to New York and these 10 reels were abandoned for decades.

And yet, Too Much Johnson is not just a curio from theatre history. These reels are not quite a film, but something far more than fragments. The experience of watching them on a big screen, projected from 35mm, with expert piano accompaniment from Philip Carli, and commentary from Paolo Cherchi Usai, was dream-like, exhilarating and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious. Because we don’t have a final cut of Too Much Johnson, the footage includes retakes, gaps and mistakes. The extant material is a hint of what might have been – but also the heights that Welles was to achieve later in his career.

Joseph Cotten in Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli
Joseph Cotten in Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli

This is slapstick, ostensibly of the rowdy Keystone school, but from the off it is enlivened by some decidedly arty touches: this is a very good-looking piece of work. All the footage was shot undercranked to create that Keystone feel, a blanket measure that creates some queasy side-effects. An early argument scene is edited so frenetically, with so many extreme closeups, that it is more Eisenstein with Mack Sennett. An anarchic running gag in those first interior scenes has pot plants bursting into the frame, not least in what I can only describe as an arthouse comedy sex scene, an ultra-high-speed bedroom farce. And as Joseph Cotten (our reckless hero) and Edgar Barrier (the outraged husband of his lover) pursue each other up and down fire escapes and across rooftops, the camera records it all from the acute Expressionist angles Welles was so well known for. A scene of Barrier patrolling Manhattan knocking men’s hats off their heads is shot from high overhead – as Barrier attacks the crowds and the crowds form into mobs to attack back, the effect is of a musical dance sequence, a street ballet. And the sight of the ground after his spree littered with discarded bowlers and boaters is almost surreal, surprisingly poignant. In fact, Barrier’s leering, moustache-twirling closeups, which may be intended to evoke melodramatic early cinema villains, are unsettlingly camp. The scenes set in Cuba (actually a quarry in Tomkins Cove, New York) are exercises in economy – and its limits. With a few rented (and comically precarious) palm trees dotted across the rocky ground, Welles shoots from low angles to transform the quarry slopes into cliff-faces, with his actors tiny stick men brawling on the skyline.

Continue reading Too Much Johnson (Orson Welles, 1938): Pordenone review

Too Much Johnson restoration to premiere at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, 2013

Orson Welles directs Too Much Johnson
Orson Welles directs Too Much Johnson

It’s an unbelievable discovery, “stranger than fiction” as Paolo Cherchi Usai of the George Eastman House told me. Orson Welles’s 1938 silent movie Too Much Johnson, believed to be lost, destroyed in a fire, has finally turned up. Not only that, the film, which is admittedly just a work print, was discovered in a warehouse in Pordenone, home of the prestigious Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Rejoice, if you are going to Pordenone this year, because Too Much Johnson will have its premiere at the festival, on 9 October 2013, before screening at the George Eastman House (where the film was restored) in the US the following week. Cast your eyes on this lovely video preview of the film – and then click here to read a short piece I wrote for the Guardian about the film and its rediscovery. In it, Cherchi Usai tells me that the Welles film this lost-and-found work reminds him most of … is none other than Citizan Kane.

The Pordenone countdown starts here – read more of the programme for this year’s festival, including Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, with a score by Carl Davis, and the gorgeous modern silent Blancanieves, here on the Giornate website.