by HELEN GEIB
Marion Davies is a significant silent film actress overdue for re-discovery. The Citizen Kane controversy* has kept Davies’ name alive without making her work readily available for viewing. Her films are rarely screened and none is available on DVD. This despite the fact she had a successful starring career through the ‘twenties and was highly regarded by her contemporaries as a talented and exceptionally charming comedienne.
The Fair Co-Ed is a fine showcase for Davies. It’s a terrifically funny film. That’s not entirely due to Davies’ performance; the film has some great gags and very possibly the best title cards of any silent comedy. But it is largely due to Davies, and convincingly shows her to be a skilled comedic performer with a tremendously attractive on-screen presence. That Davies’ girl-next-door style of beauty and vibrant, natural manner are so well attuned to modern tastes makes it all the more inexplicable her films are so hard to see.
The plot of The Fair Co-Ed is in most respects typical of college comedies, but with the pleasing difference of a gender reversal in the principal roles. Instead of elevating the hero’s girlfriend to the lead role to accommodate a female star, the film adapts the hero’s part to suit its leading actress. Marion is the college freshman who joins the (basketball) team to impress the boy she likes and quickly proves herself the star player. She quits the team in a fit of anger, alienating the other players and causing a rift with her boyfriend, who is the team’s coach. Of course, she’s really a good sort at heart and her high spirits only need to be tempered a bit by maturity. The audience knows she’ll come through at crunch time and rejoin the team to carry her school to victory in the Big Match.
Davies plays her part with aplomb and perfect comic timing, and the film fills in the familiar story with a lot of funny incidental comedy. The title cards are a real highlight of the film. As a general rule, the fewer the title cards the better for the flow of the story. The exception is in comedies, when good (read: funny) title cards are a welcome interpolation in the action. If there was a title card in The Fair Co-Ed that wasn’t funny, I missed it. The titles are a delightful stream of puns, quips, comic insults, and other wordplay.
*The character of Charles Foster Kane is loosely patterned after newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife, is very loosely modeled on Davies, Hearst’s longtime mistress. After the film’s release, Davies became associated in the popular mind with the Alexander character in the same way Gloria Swanson would later become associated with the Norma Desmond character from Sunset Boulevard. The many and evident dissimilarities with Davies’ life make the identification largely spurious, and she has had her vigorous defenders through the years. However, the ongoing debate over the quality of her film work will inevitably remain the basically sterile, academic affair it has been up to now so long as her films remain essentially unseen.