Most movie fans know William Randolph Hearst as the newspaper magnate who inspired the fictitious character Charles Foster Kane, and later became the real-life adversary of Citizen Kane and its creator Orson Welles, when he was understandably unhappy with the unflattering character obviously based on him, and used all of his considerable resources to try to make the film disappear. Hearst’s image today has largely been shaped by Welles dark portrait and the ensuing clash between these two media pioneers. However, as Louis Pizzitola’s exhaustive study Hearst Over Hollywood makes clear, the newspaper mogul had a central role in shaping early Hollywood. Hearst was involved in creating the scenarios and production of the groundbreaking serial Perils of Pauline. When the millionaire met starlet Marion Davies around 1919, he took responsibility for managing her career and established Cosmopolitan Pictures to churn out costume dramas featuring Davies, before he reluctantly allowed her to pursue comedy, where her natural talents lay. In 1924, Hearst was in talks to consolidate production facilities with another film pioneer, Thomas Ince, known as “the father of the Western,” who played a role in moving the center of American film production from the East Coast to Hollywood.
On November 15, 1924, Thomas Ince was one of 15 or so guests of Davies and Hearst on his 280-foot yacht the Oneida. Ince was the guest of honor as his 42nd birthday was falling that weekend. Ince was taken off board on the morning of November 19th. What happened in between has become the stuff of legend. As Elinor Glin (Joanna Lumley), the romantic novelist who narrates this take on events says:
History has been written in whispers, and this is the whisper told most often. The yacht, you see, belonged to William Randolph Hearst.
The “whisper told most often,” which was also reported in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, was that Hearst, angered over a real or imagined dalliance between Davis and Charlie Chaplin, took the gun he kept for his hobby of shooting down seagulls and accidentally shot Ince. The powerful man then used his influence to cover up the accidental homicide.
Peter Bogdanovich’s film, based on a play by Steven Peros, admits in the opening moments that its take on events is based on nothing more than conjecture, as “little evidence exists now or existed at the time to support any version of those events.” That hardly matters, though, as the film is not so much an accurate record of historical events, but Bogdanovich’s ode to the golden age of Silent Hollywood. The film does a good job of capturing the dynamic of the Hearst-Davies relationship. Edward Herrmann is excellent in his portrayal of Hearst, a powerful, controlling man with a strong undercurrent of insecurity. As multiple biograpies agree, Hearst enjoyed surrounding himself with Marion’s friends, but was a domineering personality who controlled how much his guests could drink and practically every other aspect of the supposed fun.
Kirsten Dunst won critical kudos for her portrayal of Marion Davies. She brings a sense of bewilderment to the role of a woman is given everything she wants, except freedom, by a controlling older lover. However, accounts of Davies by Harpo Marx and other Hollywood pals describe a friendly woman with a bright personality who was always the life of the party, and in this respect Dunst’s performance falls a bit short.
Eddie Izzard’s portrayal of Charlie Chaplin also generated some controversy, but then any portrayal of so beloved a figure is bound to find detractors. As the dialogue reminds us over and over, Chaplin at the time was reeling from the critical and commercial failure of A Woman of Paris, his first film as a director in which he did not also star, as well as being embroiled in a scandal with his pregnant 16-year-old leading lady, whom he would soon have to marry to avoid arrest. Surprisingly, Izzard, who is known for his manic standup comedy, is understated in his portrayal of Chaplin. When Charlie is about the take his seat at the birthday dinner that fateful night on the yacht, Hearst boisterously pulls the chair out from under him, triggering a prat fall. The film clown falls to the floor graciously, but, no longer willing to be the life of the party during his private time, declines to counter with a comeback.
Bogdanovich originally wanted to film completely in black and white, but couldn’t get approval from the studio. However, black and white scenes of people entering and exiting Ince’s funeral bookend the main portion in color. Many viewers probably remember the film ending in black and white, but there is actually a final scene in color, in which narrator Elinor Glin relates a dream in which she is back on the Oneida, watching everyone dance the Charleston and thinking they all looked so silly, and realizing she also looks silly, but knowing that they could never stop living it up, because there would be nothing left. It is a closing scene that perfectly captures the ethos of Davies and her circle.