When it comes to finding crowd-pleasing silent films, you can’t go wrong with Marion Davies features. It’s pretty well known that her earlier features, financed by lover William Randolph Hearst, tended to be costume pictures that attracted more interest a century ago than today. But her charming mid- to late-Twenties films have aged beautifully. Blending light comedy, romance, a bit of tasteful slapstick and even satire, they still have universal appeal.
One of these crowd-pleasers is a film I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of–Beverly of Graustark (1926). If we had to choose a film to mark the divide between Davies’s more sedate early features and her later comedies, it would probably be Beverly. And it’s a reminder that even obscure 1920s features can prove how darn good silent Hollywood could be.
Beverly of Graustark survived as a 35mm print which even included a two-strip Technicolor sequence as its grand finale. This print had an impressive 4K restoration done by the Library of Congress in 2019, and recently Undercrank Productions held one of their successful Kickstarters to bring it to DVD and Blu-ray. This, of course, means we also get another fitting film score by Ben Model–I’ve always been a fan!
The title probably sounds a tad strange–what is “Graustark,” exactly? The film was based on a popular book series by George Barr McCutcheon about a small fictional Eastern European country, basically a blend of Russia and Romania. These novels revolved around court intrigues that were much in the vein of A Prisoner of Zenda: rivalries to the throne, wrongful imprisonments, dramatic deaths, forbidden romances, that sort of thing.
The plot has one of those gender-bending themes that were pretty popular at the time (Davies’s short-cropped hair apparently started a trend called the “Beverly bob”!). In the film Beverly is the cousin of Prince Oscar, heir to the throne of Graustark. When Oscar’s injured in a skiing accident she decides to impersonate him to keep the throne safe from the scheming General Marlanax. Obviously this is a perfect setup for scenes where Beverly valiantly tries to keep her real sex a secret while being constantly surrounded by men, giving the film slight Mulan vibes. My favorite part might be the “toasting” scene, when Beverly is expected to drink a formal toast out of a 3-quart drinking horn–but of course, why would it be any less?
The challenge becomes considerably more daunting when Beverly meets handsome goat-herd Dantan, who commits himself to becoming the petite “prince’s” bodyguard. She falls for him head over heels (I mean, he’s played by Antonio Moreno–understandable) and disguises herself yet again to get close to him, this time swiping a sparkling gown and masquerade ball mask (and oh that shimmering headdress!). And while I won’t give anything away, I’m sure you’ve guessed that there’s an extra level of intrigue that comes into play, followed by a satisfying ending. There’s also a swordfight, but I won’t spoil that either.
Directed by Sidney Franklin, Beverly of Graustark had the kind of elegant costumes and fine cinematography expected of a Marion Davies production, but managed to pull it all off at a reasonable cost. (This means that this obscure feature is thought to be Davies’ most profitable!). There’s several of those charming moments that only the silent era could do best, like Danton and Beverly embracing just outside the frame as her hat falls back and dangles in front of the camera. Davies is a delight, as always, and has plenty of chemistry with the handsome Moreno. Roy D’Arcy, the Twenties’ go-to flamboyant villain, and Creighton Hale, as the most virile I think I’ve seen him (he was the nerdy professor from Way Down East), do a solid job of rounding out the cast.
Beverly of Graustark is due to be released on April 12 and is available for pre-order on Amazon and other online avenues. It’s a worthy addition to a well-rounded silent film collection and a great film to introduce to people unfamiliar with silents. Many thanks to Ben Model for Silent-ology’s review copy, it’s much appreciated!