George Hill: Zander the Great | Undercrank (2022) | featured image
Marion Davies in George Hill's Zander the Great | Undercrank Productions 2022 (cover)

Silent Screen Diva Marion Davies’ Enjoyable Nonsense

Silent screen star Marion Davies makes these two restored films by directors George Hill and Sidney Franklin irresistibly delightful.

Zander the Great
George Hill
Undercrank Productions
1 February 2022 (US)
Beverly of Graustark
Sidney Franklin
Undercrank Productions
12 April 2022 (US)

One of today’s reliable sources of Blu-rays for silent film buffs is Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions, which uses Kickstarter funds to scan prints preserved at the Library of Congress and release them with Model’s new, traditional-sounding organ scores. He’s issued several films of silent screen diva Marion Davies (who was also a producer, screenwriter, and philanthropist) in this manner, and here come two more.

The more we see of Davies’ films, the more we appreciate her magnetism and charm. These are better reasons to watch than the gossip surrounding her relationship with William Randolph Hearst, which is what has kept her name most famous for decades. That said, his spare-no-expense approach to funding her vehicles through their company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, ensured that plenty of great talent was involved and the films remain highly watchable.

Zander the Great, or, Where
the Bunnies Mark the Time

Zander the Great (1925) opens with Davies in Mary Pickford‘s territory of heart-tugging orphan mode. In a Dickensian conceit, the orphans are introduced sweating under huge loads of laundry. Mamie Smith (Davies), introduced from the back, indulges in some of the plucky, spunky, comical antics that Davies did so well and liked to do. There’s a lively moment when she rides a bicycle out of control and the camera joins her with frantic speed. Surely a stunt double is used for certain shots.

Alas, the scowling and sadistic gorgon-matron (Emily Fitzroy), whom I’ll swear is deliberately made up to look like a man in drag, puts the kibosh on Mamie’s high spirits via physical abuse that leaves her tied up and insensible on the floor of a gorgeously photographed storeroom with extravagantly moted sunbeams in the air. Mamie milks more tear-stained melodrama when one allegedly kindly patron arranges for her adoption by Mrs. Caldwell (Hedda Hopper), who’s not long for this film. Five years pass, and Mamie has grown to the point that it’s no longer necessary to stage Davies as though she’s standing in a hole. More to the point, Mrs. Caldwell’s baby Alexander, or Zander (Jack Huff), is now a photographable tyke who can take direction. Although the film is named for him, he’s not terribly important to the events.

Mrs. Caldwell has waited years for her husband’s return from Mexico. As she’s dying, she finally receives a letter that says he’s moving to Arizona and wants nothing to do with her. Mamie’s last act for her kind mistress is prevarication about the contents of the letter, and next, she’s peremptorily claiming guardianship of the boy and heading off to Arizona to find daddy.

They bring their two pet rabbits, and Mamie’s passage of time in driving the Ford car (also appropriated from the late Mrs. Caldwell) from New Jersey to Arizona is cleverly measured by how many rabbits they arrive with. Those rabbits become a symbolic motif for the rest of the film. Possibly Mamie’s trip involved detours (that’s an awful lot of rabbits), for Wikipedia reports that promotional stills exist showing Mamie in a circus setting that doesn’t appear in the film as we know it.

Most of the film is a modern western in very majestic settings, both indoors and outdoors, as designed by Joseph Urban. Mamie stops at the huge Spanish-style rancho occupied by three shady men whom the sheriff (popular hero Hobart Bosworth) suspects are bootleggers. These men are young Dan Murchison (Harrison Ford) and his comic associates, Texas (Harry Myers) and Good News (Harry Watson). Dan’s best friend is neighbor Juan Fernandez in a full sombrero, played by Holbrook Blinn, who was in at least two other Davies films.

It’s infatuation at first sight for Dan and Mamie, and for a while, things are complicated with lots of backing and forthing between them. All must be resolved by combining a huge sandstorm and a shootout with bandits led by “renegade Texan” Black Bart (George Siegmann).

Zander the Great marked Cosmopolitan’s first production (and Davies’ 20th film) under a new distribution deal with MGM. This expensive film involved extensive re-shoots demanded by Hearst, according to Wikipedia, whose source is Edward Lorusso’s The Silent Films of Marion Davies (Createspace, 2017); Lorusso also produced this release along with Model.

Wikipedia claims the powerful and busy Frances Marion is the writer, as per the promotional poster that says “adapted by Frances Marion”. The film lists her as Editorial Supervisor while Lillie Hayward, who’d specialize in films about dogs and horses, is given credit for adapting Edward Salisbury Field’s play. Maybe the bunnies were her idea. Field, at one time a Hearst cartoonist, wrote popular plays and novels, married Robert Louis Stevenson’s step-daughter, became very rich, and hosted arty gatherings at his ranch, not unlike at Hearst’s San Simeon.

George Hille, who directed a handful of very successful films, would be married to Frances Marion for a few years. Unfortunately, he committed suicide not long after sustaining injuries in a car accident in 1934, at age 39. This film is well-directed, though we can’t help noticing the frequent inserts of Davies’ close-ups that seem to drop in from another reality, as backgrounds don’t match. The close-ups remind us of exactly whose film this is. Apparently, Hill replaced Clarence Badger, who got fired; maybe he didn’t include enough closeups.

Beverly of Graustark: A Lavish and Lighthearted Masquerade

Made one year later, Beverly of Graustark is a historical romp that could hardly have failed and didn’t. Its source is one of the many romantic adventure novels by George Barr McCutcheon set in the fictional European kingdom of Graustark. These were so thunderously popular early in the 20th Century that “Graustarkian” was a generic definition equivalent to “Ruritanian”, although nowadays people are even forgetting “Ruritanian”.

Despite the lavish “costume” nature of the story, this is one of Davies’ light-hearted larks, all slapstick and sauciness, and it’s overplayed accordingly and bewitchingly. Our heroine Beverly (Davies) is a cousin to Oscar (Creighton Hale), who’s just accepted his place on Graustark’s throne after living in America for most of his life. An accident delays Oscar from making his claim for a few days, so naturally, Beverly masquerades as his royal highness. What could be more reasonable?

The disguised Beverly partly has her hands full from the machinations of the oily General Marlanax (Roy D’Arcy) and his strumpeting consort, Carlotta (Paulette Duval). However, her attention is commanded even more by the strapping goat-herder, Dantan (matinee idol Antonio Moreno), who saves her life under amusing circumstances. He really becomes the film’s sex object.

The instantly besotted girl-king appoints Dantan her personal bodyguard and begins simpering and vamping the clueless gentleman, whose eye is then caught by another of Beverly’s alter egos in a Cinderella-like ball. Just as a cherry on top, the final sequence is in yummy two-strip Technicolor, as preserved on this Library of Congress print. If Zander the Great is no more than enjoyable nonsense, Beverly of Graustark is even more nonsensical and even more enjoyable, partly from the sexy plot and partly from seeing a woman in charge.

Director Sidney Franklin was long associated with classy big-budget vehicles for strong actresses, so this fits his profile. He handles everything deftly, slyly, and briskly. Writer Agnes Christine Johnson was prolific through the silent era and carried into the talkies. She and the above-mentioned Lillie Hayward collaborated on Black Beauty (Max Nosseck, 1946), an example of Hayward’s horse films.

Beverly of Graustark is taken from a 4K scan of a 35mm nitrate print at the Library of Congress’ Marion Davies Collection. Zander the Great was scanned in 2K from a 35mm safety duplicate negative in the same collection. Both prints look very good. As we mentioned, they’re part of a series of Davies Blu-rays from Undercrank, and that includes another film where she’s disguised as a boy, Little Old New York. This woman made lots of films and we hope all that still exist see the digital light.