A sort of orphanage-western-drama-comedy, Zander the Great was one of Marion Davies’ big hits and her first film for the newly-merged MGM. She is an orphan who takes in a small boy and then sets out for Arizona in search of his father, who may or may not be a bootlegger. On the way, she meets Harrison Ford, who really is a bootlegger. A darling bit of fluff from the pen of Frances Marion.
Marion Davies’ reputation has been on something of a seesaw these past few decades. Once dismissed as a lightweight who relied on the patronage of her powerful lover, Davies is now generally considered one of the most sparkling comics of the silent era. Her historical films could be a bit on the slow side (though they are not as ponderous as one would believe) but her comedies were spunky treats. What about the movies in the middle? The modern dramedies? Davies made a few of those in her day.
Well, it looks like we are going to find out.
Zander the Great is significant for a few reasons. It is a film that actively tries to build a more comedy-centric brand for Davies. It was the first movie that her production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, released through the fledgling MGM. And then there was the case of Marion Davies, Lillian Gish and the purloined dressing room…
Marion Davies had been making movies for a while but was looking for a hit. Davies was great at comedy and had scored some hits with historical dramas and elegant romantic comedies. Zander the Great tries to bridge the gap and borrows a few pages, or perhaps chapters, from the Mary Pickford playbook. Spunky orphan? Check! Physical comedy? Check! Growing up and finding love in an unlikely place? Check! Script by Frances Marion? Check! It also takes a few tips from the Lillian Gish school of dramatic acting. Wild weather? Check! Abused waif? Check!
(Note: My copy of the film is a blurry old VHS release, which made it pretty much impossible to get good JPEG screen shots. I have included a few GIFs instead.)
Marion Davies in Mamie, an orphan girl who is subject to abuse and brutality at a Dickensian orphanage. Sporting pigtails and freckles, Mamie frolics with abandon but this usually lands her in trouble with the brutal headmistress. After a Keystone-esque scene with a stolen bicycle, Mamie is in for some rather shocking brutality. One of the trustees sees what is happening and immediately places Mamie under the care of the kindly Mrs. Caldwell (Hedda Hopper, yes, that Hedda Hopper).
Mrs. Caldwell is a grass widow whose husband left for parts unknown. Every day, she looks for a letter from her missing husband. She has a baby named Alexander, whom Mamie immediately dubs “Zander” as his real name seems a bit long for such a little fellow.
Years pass happily but Mrs. Caldwell’s health deteriorates. When she is on her deathbed, the much-expected letter finally arrives from Arizona. Mamie opens it. Mr. Caldwell has given his wife the kiss-off and asks her never to write again. Mamie lies and tells Mrs. Caldwell that her husband is coming back. She dies happy.
Mrs. Caldwell’s death creates a whole new set of problems. Mamie may be Zander’s big sister but not in the eyes of the law. The evil orphanage wants him. Mamie packs up Zander and his two pet rabbits into an old Ford and roars away to find his father in Arizona.
As they travel, the names of states pass over the screen and the number of rabbits in the car increases. By the time they reach the Southwest, they have a car full of bunnies but nothing to eat. (No, they cannot eat the rabbits. They are Zander’s wabbits and he would not hear of it.) They stop by an old mission, hoping to get some milk for Zander.
Well, as the movie fates would have it, that mission is the headquarters of a small gang of bootleggers. Texas (Harry Myers) and Good News (Harry Watson) are good-natured lunks, Dan (Harrison Ford, no, not that Harrison Ford) is the ringleader and genuinely dangerous. Juan (Holbrook Blinn) is their contact across the border and the only one with a shred of common sense.
Texas and Good News want to help Mamie but Dan wants to get rid of her quickly before she discovers their trade. Mamie naively asks about Zander’s father, hoping they will know who he is. Just then, the sheriff (Hobart Bosworth) shows up, planning to arrest Dan. Dan thinks fast, claims that he is Zander’s father and creates a neat little alibi for himself.
Of course, what works in the short term is not necessarily easy in the long term. The bootleggers don’t want to hurt Zander and Mamie but they can’t let them go either. To make matters worse, a very nasty bandit named Black Bart (George Siegmann) is on the rampage. It’s going to be one of those days, isn’t it?
Since Dan is by far the handsomest of the bootleggers, he is naturally set up as the love interest for Mamie. We get a meet cute:
But the main problem with Dan’s character is that he has a temper and when he loses it, he tends to do this. A lot.
Dragging Mamie around by the wrist is pretty much how he spends the entire third act of the film. This tends to annoy Mamie, which leads to threats, which leads to more wrist-dragging. And then we get this absolutely deathless title card.
“Dan locked Mamie in her room—but he could not lock her out of his heart.”
Ow. Owwwww! Pain!
That being said, I liked Dan probably more than he deserved and much of the credit goes to Ford. Usually cast as a city slicker, shy guy husband or the hero’s faithful sidekick, the scruffy bootlegger was a little bit out of Ford’s comfort zone. I must admit that he does a rather good job. He completely sold me on his lawless ways. I just wish he wasn’t quite so mean to Mamie.
Zander the Great is sometimes dismissed as a Pickford copycat but I think that undersells Davies’ talents as a mimic. While we can debate and argue whether Hearst meant for the opening scenes to recreate Marion as a kind of Pickford clone, I am inclined to believe that is the case. However, Davies plays her orphan scenes slyly, out-Pickfording Pickford and dancing on the edge of a spoof. Davies was devastating when given a target to lampoon.
Once Davies’ character grows up, she abandons her Pickfordisms. I think her grownup acting is every bit as good as her child scenes. Mamie is a spunky thing, just young enough to think she knows everything. This, of course, sets her at odds with Dan, who has completely buried his conscience. We all know who is going to win in the end but getting there is all the fun.
Apparently, Hearst was not satisfied with the climax of the film and demanded something a bit more Gishy for Davies. Black Bart kidnaps Mamie and ties her to a Joshua tree just as a desert windstorm breaks out. Poor Mamie is buffeted by the wind—it doesn’t look like Davies had to do much acting, does that ever look uncomfortable!
Oh, and there is a rumor about the film that I must address. Marion Davies later recalled that during a scene in a lion’s cage, Charlie Chaplin doubled for her. There is no such scene in the picture and, as it takes place almost entirely in Arizona, I fail to see how such a scene could have been incorporated into the plot. I am not sure if Miss Davies was thinking of another picture but it certainly was not Zander the Great.
One amusing anecdote: The MGM lot had its share of divas throughout the silent and Golden Age of Hollywood but Marion Davies reigned in the most glamorous style. According to David Nasaw’s biography Chief: The Life and Times of William Randolph Hearst, MGM was still getting itself together when Marion arrived. All of the dressing rooms were located in one building and only one had its own bathroom. Marion was to have had it but Lillian Gish had managed to steal it away. (I am dying to know how that went down.)
Hearst responded by commissioning a fourteen-room mansion (referred to as a “bungalow”) on the MGM lot for Marion’s exclusive use. I wonder what Lillian Gish thought of that. (Sometimes the bungalow is listed as having eleven rooms, sometimes fifteen. The point is that it was huge.)
Zander the Great was a critical and commercial success for Marion Davies. While doing my research for this review, I found that the film is often dismissed by modern critics and biographers who, frankly, sound like they have never seen it for themselves. (The film is usually waved away as a melodrama or a Mary Pickford rip-off.) While it is not a masterpiece by any means, it is still a solid, entertaining picture. Davies is adorable and Harrison Ford is allowed to get a little scruffy. The story is breezy and moves along quickly. There are a few ill-advised dark elements but they do not ruin the narrative.
I recommend this one to Marion Davies fans and to anyone who is fond of wabbits.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
As mentioned in my In the Vaults article on this film, it is held by the MGM/UA archive but has never been released on DVD. Hint, hint. In the meantime, why not read Davies’ unreliable but wonderful autobiography, The Times We Had?