Marion Davies was once the most popular female comedian in the movies and made an easy transition to sound films in 1929. Audiences did hear her talk in the MGM showcase The Hollywood Revue of 1929, but just weeks later, her first full-length talkie hit the screens. Marianne, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, was a perfect showcase for her talents and is a surprisingly breezy film for a very early talkie.
Were it not for Davies starring, Marianne could be seen as another film in the long line of World War I dramas centering on friendship among soldiers. Laurence Stallings, who famously co-wrote What Price Glory and is credited with coming up with the story for King Vidor’s The Big Parade, is also credited with co-writing the dialogue for Marianne with Gladys Unger (Sylvia Scarlett). Dale Van Every (Captains Courageous) came up with the story. Marianne is similar to films like Wings and What Price Glory, where we find American doughboys trying to outdo each other.
Here, we have Private Stagg (Lawrence Gray), “Soapy” Soapstone (Cliff Edwards) and “Sammy” Samuels (Benny Rubin) competing for the love of Marianne (Davies), a French peasant girl. Their company is stationed by Marianne’s home just after the end of the war and have fun wreaking havoc on her life. After stealing her pig, Stagg becomes enamored with Marianne. From this point on, the film is filled with hijinks between the two, mixing in occasional songs from Edwards and Gray. Eventually, Marianne remembers that she told a French officer that she would wait for him. Will she chose Stagg or Andre (George Baxter)? You’ll have to stick around for the fantastic finale to find out.
Admittedly, Marianne isn’t that great a film, especially when one considers the real giants of World War I films. But the basic plot is held together by a truly sterling performance from Davies. She is just downright hilarious and I had a hard time staying on my couch. The entire sequence where she dresses as a French officer is brilliant. Another part I love has Gray giving Davies a picture of Mary Pickford and pretending that she’s his girl back home. Davies tells Gray that she too has a significant other… a Mr. Douglas Fairbanks! Trust me, it’s funnier when you see it.
Warner Archive released Marianne on DVD for the first time in April. The disc only holds the movie, which is in rough shape. Some frames appear to be missing and there’s even a scene where the screen goes blank for a couple of frames, but the sound continues. Don’t worry, nothing is wrong with the disc – it’s just the print. The sound isn’t as rough, although Davies does speak in a broken English accent the entire time and that might be tough to understand. You get used to it though as the film goes on. Lastly, it’s worth noting that the film is in the very narrow 1.20:1 aspect ratio that some early talkies are in.
Marianne is a must-see for Davies fans and for anyone interested in early talkies. Films from 1927-1929 are fascinating, since you are watching an industry figuring out its first real seismic shift in technology. Although sound is still not perfect, Marianne brings out the best of Davies and is an early example of a musical where the songs help push the story along.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this DVD to review!