3 December 2007 | wmorrow59
And Marion never looked lovelier!
In her best comedies, such as The Patsy and Show People, Marion Davies absolutely sparkles. She was a first rate comedienne, a worthy successor to Mabel Normand as the screen's greatest female comic, and undoubtedly an influence on those who followed her, especially Carole Lombard and Lucille Ball. (I'll bet that both Carole and Lucy went to Davies' movies when they were teenagers and watched her closely.) Marion was gifted, and several of her movies are still fun to watch, but it's hard not to wonder what she might have done with better professional guidance. Her Hollywood career was dominated by her paramour William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who also produced her films, and W.R. had an unfortunate fondness for old- fashioned costume dramas. It's said that he liked to see Marion dressed up in period outfits. Perhaps he believed the high-toned settings of these films, most of which were based on novels or plays, helped elevate his girlfriend's stature in the public mind. Therefore, with infrequent exceptions, Davies was compelled to avoid contemporary stories or anything too jazzy during much of the Jazz Age, instead devoting herself to the historical pieces W.R. preferred.
Quality Street, based on a 1901 play by J.M. "Peter Pan" Barrie, is set in England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the milieu we tend to associate with the works of Jane Austen. As in her novels, this story features a bright and spirited young lady who suffers some setbacks on her way to (implied) marital bliss with a grinning, handsome young swain, a doctor in this case. But Barrie's story lacks the sharp social observation Austen brought to her books, and also lacks the colorful supporting characters she created to populate her world. Quality Street revolves around a relatively small group of people, and is focused entirely on the fortunes of Phoebe Throssel (Marion Davies), a woman who lives with her sister and is courted by Dr. Valentine Brown (Conrad Nagel). A marriage proposal is expected, but instead war breaks out and the doctor leaves for battle. Phoebe and her sister set up a classroom in their home and teach day students to make ends meet.
The first portion of the film detailing the lovers' courtship is fairly lively and promising, but once Phoebe becomes a teacher the pace becomes leaden and the humor vanishes. Years have passed, and Phoebe is now a sad, dispirited "old maid" who pulls back her hair under an unflattering cap and has to wear spectacles to read. (In Hollywood movies, it seems, being an unmarried woman is bad for your eyesight.) When Brown, now a uniformed Captain, returns after years away, he behaves and looks exactly the same—only with the addition of a dashing scar on his cheek—but when he sees how Phoebe has aged his disappointment and dismay are obvious. (Personally I suspect that combat has a more deleterious effect on one's appearance than teaching, but perhaps there are teachers who would disagree.) Once he's gone, Phoebe finally erupts with anger and frustration and decides to masquerade as her own niece, a fictional creation she calls 'Miss Livvy.' She meets with Captain Brown in this guise, a more flirtatious and naughty version of her younger self. He fails to recognize Phoebe, and is almost instantly smitten with Livvy, and soon he is taking her to a party in her aunt's place.
I haven't seen or read the original Barrie play, but based on a synopsis, and on the 1937 sound remake that featured Katharine Hepburn, it appears that the silent version took liberties with the original story at this juncture, and in doing so garbled the point Barrie was trying to make. Although it strains our credulity that Captain Brown can't tell the difference between Phoebe and "Livvy," we're willing to accept the mistaken identity convention, familiar from Shakespeare and farce comedy; as we head into the final scene the important point is how the man is going to choose, and what the choice says about his character. In Barrie's original version (and in the Hepburn film) Brown comes to dislike Livvy, and tells her that her Aunt Phoebe is a far superior woman. Thus, we know he's a decent guy. But in the silent film, it appears that he is so smitten with Livvy he's on the verge of proposing to her, and only learns the truth about the deception from a servant. Then he has the gall to tell Phoebe that heart and character are more important than a youthful, pretty face—although he was willing to ignore Livvy's flighty personality, just as he now ignores Phoebe's mature beauty—as they go into their final clinch. So our leading man comes off as stupid and shallow, and our leading lady comes off as so desperate she'll accept him on any terms. I don't think this was what J.M. Barrie had in mind.
Well, on the plus side the movie boasts sumptuous production values. Like her contemporaries Pickford, Fairbanks, and Swanson, Marion Davies had a hand in the production side of her movies, and they always look great. The cinematography is especially notable. Over all, this is a comedy-drama that could have used more humor, but Davies and the other players make the most of the occasional opportunities to amuse. I just wish the leading lady had been given more comic material. For much of the way, and despite the entertaining moments, this is like watching Marion Davies try to give a performance while confined in a straitjacket.