Zander the Great
directed by George Hill
starring Marion Davies, Harrison Ford
Zander the Great is a quirky bridge film in the career of silent film actress Marion Davies. The studio, Cosmopolitan Pictures, had recently moved from New York to Hollywood, and Marion Davies was moving out of stodgy historical dramas and into the kinds of screwball comedy she would become most beloved for. The 1925 film, rarely seen outside of a dubious VHS transfer, is now restored and available on Blu-ray & DVD from Undercrank Productions.
Opening in an orphanage/workhouse, we find our heroine Mamie Smith toiling under a cruel house matron who has no problem resorting to physical violence in an attempt to break the will of the free spirit, Mamie. Fear not, Mamie is soon adopted out to kindly Mrs. Caldwell (Hedda Hopper, yes that Hedda Hopper, who would go on to become Hollywood’s most famous gossip columnist), who wants Mamie to care for her young son, Zander. Mrs. Caldwell dies leaving poor Mamie and Zander all alone in the world, but on her deathbed she charges Mamie with taking her young ward to find his missing father and avoid Mamie’s horrible fate in the orphanage. The pair escape in a thunderstorm and make their way to Arizona in a montage showing an ever expanding collection of rabbits in a hutch to mark the intrepid duo’s passage. Once in Arizona, Mamie and Zander fall in with Dan Murchinson’s band of scruffy bootleggers. Murchinson, played off type by Harrison Ford (no, not that one), proves to be quite the cad, leading to the exciting sandstorm swept finale in which dastardly Dan sees the error of his ways and rides off to rescue Mamie and Zander from the evil clutches of Back Bart (George Siegmann). The whole affair has a happy ending for all, even Zander’s ever multiplying bunnies.
There were certainly some big names attached to this film but none were bigger (arguably in the whole country) than newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In addition to being one of the wealthiest and powerful men in the country, he was also the owner of the studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, and most importantly, romantically involved with his star, Marion Davies. He spared no expense in making certain she was shown in the best light, both literally and figuratively. Zander the Great was loosely adapted from the Edward Salisbury Field 1923 stage play. During production Hearst didn’t care for the film, so he fired the director and had the script rewritten and the bulk of the film re-shot. There’s no way to know if that was a great artistic decision, but one can hardly argue with the results from a vanity perspective as Davies looks fantastic and the film is an effective showcase for her sparkling comedic sensibilities and underrated dramatic chops. There are some beauty shots, especially during the climax ,that are so angelic one wonders if that was by design or Hearst’s edict to make her look glamorous at every turn. Probably a bit of both as it certainly can be read as a dig at that style and also look great as an added benefit.
Zander the Great is an unexpected joy. An often very meta film featuring all manner of visual references and jabs at other Hollywood stars and film tropes that sadly are mostly lost on modern audiences but would not have been lost on silent film audiences. The satirical takes are delicious fun when you are able to spot them and liven up what could otherwise be a rather pedestrian script. One of the easiest to identify is the deliberate spoofing of “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford. Pickford was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood after forming United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 and the first act of Zander the Great is a spot-on Pickford clone. By the end of the film, Davies moves into Lillian Gish & D.W. Griffith territory with Mamie braving the elements and the predatory sexual desires of the bad guys in order to save her ward, and her chastity.
William Randolph Hearst owned Cosmopolitan Pictures and took a fancy to the young Ms. Davies and they soon started a scandalous affair that ended Hearst’s marriage. He controlled every aspect of her career, which brought her great fame but ultimately limited Davies as an actress. She was successful and beyond famous, but never as beloved as some of her contemporaries, and history has not always been kind to her. Her success has always been tied to Hearst, but she was a genuine talent and Hearst’s dominance constrained her artistically as she wanted to do freewheeling modern comedy and Hearst envisioned her in angelic historical pieces. Zander the Great can be viewed as a compromise, but in the end, Davies would prevail and today she is best remembered for her beauty and comedic chops, which is a testament to her talent as for decades she seemed doomed to be a footnote as merely William Randolph Hearst’s actress mistress.
Undercrank Productions continues their important work in releasing proper home video editions of silent films. Zander the Great sadly shows quite a bit of damage from time and abuse, but this 35mm print, complete with tinted scenes, is a vast improvement. A clear picture and proper projection speed are necessary for enjoyment of silent movies, but so is the score, and having a proper “silent” score works so much better than modern music or incongruous needle drops could ever hope to. Ben Model’s score for Zander the Great finds the right tone to propel this odd film with superb tempo from the opening workhouse terrors through to the sun dappled denouement. Regardless of whether you are a serious fan or a newcomer to the world of silent films, Undercrank Productions’ new DVD & Blu-ray of Zander the Great will be a welcome addition to your library.