A Marion Davies Production for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
directed by Sidney Franklin
Premiere: November 2, 1927
Cast: Marion Davies (Phoebe Throssel), Conrad Nagel (Dr. Valentine Brown), Helen Jerome Eddy (Susan Throssel), Flora Finch (Mary Willoughby), Margaret Seddon (Nancy Willoughby), Marcelle Corday (Henrietta Turnbull), Kate Price (Patty)
Milestone Film released the TCM/Hugh Hefner produced "Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies" in 2002. At the bottom of the front cover of the VHS tape or DVD, one will notice in small letters, "Bonus Feature Film: Marion Davies in 'Quality Street'." In our opinion, this was a marketing faux pas as the very enjoyable and rare "Quality Street" is the more appealing of the two productions.
Thanks to Milestone, though, a delightful Marion Davies film that unfortunately seems to have gone under the historical radar, has been introduced to many modern-day silent movie fans. It's a costume piece that takes place in England during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. Davies is Phoebe Throssel, a young girl who is in love with the local doctor, Dr. Valentine Brown (Nagel), and he is obviously smitten with her, visiting after office hours with flowers and perfect early 1800's manners. Phoebe's sister, Susan (Eddy), is supportive and extremely excited that a marriage proposal seems to be impending. This doesn't miss the attention of three town gossips, either, who provide some comedic moments in the film. Later, Brown sends a note that he would like to stop by with something special that he must tell Phoebe, and, of course, everyone, including the gossips, are confident the proposal is finally going to happen. However, his important message is that he is going off to fight in the wars. Quite a few years pass, and when Brown returns, he finds Phoebe has aged and is not the stylishly dressed beauty she was years ago. Brown appears to have left disappointed, and Phoebe cries. Then, with sudden resolve, she decides to see if he really cares about her or is simply interested in youthful beauty. So, she "reinvents" herself as Miss Livvy, the beautiful, young, vivacious, and flirty niece of Phoebe. Will Brown fall for the youthful beauty or is his love for Phoebe true?
Silent film fans today are almost all in agreement that Marion Davies was a fine actress and could handle drama, as well as comedy. However, silent film fans seem to also agree that Davies' most enjoyable work was as a comedienne. Unfortunately, there is none of the sprightly, brash and dizzy comedienne in the first 65 minutes of this 111 minute film. This is not to say it isn't enjoyable up to that point. Davies is certainly lovely and photographed to her best advantage, the romantic interplay with Nagel is both charming and underplayed, and the gentility of polite English society in the early 1800's is portrayed as it should. However, author Jeanine Basinger was accurate when she called it a "restrained and genteel" story (1) (the emphasis is ours), and the New York Times reviewer gives some sense of the story's tone when he said, " . . . there are no fires, floods or any other kind of mad scenes in this film. It is an agreeable change, and one that was all the most appreciated after passing from the glare of the sun arcs on Broadway which the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer officials thought necessary to call attention to the portals of the theatre that harbored 'Quality Street.' It was like going from a circus side-show into an old-fashioned parlor where they had antimacassars on the chairs" (2) (again, the emphasis is ours).
Nevertheless, there is no shortage of charming sequences in the first half. At the dance that evening, both are flushed from having just completed an active dance. Brown's line to get Phoebe alone in the garden brings a smile for its formality and ingenuity. He tells her, "I am credibly informed there is a breeze in the garden --" After some shy, awkward conversation in the garden, their cheeks meet as they stare up at the full moon. Naturally, their faces turn, and just as they slowly move to kiss, drops of water fall between their faces, and just as suddenly, a downpour begins. Arriving home, Brown has his cape wrapped around both of them and is holding an umbrella. Susan and the three gossips are at the window watching as Brown carries her over the puddles - and just as it seems they are going to kiss, they turn so that the umbrella obscures all view. A delightful shot that is surprisingly interrupted by a strong gust of wind that takes the umbrella away revealing the kissing couple. Wonderful direction!
The viewer will also notice some unconventional (for the time) camera movement that adds to the visual appeal of the film. For example, early on we see Dr. Brown move surreptitiously down the hall to sneak up on Phoebe and the camera glides along - very smoothly - behind him. In another scene, the three gossips have walked in and caught Susan working on Phoebe's wedding dress - causing Susan great embarrassment because no proposal has been made at this point and, obviously, no marriage announced. In a long shot, the three gossips sit around a very nervous Susan who is clutching the wedding dress and trying to avoid prying questions. Finally, one asks, "Then Dr. V.B. has declared?" As Susan debates nervously how to answer the question, the camera moves forward very rapidly to close in on her face as she responds,"No, not yet - but we expect it hourly." At the dance, Phoebe and Brown hold hands, arms outstretched, spin 180 degrees, and stop momentarily. The camera is placed so we see one pair of arms stretched into the frame, and we can see only one of them looking slightly off camera at his/her partner. With Brown is in the frame, he says, "Miss Phoebe, your pulse - is fluttering." They spin and Phoebe comes into the frame. "What does that indicate, Dr. Brown?" Spin, and Brown is seen in the frame. "Could it be your heart?" Director Sidney Franklin provides a much more interesting and charming means of filming this conversation than the typical close-up of the two faces together as they dance. It is interesting to note that Kevin Brownlow provides a photo in The Parade's Gone By that shows director Sidney Franklin wearing roller skates and viewing Davies through a hand-held camera. The caption reads, "Director Sidney Franklin, wearing roller skates, works out a traveling shot for 'Quality Street' (1927). The camera is the newly introduced Bell and Howell Eyemo, especially designed for hand-held shooting. The actress is Marion Davies." (3)
The humor in the first half of the film comes from not only the three gossips, but Phoebe, Susan and their housekeeper, Patty (Kate Price), all expecting a marriage proposal that has yet to come. And, when Phoebe receives a note from Dr. Brown stating that he is coming over to tell her "something of great importance," they are convinced the proposal is imminent. As the sisters hug, Patty says she will get some mutton chops for the betrothal luncheon. Of course, her trip to the butcher results in more people knowing about the supposed proposal than intended. It comes to a sad end, though, when they find that Brown's "something of great importance" is that he is going off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Davies' performance here is outstanding as she moves from uncontrollable excitement to despair. Holding herself together, she tells him goodbye, but after he walks out the door, we see Susan and Phoebe standing side by side, motionless, staring at the door - Susan with a frozen look of deep pain on her face, Phoebe beside her with a blank look of disbelief, her hands lifted in front of her. It takes a full 10 seconds before she slowly lowers her hands to her side. Susan sits down in a chair, head hung low, and wipes the tears away. Phoebe slowly takes the wedding dress to the chest, kneels on the floor, and returns the dress to its hiding place. Phoebe's pain is only intensified, though, when the three gossips arrive and smother her in congratulatory kisses. This is more than she can take as her head falls back in agony. The ladies see Susan and run to her. Suddenly, Phoebe hears the sound of the drums and fife in the street as they men march off to war. She clutches her ears as if she has just heard an ear-piercing screech - then falls to the floor in a dead faint. A very touching and moving scene.
Nearly equally as moving is the scene several years later when Brown, a captain, excitedly returns in his distinguished military dress ready to propose to Phoebe. He does not know, however, that Phoebe and Susan have turned their house into a school to make ends meet. We no longer see Phoebe bright-eyed with beautiful blonde ringlets outlining her face and wearing a gorgeous dress. Instead, she has a close-fitting cap wrapped about her head and tied in a bow underneath her chin so that no hair shows and wearing a small pair of glasses that indicate clearly she has aged. When Brown sees her, the disappointment on his face is evident - not only to us, but Phoebe, as well. She is ashamed of her appearance, and takes off her glasses. They sit across from one another nervously offering a few cordial comments such as "How have you been?" The awkwardness of the situation is oppressive. With tears in her eyes, Phoebe says, "I have not worn well, have I, Captain Brown?" She returns to her students in the next room, tries to read to them through her tears, but can't go on. She finally lays her head on her desk and sobs. Another exceptionally fine performance by Davies.
The students are sent home, and Susan tries to console Phoebe. However, the story takes a decided turn at this point, and rather than a portrayal of 19th century manners with some mild comedy thrown in, we suddenly see the Marion Davies we love so much. With angry resolve, she tells Susan, "I'm tired of being ladylike! He thinks I am old, does he?" Running to the next room and pulling out the dress that was intended for wedding, she begins to take the old, unattractive dress off. Through tears she says, "I'll show him if I am old!" Then, in dissolve, we see the beautiful Phoebe appear once again, but this time she tells Susan she is going to be Miss Livvy, Phoebe's niece. The reason? She wants to make sure that Dr. Brown truly cares for her and is not solely interested in "a pretty face." He does return to invite Phoebe to a ball that evening for the returning soldiers. However, to ensure that it's not out of pity, he is told that Phoebe has a headache but Miss Livvy will be glad to accompany him. From this point on, the rest of the film is pure, Marion Davies-style fun!
Critics apparently were unamimous in their assessment that Davies had turned in an outstanding performance. Variety said, " . . . some of the best and sincerest acting Miss Davies has ever done in a part that ideally fits her type of blonde beauty and that supplies a tempermentally happy medium for this actress's comedy talent." (4) The New York Times reviewer said, "Marion Davies . . . gives the most conscientious performance of her career." (5) It was the opinion of Harrison's Reports that "Marion Davies has seldom appeared to better advantage. She portrays humor and pathos with real artistry." (6)
Adding to the enjoyment of the film is a fine supporting cast. Conrad Nagel is not the most magnetic personality to have graced the silent screen, but he does a more than adequate job in this film and, as a result, received positive reviews for his performance.
However, Helen Jerome Eddy as the doting sister garnered even more favorable reviews. "Helen Jerome Eddy as the timid but loving sister of the hapless heroine gets a world of fragrant and charming sentiment into the building of the fluttering Susan . . ." said Variety. (7) "And Helen Jerome Eddy, that fine young actress, makes good again," said Photoplay. (8) The New York Times praised, "Helen Jerome Eddy is capital as Susan Throssel . . ." (9) Flora Finch, Margaret Seddon and Marcelle Corday as the three gossips were positively noticed by reviewers, too.
The reviews of the film itself were happily positive. "A costume play of quaint charm, beautifully produced . . ." said Variety. (10) "Gentle and refreshing . . .," exclaimed the New York Times. (11) Photoplay agreed, "A delightful and refreshing change from the hackneyed form of entertainment which makes us grateful to Marion Davies that again she has the vision and courage to depart from the beaten track of formula-made pictures." (12)
With all this praise, however, the film still failed at the box office. Why? A couple of prescient reviewers apparently saw this coming despite the film's good points. Variety closed their somewhat glowing review by telling exhibitors, "The possibilities of a box-office smash are probably remote. The picture is not designed to that end by its very nature, but it will contribute enormously to the prestige of the star and of the producer." (13) The Harrison's Reports reviewer observed what appeared to be a bad omen when he went to view the film. "I saw this picture Thursday night, November 10, the twelfth day of the engagement. There were about 75 seats empty, and I do not know how many attended the performance on passes. This means that the fame of the author, of Marion Davies, and of Toscha Seidel, the famous Russian violinist, have not been able to keep full, on Broadway, a house that seats only 600. The picture is excellent, but it seems to appeal to the highly cultured." (14)
Biographer Fred Laurence Guiles observed, "It was a turning point for Marion since 'Quality Street' called upon talents unsuspected in her and closely approaching, if not surpassing, the work later done and redone by her rival Norma Shearer. But despite a major campaign by Metro and the Hearst publicity machinery to promote this modest but affecting comedy of manners as a 'distinguished stage classic,' only the more sophisticated moviegoers in the large cities of the East and West Coasts appreciated Marion's touching performance as a young woman whose lover is gone so very long in the Napoleonic wars that she appears to have lost her beauty by the time of his return . . ." (15)
As much as we enjoyed the film, it is our opinion that there are two key factors that likely contributed to its disappointment at the box office. First of all, the "genteel" part of the story goes on for 65 minutes before we see the comedic Marion Davies that we love so much. Yes, there are many enjoyable moments in the first half as we noted above; however, the Marion Davies of the second half is who would hit a homerun at the box office, in spite of the fact that she turns in a most outstanding dramatic performance prior to the film's change in tone. Secondly, the film runs 111 minutes. This is not overly long depending on the story. However, for this tale, a trimming of 15 or 20 minutes, preferably in the first 65 minutes, would have helped the pace of the film considerably.
All of this being said, we must emphasize strongly that this is most enjoyable story and an outstanding performance by Marion Davies - a film that is certainly head and shoulders above the bulk of its contemporary cinematic efforts. Milestone has provided an excellent print; however, they did note early on that some mottling appears on the film in a few instances. We found the mottling to be of minor concern never once prohibiting the viewer from seeing the action on the screen. Phillip Carli's piano score the film is superb, as we always receive from Dr. Carli.
Finally, we mentioned earlier that Milestone's DVD is out
of print. We contacted Milestone (September 2014), and Dennis
Doros has informed us that the DVD went out of print due to short
supplies from Image Entertainment. The good news is that he is
hopeful the DVD will be made available once again in early 2015!
1. Basinger, Jeanine. Silent Stars. Alfred A. Knopf. 1999.
2. "Quality Street" review. New York Times. November 2, 1927.
3. Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade's Gone By. Bonanza Books. 1968.
4. "Quality Street" review. Variety. November 16, 1927.
5. "Quality Street" review. New York Times.
6. "Quality Street" review. Harrison's Reports.November 19, 1927
7. "Quality Street" review. Variety.
8. "Quality Street" review. Photoplay. October 1927.
9. "Quality Street" review. New York Times.
10. "Quality Street" review. Variety.
11. "Quality Street" review. New York Times.
12. "Quality Street" review. Photoplay.
13. "Quality Street" review. Variety.
14. "Quality Street" review. Harrison's Reports.
15. Guiles, Fred Laurence. Marion Davies. McGraw-Hill. 1972.
Copyright 2014 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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