The Patsy (1928) A Silent Film Review

Marion Davies’ gift for zaniness and mimicry are put to good use in this family comedy. Davies is Pat, the patsy of her family. Her mother (Marie Dressler) prefers her more sophisticated sister and Pat always has to take second place. But what will happen when both daughters fall for the same man? Zaniness, of course!


Home Media Availability: Released on DVD by Warner Archive.

Mom always liked you best.

Most of us have seen it and some of us have experienced it. There is nothing more unfair in life than a parent playing favorites with their children. As with many universal sources of pain, parental favoritism is also a fertile ground for comedy.

The Patsy had been a successful Broadway comedy with 245 performances under its belt. It told the tale of Patricia Harrington, the unfavorite child, and her efforts to get a little respect and perhaps even a boyfriend. With a bit of tweaking, it also proved to be an excellent vehicle for Marion Davies.

Davies’ career was a push-and-pull affair between comedies and dramas. Her biggest fan was her lover, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He loved to see her in costume pictures but it was clear that Davies was a born comedienne.

King Vidor was one of the people who appreciated Davies’ comedic skills; he directed Show People, her best silent film. The Patsy was the first official Vidor-Davies collaboration. (Vidor reportedly stepped in without screen credit to try to fix The Red Mill. It didn’t work.)

Sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalry.

Pat (Marion Davies) is the “other” daughter of the house. Her sister, Grace (Jane Winton, who played the stodgy sister in Bare Knees), is the apple of their mother’s eye. Ma Harrington (Marie Dressler in her comeback role) is ready to sacrifice everything—including Pat—to ensure that Grace gets ahead in life.

Pa Harrington (Dell Henderson, who also played Davies’ dad in Show People) is the only one who knows sweet Pat’s worth but he is too timid to stand up to his overbearing wife. And so Grace and Ma do just as they like while Pat and Pa get the leftovers.

"Please excuse my daughter. She's the annoying one."
“Please excuse my daughter. She’s the annoying one.”

Pat doesn’t kick too hard about always getting the “end of the chicken that went over the fence last” or having to do the dishes no matter whose turn it is. No, what bothers her is Tony (Orville Caldwell), Grace’s genial engineer boyfriend. It’s one of those open-closed relationships. Grace thinks it’s open and Tony thinks it’s closed. Pat is madly in love with Tony but doesn’t stand a chance with glamorous Grace around.

The worst of it is that Grace is not even faithful to Tony. She has been stepping out with Billy Caldwell (Lawrence Gray), an old money lothario with a flair for practical jokes. Abandoned by Grace, Tony takes a brotherly interest in helping poor Pat. He knows she’s in love with someone who doesn’t love her back and he promises to use his marketing talents to help her win her man.

Tony's a nice guy but a little thick.
Tony’s a nice guy but a little thick.

His advice? Get a personality. But will Pat find the right one? Will Tony ever put two and two together?

The plot of The Patsy is as thin as can be but I am not complaining. I have said this before but I will say it again here: Marion Davies was at her best when she was just allowed to be Marion Davies. She is one of the naturally funniest people ever to appear on the screen and all she needed was herself.

Allow her to entertain you!
Allow her to entertain you!

The film is most successful when it puts the plot on the back burner and allows us time to enjoy Davies’ assorted antics. We get to see her try to develop a personality using a correspondence course, which leads her mother and sister to believe that she is a dangerous lunatic.

Davies was a wicked mimic and she delighted her friends with impressions of other film stars. The Patsy gave Davies an excuse to display her talents on the screen. What’s not to love?

In the film’s most famous scene, Davies attempts to get a fella’s attention by mimicking his three favorite actress: Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri.

Mae Murray's bee-stung lips...
Mae Murray’s bee-stung lips…
Pola Negri's dark passion...
Pola Negri’s dark passion…
And Lillian Gish's everything.
And Lillian Gish’s everything.

While the Negri and Murray impressions were exaggerated enough to give a good belly laugh (and Negri had already parodied herself in A Woman of the World anyway), the Lillian Gish impression is particularly accurate. Davies nails all things Gishy, from the fluttering fingers to the twitching, tear-stained face. In fact, one Lillian Gish fan wrote that the impression was “so punishingly detailed and funny that I was unable to watch Gish seriously for some time after I saw it.” It’s all too true. I had the same problem.

Pat reads up on personality. I want that entire outfit.
Pat reads up on personality. I want that entire outfit.

Even though the climactic series of impressions is wonderful, I actually enjoyed the early scenes of the film when Pat is just trying to get a little bit of attention. Davies does some of the finest acting of her career as the second favorite daughter of the house. You really feel for Pat and want someone, somewhere to appreciate her. (Well, besides her dad.)

On the minus side of things, the film is rather heavy with intertitles, likely inherited dialogue from the stage version. Most of them are well-written and droll but there are just too many of them and they spoil the pacing of the film at times.

"I'm under attack!"
“I’m under attack!”

The film also falls apart somewhat after Davies’ trio of impressions. In order to get Tony to come and get her, she claims that Billy is holding her prisoner for (she intimates) immoral purposes. That seems just a little mean-spirited. And then Tony gets all sanctimonious (“You deserved what you got for going there.”) which sort of makes their final reunion less than sweet.

As sweet as can be.
As sweet as can be.

Flaws aside, The Patsy is a grand bit of entertainment. While it’s not quite as good as Show People, The Patsy is a fresh and funny comedy that is sure to delight established Davies fans and win new admirers to her side. Those sulky people you see in the corner? Those are Lillian Gish fans who took offense. Sorry guys. Do you, like, want a hankie or something?

Movies Silently’s Score:★★★½

Where can I see it?

The Patsy is available on DVD from Warner Archive. It features a jazzy orchestral score from Vivek Maddala.

10 Replies to “The Patsy (1928) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Your review was right on target. Like you, I found the film a little heavy on titles and thought it fell apart a bit late in the game. It seemed to me that this film really laid the groundwork for 1930s screwball comedy. Davies is just delightful. From a historical viewpoint, I also like the way the film parodies the 1920s cultural obsession with “personality.” Thanks for reminding me of a film I want to see again!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Yes, The Patsy doesn’t really seem to commit 100% to being a silent film. For example, comparing when Davies goes around spouting non sequiturs and when she parades around in silly hats, it’s clear which scene was created on stage and which was created for film. A little more care with the script and this could have been an even better movie. Still pretty good though.

  2. This is one of my all time favorite comedy’s silent or otherwise. I also love Show People. One of my favorite quotes from this movie: “He has an open mind that’s closed for repairs”. Hilarious! And Marie Dressler is priceless especially during the dinner table and fainting spell scenes.

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