William Randolph Hearst and the Motion Picture Business

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Today is the birthday of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). Heir to a vast mining fortune, he built the first media empire, becoming one of the most influential men in the country (responsible in large part, most believe for America’s war with Spain in 1898). He merits our attention today however for his involvement in the movie business. By 1918 and 1919, his infatuation with former chorus girl Marion Davies was all-consuming and out in the open. For her, he built two outsized institutions: Hearst Castle, the enormous estate at San Simeon which became a famous gathering spot for Hollywood stars throughout the 1920s and 30s. And Cosmopolitan Productions, an entire movie studio conceived just to create starring vehicles for Davies.

The parties at San Simeon were lavish affairs, the invited stars resigning themselves to several days of royal treatment in a palatial 56 room mansion on a ranch as big as the state of Rhode Island. Charlie Chaplin was one of the scores of regulars. The most notorious incident among this set was the mysterious death of producer Thomas Ince at a 1924 Hearst-Davies affair aboard their yacht; Chaplin and future columnist Louella Parsons were among those present. Foul play has long been suspected but is impossible to prove. The event was dramatized in the 2001 Peter Bogdonavich film The Cat’s Meow.

The stories for the Cosmopoltian Pictures were drawn from Hearst newspapers and magazines. Those newspapers and magazines would then in turn promote and advertise the films. (Oh, it’s less overt now but the industry still works pretty much the same way). The studio was responsible not only for Davies vehicles like When Knighthood was in Flower (1922, the most expensive feature ever released up until that time), The Patsy and Show People (both 1928), but also certain non-Davies vehicles like The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). The studio did not long outlast Davies’ retirement from the movies in 1937. The Depression and Hearst’s advancing age and waning empire likely played a role, as well.

And now a clip from one of Cosmopolitan’s first talkies Just You, Just Me (1929):

For more on the early film industry please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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