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With: Marion Davies, Marie Dressler, Dell Henderson, Jane Winton, Orville Caldwell, Lawrence Gray
Written by: Agnes Christine Johnston, based on a play by Barry Conners
Directed by: King Vidor
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 78
Date: 04/22/1928

The Patsy (1928)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Marion Kind

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy The Patsy on DVD

As Peter Bogdanovich has documented in his The Cat's Meow (2002), William Randolph Hearst frowned upon his mistress Marion Davies playing in anything but the noblest pageants, the most deadly serious and earnest of films. But this flew directly in the face of Davies' natural comic talent.

Over the course of her career, Davies only made three comedies, all with director King Vidor. Interestingly enough, Vidor also never made any other comedies, and spent his career with the kind of overly serious, noble films that Hearst would have approved of. They range from the 1928 masterpiece The Crowd to films like The Fountainhead (1949) and War and Peace (1956).

And so watching the newly restored The Patsy (1928) is like a breath of fresh air for these two stifled, repressed artists, grasping at something warm and funny and wonderful for the first and perhaps the last time.

Davies plays Pat Harrington, the put-upon black sheep of a family that likes to appear well-to-do. Her more glamorous sister Grace (Jane Winton, later in Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels) gets all the attention and all the boyfriends. In fact, she's seeing two boys at once, her steady standby Tony (Orville Caldwell) and a roguish playboy with a fast boat, Billy (Lawrence Gray). Pat is helplessly in love with Tony and would love to see her sister's activity crash down around her ears.

Her mother (the wonderful Marie Dressler) doesn't help matters, clearly favoring Grace over Pat and making life miserable for her. Her father (Dell Henderson) adores Pat but hasn't the will to stand up to his domineering wife.

Based on a play by Barry Conners, The Patsy is perhaps the "talkiest" silent picture I've ever seen, with innumerable title cards. Most of the film's jokes are verbal; Pat decides to improve her personality by reading how-to books and spinning bizarre jokes and puns, such as "When in Bagdad, do as the Bagdaddies do" and "Don't cry over spilt milk -- there's enough water in it already."

But Davies equates matches these one-liners with her magnificent body language, and they all click into place without too many interruptions in flow. She performs the role with a pent-up gusto, never missing a trick or a moment to shine. Even a potentially heartbreaking moment as she watches through the window as Tony and her sister drive away is softened by Davies munching on a celery stalk as she leans, closer, closer and still closer to the window.

In another scene, she imitates three silent film stars -- Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri -- with absolute perfection in order to get the attention of a sleepy male suitor. Perhaps her sister Grace has a more proper beauty, but the adorable Pat is the true catch of the family.

This truly delightful film has now been re-issued with a brand new score by Vivek Maddala, a superb young composer who has already contributed music to the Greta Garbo film Mysterious Lady (1928) and the Lon Chaney film The Ace of Hearts (1921). I had the unique privilege of seeing the film on the big screen and hearing the score through a perfect sound system. It's a lively, airy score that sweeps the film up and carries it along. It even provides the occasional "sound effect" -- enhancing a running gag about a doorbell -- without getting too cutesy. The film premiered July 11 on Turner Classic Movies and will hopefully receive a DVD release sometime soon.

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