Women of Early Hollywood Gradually Getting Their Due

The actresses discussed here share a certain dignity and, as Margaret Dumont’s biographers put it, ‘a memorable vulnerability and eternally renewable faith in the chance of sanity in a lunatic world.’

J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs via Wikimedia Commons
Marion Davies in a lost 1919 silent film, ‘The Dark Star.’ J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs via Wikimedia Commons

‘Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood’
By Hilary A. Hallett
Liveright, 464 pages

‘Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies’
By Lara Gabrielle
University of California Press, 344 pages 

‘Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, “The Fifth Marx Brother”’
By Chris Enss and Howard Kazanijian
Lyons Press, 208 pages

Women on the screen, straight or not, are most often the invention of men. Studio moguls, producers, and directors have set the sexual agenda — though not quite as much as has been supposed, according to biographies that are gradually rewriting Hollywood’s early history.

Hilary A. Hallett contends that men learned to make love on screen from Elinor Glyn. English and gentrified, Glyn turned to romance writing when her husband gambled away his fortune, and to novels that liberated women from their lady-like lassitude. 

So of course Hollywood came calling in the figure of Clara Bow, who personified the “It Girl.” As Bow played the role, the girl had spunk and sometimes an almost tomboyish toughness that took nothing away from her romantic allure.

The Brooklynese Bow faded in the talkies, replaced by several fast-talking beauties like Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow. Marion Davies is often overlooked — saddled to William Randolph Hearst and confused with Charles Foster Kane’s pathetic, Hearst-like wife in “Citizen Kane.”

Davies emerges in Ms. Hallett and Ms. Gabrielle’s books as a significant figure on screen and off, though Ms Hallett tends to concentrate only on the actress’s kind, fun-loving, dipsomaniacal side, and her wit — a match for Chaplin’s. 

Ms. Gabrielle’s research is impressive. She makes good use of her predecessors, Stanley Flink and Fred Lawrence Guiles, astute observers of Hollywood that I came to rely on while writing my biographies of Marilyn Monroe and Lillian Hellman. I can confirm that the two treated women seriously and perceptively.

“I’m the captain of my soul,” Davies told Flink, in a declaration of independence that her long-term relationship with William Randolph Hearst seemed to contradict. As Ms. Gabrielle points out, Davies had a “steely grit and strong work ethic,” negotiating her own contracts and investing wisely. She made $10,000 a week in the 1920s.

Davies wore her learning lightly. She was so good at comedy that inevitably her screen persona did not reveal her intense dedication to her art. Watch her in “Ever Since Eve,” though, and you will see a working woman so put out by being treated as a sexual object that she dons glasses and an unbecoming wig to hide her blonde hair, and wears a masculine-looking suit.

Ms. Gabrielle points out that Davies’s motto came from William Ernest Henley’s famous poem, “Invictus,” which deals with the struggle to overcome vicissitudes and to triumph: “It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishment the scroll, / I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.”

What is Margaret Dumont doing in the society of these raffish women of page and screen? Her biographers describe her as a “statuesque funny lady” playing the roles of “austere dowager and grande dame.” She seems to exist in Marx Brothers pictures as an inviting target in the war against propriety, attacked by an overhead sprinkler system, mocked and pelted with fruit.

Paradoxically, though, what Dumont has in common with her screen opposites is a certain dignity and, as her biographers put it, “a memorable vulnerability and eternally renewable faith in the chance of sanity in a lunatic world.” 

However starchy her characters, however narrow-minded the strictures of society she upholds, she remains loyal to the conventions that give her life meaning and to the role of her ladyship. As we laugh at her predicaments and see the impossibility of her getting the better of the chaotic Marx brothers, she gives us just enough of herself to root for, even though we do not want her to prevail.

Dumont played many other film roles, but none that equal her appearances in Marx Brothers movies. Why? Take her away from their shenanigans, and the anarchy they revel in, and that we enjoy, no longer has an animating trajectory — which we anticipate will, sooner or later, land us in her lap.

Mr. Rollyson is editor of the Hollywood Legends series, published by University Press of Mississippi.

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