Later in 1922, William Powell got a lucky break, “…through the misfortune of Jose Ruben, who was to have played the lead in When Knighthood Was In Flower. It was my ambition to be a screen hero. When Jose Ruben, who was to have been the leading man, suffered an injury to his eye, I was offered a chance to test for the part. I didn’t get it. But I had a wonderful leer and a sneer which registered perfectly. So I became a villain.”
The story is pretty simple – Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s cheeky kid sister, and ordinary geezer Charles Brandon fall in love at a jousting competition. Unfortunately Henry has her betrothed in a strategic alliance to the preposterous old coot, King Louis XII of France, much to the delight of his oleaginous cad of a nephew and heir, Francis I.
Marion Davies gives a sparky characterisation of Mary Tudor – not taking any crap from either her brother, that foul fiend Francis I, or the love of her life, Charles Brandon. She could really wrap that daft old king round her little finger and she knew it. Marion Davies was a magnetic presence on screen, and her lightening quick comic timing is apparent here. This movie was the one that made Marion a star – supposedly the first $1 million picture, it was thanks to the largesse of William Randolph Hearst who set up his Cosmopolitan Productions as a vehicle for Marion as he longed for her to have a career as a dramatic actress.
As I’m still acclimatising myself to silent film, I had to give this movie two shots as I struggled to maintain focus the first time. I’m learning that the power of silent film lies in the need for total immersion in the picture – if you look away for even a second you can end up not just missing an intertitle but a sideways glance or a look that can convey additional context that drives the story forward. However I realised that it’s not that much different from when I’m watching a Saturday night Scandinavian cop drama with subtitles, so I sallied forth with that in mind and didn’t feel quite so intimidated.
And any feelings of intimidation soon dissipated when I clapped eyes on Bill’s slender pins encased in tights and sporting a rather fetching Tudor style miniskirt. However, we know from her other pictures that Marion Davies’ superlative comedic skills were sadly underused during her career, and that is evident in this movie. Although she plays Mary Tudor with tomboy spirit, the historical setting of the picture is ill suited to Marion’s personality which I see as wholly situated in the 20th Century. Hearst’s wish for Marion to be a great dramatic actress was kindly meant in a difficult personal context but this type of boringly worthy material is beneath her talents. Therefore I’m going to seek out her pictures produced in a contemporary setting as I suspect I will find them more satisfying.
William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant