Monday Editor’s Pick: The Patsy (1928)

by on January 30, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Feb 6 at 8:20* at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner

Alt Screen is sad to see our Monday nights soon bereft of classics from MGM’s silent golden age at Film Forum, but they’re going out with a bang.

Imogen Smith wrote a complimentary Alt Screen feature on the series; love or hate impending Oscar-winner The Artist (word on the street is that star Bérénice Bejo has been frequenting the FF fest), it is a fantastic rundown of some of the greatest stars of the era. Star Marion Davies does her own performative rendition, having a ball in Show People with a side-splitting Gloria Swanson impression, and in The Patsy poking good-natured fun at Mae Murray, Pola Negri and Lillian Gish.

Pauline Kael considered it her “childhood favorite.”



Alt Screen contributor Cullen Gallagher believes the Vidor-Davies collaborations to be the highlights of the series, for Our Town Downtown:

The real hidden gems of the series, however, are two films starring the criminally underrated Marion Davies, an immensely talented actress equally adept at slapstick comedy and subtle characterization. Her spirited portrayal of the “ugly duckling” younger sister hopelessly in love with her older sister’s beau in The Patsy is utterly delightful, and the film’s unpretentious charm is a surefire bet even for those new to silent cinema.



Richard Koszarski in Film Quarterly (1969/1970):

“The Patsy,” (not even listed in the Vidor filmography published in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema), proves to be one of Vidor’s most successful films, a brilliantly witty comedy with multiple gag variations, effortless and unobtrusive camera movements and editing, and fine performances from the entire cast, headed by Marie Dressler and Marion Davies (who proves herself a fine comedienne as a hapless flapper.)


The UCLA program notes for its “Queens of Comedy” festival:

Overshadowed and stifled by both her mother and her older sister, young Patsy (Marion Davies) decides to announce her independence by making a play for one of her sister’s boyfriends. Energetic, irrepressible, bubbling over with good humor yet capable of quiet sensitivity, Marion Davies proves here (as with Show People) that she was a genuine star. In her most celebrated scene, she demonstrates her talent for mimicry by offering devastatingly accurate impressions of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri. Along with Marion’s performance, The Patsy offers the services of a distinguished supporting cast, most notably Marie Dressler as Marion’s domineering mother. Dressler was fighting her way back from a long period of undeserved obscurity, and her role in The Patsy was an important step in her comeback.


Leonard Maltin introduces the film:


Ryland Walker Knight saw the film close the 2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, for The House Next Door:

The second biggest crowd reaction was for the final film of the festival, a King Vidor-Marion Davies screwball called The Patsy. Vidor’s visual sense helps string the set pieces along and keeps the performances strong through to the close. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong with Davies’ big eyes and goofy mugging, and the dress-up sequence when she impersonates other screen stars of the era is brilliant, hilarious fun (even if you don’t know all the references). It was a fine ending, lifting the crowd and sending them home happy, proud of themselves for paying their dues to this often neglected branch of cinema history.



Molly Haskell for The Village Voice (September 1972):

In her two 1928 films with Vidor, Miss Davies reveals herself to be far from the no-talent nepotistress of record, a comedienne of considerable invention and grace who was, if anything, hampered rather than helped by the misguided publicity efforts of her patron [William Randolph Hurst]. In The Patsy, the more integrated of the two films, wide-eyed and love-sick, with her blonde pageboy and bouncy stride, Davies is contrasted with the slim and sultry brunette sister, who comes out of the genteel femme-fatale tradition. Within the family they, in turn, are aligned, respectively with Dell Henderson as the ineffectual but latently masterful father and Marie Dressler as the imperiously dumb social-climbing mother.
The contrast between the down-to-earth and authentic on the one hand, and the phony Europeanized and pretentious on the other, is a constant theme not just of Vidor but of American movies of the period. Pat resembles the real, the American, as opposed to the exotic, the foreign, but with a typically American inferiority complex, she thinks this is insufficient. Her campaign, to which much reading material and counsel is devoted, is to develop a “personality” in order to ensnare a man; (but, she protests privately, she already has one, he just hasn’t noticed it.) The high point of the film is Davies’s impersonations – her acquired “personalities” – of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri, as sure-fire man-baiting ploys. These are beautifully sustained “bits,” particularly the one of Gish which builds and lengthens and seems to evoke her entire repertoire, culminating in The Scarlet Letter.


These, and the behavioral details of her relationship with er sister – stopping up her ears with her forefingers to terminate debate, clawing at her sister’s face in pantomime – suggest Davies’s authorship, so naturally do they emanate from her personality. This impressed was confirmed by Vidor, who said Davies was a renowned cut-up at parties where she used to do impersonations, and that it was this side of her he wanted to bring out.


Alt Screen contributing editor Dan Callahan attests to the comic gold of the Gish impersonation, for Bright Lights Film Journal:

In King Vidor’s MGM comedy The Patsy (1928), Marion Davies does a devastatingly accurate parody of Gish’s acting style. Davies puts a Scarlet Letter cap on her head, then draws her mouth into a tiny Gish dot, which makes her face wizened and prim. She mimics Gish’s hand gestures, especially her tendency to throw her fingers around bizarrely. To complete the effect, she raises her sad eyes up to heaven beseechingly. It’s all very unfair, really, but so punishingly detailed and funny that I was unable to watch Gish seriously for some time after I saw it.



Bret Wood with some background, for TCM:

A Cinderella fable for the Jazz Age, King Vidor’s The Patsy (1928) is a perfectly-tooled vehicle for the comic talents of Marion Davies. Davies was genuinely talented and might have had a more rewarding career if not saddled with the responsibilities of carrying entire films on her shoulders and living up to the hyperbole generated by Hearst’s network of newspapers. Near the conclusion of The Patsy, Davies’s personality absolutely sparkles, as she performs impromptu impersonations of several silent movie divas. Incidentally, Murray and Negri were personal friends of Davies, and among the elite visitors to Hearst’s legendary San Simeon estate.
Davies was not the only person to benefit from the success of The Patsy. “I was in solid,” proclaimed Vidor. The film proved him as adept at romantic comedy as the heavyweight social drama for which he is still known (The Crowd [1928], The Big Parade [1925]). Although a departure from serious subject matter, The Patsy managed to reflect some of the political attitudes of Vidor’s more weighty films. In crafting this frothy romantic comedy, he parallels the values of the irresponsible playboy — darting about in a speedboat, mocking the working class when he poses as a butterfingered waiter — with Tony’s more admirable pursuits. Tony epitomizes the hands-on optimism of Vidor’s other heroes. Idealistic Tony is designing an ambitious suburban development (“Gas, electricity, sewers!”) and, ever-industrious, when he visits the Harrington’s house, he cannot help but try to repair their malfunctioning doorbell with a pocketknife. Vidor also lances class pretensions by allowing Pat’s mother to reveal her ignorance and shallowness even as she vies for upward mobility. “Don’t you know it’s not good manners to be polite to a waiter?” she asks Pat in one scene.
One cannot help but wonder why a socially-minded anti-capitalist such as Vidor would direct not one but three vehicles for the mistress of one of the wealthiest men in America. As Vidor explains, “The approach came in the form of a request to do a favor for [studio head Louis B.] Mayer and, in addition, earn a substantial income. W.R. would always pay high when he thought anyone could do a good job for Marion…Mind you, this was not an unpleasant chore. I directed Marion in three comedies and I considered her to be a most accomplished comedienne.”


Victoria Large for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

From its first moments, depicting a middle class family eating their Sunday lunch in mechanical unison, the King Vidor-directed silent comedy The Patsy has a wonderfully satiric bent. It’s the kind of picture that finds Marie Dressler, as an overbearing matriarch intent on social climbing, spitting one-liners like “Don’t you know it’s bad manners to be polite to a waiter?” and it’s great fun.
But it’s impossible to write about The Patsy without expounding on the spritely comic charms of its star, Marion Davies. She sparkles here as Pat, the put-upon, Cinderella-like young woman who finds herself washing the dishes while her mother dotes on Grace, Pat’s poised (but not particularly interesting) sister. The film has the simplest of plots – it’s a farcical little romance – but Davies lends it heart.
“I’d like to be entrancing, alluring, and ravishing—like a stocking advertisement,” Pat tells her sympathetic father in one amusing scene, but Pat is endearing because Davies gives her the goofy, human, down-to-earth qualities that stocking advertisements rather obviously lack. Though Davies is movie star beautiful, and her audiences both then and now are often pointedly aware of her extravagant lifestyle as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, she still exudes a breezy underdog appeal here. While even some of the most hypnotic silent film performances are deeply mannered, Davies comes across as au naturel. (It’s little surprise that she was among the small population of silent stars who successfully weathered the transition to sound.)


Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon in their book King Vidor, American:

Vidor is hardly remembered as a director of comedy. But, with his feel fr rhythm and the gestural, he could have been up there with Cukor, Sturges, and Minnelli. In Vidor’s films, Davies’s vitality is her healthy defense against Kane-styled pretensions in high society and art. Film historians’ emphasis on the more stylized extremes of silent comedy (slapstick or Lubitsch) has tended to eclipse the mainstream of straightforward comedy that dips good-naturedly, but not unpointedly, into satire and near-drama – The Patsy, Show People, and their ilk. Vidor’s first trick with The Patsy was to take the well-received drawing room comedy of a few years earlier, and by casting Dressler and Henderson as Davies’s parents, infuse a tradition of knockabout farce. Both display the broad gestures and timing mastered under Mack Sennett at Keystone.
The bulk of the film is a broad comedy of manners, of thwarted societal aspiration. Vidor choreographs the family’s pre-dance preparations like a prizefight, the three women’s heads bobbing for a spot in the mirror, Pa hoisted off his feat by Ma’s energetic yank at his bow tie. When they arrive at the yacht club, one adept shot brings the relationships together. The camera dollies with the dour down a long aisle, Pat traipsing in a too-long Spanish shawl passed down from her sister. Man, distanced by greeting others with absurd (for Dressler) little finger-waves, steps on Pat’s shawl and pulls it off; Pat turns round, slamming into the streamroller bulk of her mother, who’s annoyed at her climsy daughter; Pa saunters off unaware, the sister haughtily, as a waiter stopps for the shawl; and Ma turns with increased disgust to Pat: “Don’t you know it’s not good manners to be polite to a waiter.” The title comes as a topper, not an interruption, to the flow of physical comedy.


“Miss Davies extols Vidor” in The New York Times (Jan 29, 1928):

I believe The Patsy is the best comedy I have ever had,” Miss Davies said. “And largely because of King Vidor. Mr. Vidor inspires the players who are associated with him. Not only has he a fine imagination and a philosophic turn of mind but he consistently refuses to take himself too seriously.

Mr. Vidor and I were discussing light plays during the filming of The Patsy, he said that comedy was just as important as drama and that the reporter-director should be able to reflect either equally well because he is transcribing only what he sees. A picture with a great theme must combine both comedy and drama, but the comedy must not be of the ‘injected’ variety. You cannot write comedy relief into the story; it must just happen as you film the scenes.

For example, in The Patsy there was one scene in which I, in the hallway of my home, was called upon to distract the attention of my sister’s beau who was in the drawing room.

“Peek around the curtains, Marion,” Vidor told me, “and we will figure out what to do.” I did it, but in the meantime I had borrowed Del Henderson’s derby hat, which might very logically have been on the hall tree, and, with it crushed over my head in pantomime, walked past the door. The problem was solved. The director sent to the wardrobe for some more hats that might consistently have hung on the hall tree, and I paraded them back and forth wearing them in turn and making faces. The scene was so naturally humorous that it was built into an important comedy episode.


King Vidor directing Davies in Pola Negri regalia.

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