Marion Davies ≠ Susan Alexander

Today is the birthday of Marion Davies (1897–1961).

Marion Davies

Davies, for better or worse, is an actress best known through her connection to William Randolph Hearst. Unfortunately, if you know “Citizen Kane,” and know it to be a work of fiction loosely inspired by some aspects of Hearst’s life, you may think of Davies in terms of her analogue in “Citizen Kane,” Susan Alexander. But that would be unfair to Davies. Orson Welles admitted as much, saying in later years that his biggest regret about “Kane” was that it may have given people the wrong idea about Davies.

Marion Davies had an extramarital relationship with Hearst, just as Susan Alexander had one with Kane. Hearst tried to advance Davies’ career in a ham-fisted fashion, just as Kane did with Alexander. But the differences are more revealing than the similarities:

Marion Davies was an actress, not a singer. Hearst created a production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, which operated as a separate production unit within a larger studio (originally Paramount, later M-G-M, and finally Warner Brothers). Hearst’s whole reason for creating Cosmopolitan was to promote Davies’ career, and the host studios agreed to work with him because of the promise of free publicity in Hearst’s newspaper chain, as well as the rights to adapt short stories or serials originally published in Hearst magazines (including Cosmopolitan, which gave the production company its name).

Depending on how you interpret “Citizen Kane,” you can say that Susan Alexander wasn’t a very talented singer — or you can give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she might have been talented in some types of singing, but that Charles Foster Kane humiliated her by trying to force her into opera, for which she was not suited.

The opera plotline was actually inspired in part by two different Chicago-based tycoons, Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick, one of whom built the Chicago Opera House and the other of whom promoted his wife’s career as an opera singer. But it also works as an analogy for Hearst and Davies.

Film critics have praised Davies’ comedy work, but Hearst felt that she needed to be in prestige dramas, which she didn’t carry as well. Hearst was constantly pushing Cosmopolitan’s host studio of the moment to cast Davies in serious dramatic parts, and when Cosmopolitan left M-G-M it was because there had been a couple of high-profile dramatic parts which had been given to other actresses even though Hearst had wanted them for Davies.

Davies was, from everything I’ve read, well-liked in Hollywood, and had a natural madcap personality (one reason she was better served by comedy). If Hearst hadn’t kept trying to push her into dramatic roles, her career might have been quite different.

In “Citizen Kane,” which was subject to the Production Code, Kane would never have been allowed to carry on a long-term, openly-adulterous relationship. Kane, after his affair with Susan Alexander is exposed, gets a divorce and then marries Alexander. His ex-wife and son are killed in a car accident soon after, a cruel trick of the screenwriters to get them out of the picture. In real life, Mrs. Hearst would never grant her husband a divorce, and so Hearst’s adulterous relationship to Davies was a long-term situation — and no secret to anyone involved.

Susan Alexander eventually gets fed up with Charles Foster Kane and leaves him, but Marion Davies remained with Hearst for the rest of Hearst’s life, even after her Hollywood career had ended. After Hearst’s death, Davies was completely shut out by Hearst’s family, which is not that surprising. She married, unhappily, and then later became quite active in charity work.

I don’t mean to make light of an extramarital relationship, but I do think that Davies seems, in many regards, a much better person than her fictional counterpart.