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Silent Sunday Nights - March 2019
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The Bride's Play

The title of The Bride's Play (1922) refers to a medieval Irish legend in which a bride would approach all her male wedding guests to ask, "Are you the one I love best?" Typically, each would answer "no," and she would go on to marry the groom as planned. Occasionally, however, a man was clever or bold enough to "steal" the bride away from under the groom's nose.

The movie incorporates that ancient custom as a fantasy flashback within a larger romantic tale, which is otherwise set in the present-day 1920s. Its plot was described in 1922 by the Motion Picture News in this way: "A villainous poet, because of his gifted verse and a brilliant tongue, is able to conquer the heroine for a while. She falls under his spell until she discovers his fickle nature. The girl, having come into a rich inheritance, spurns his affection thereafter and realizes that she loves the neighboring baronet. And here comes the meaning of the title and the incident around which the entire story revolves."

It's all based on a story by Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne (billed as Donn Byrne), who spent much of his life in Ireland and was taken with its history and legends. But The Bride's Play remains most notable for the work of two other artists, one in front of the camera and the other behind the scenes. The first: Marion Davies, an accomplished screen star and comedienne whose talents are to this day underrated because of her fictionalized (and none-too-flattering) portrayal in Citizen Kane (1941). This was her twelfth film overall and the first of four to be released in 1922 alone. She plays two brides, one in each era, and she won positive reviews, although her fourth film of the year, When Knighthood Was in Flower, would be the one to greatly boost her stardom.

The Bride's Play was produced by Harlem-based Cosmopolitan Productions, owned by magnate William Randolph Hearst, who was Marion Davies' lover and champion. His company produced all the 40-plus films that Davies ever appeared in. Hearst had a distribution deal with Paramount, though this was one of the last of his films to be handled by that studio; in 1923, MGM took over the deal.

The second notable artist here, Joseph Urban, is actually not often remembered for his film work. A famed, Viennese-born architect, decorator and illustrator, Urban made a name for himself in America starting in 1912 when he designed operas in Boston and then for New York's Metropolitan Opera. Settling in New York, he also designed the sets for many editions of the Ziegfeld Follies, known for their elaborate swaths of color, lighting and costumed beauties. These shows caught the eye of William Randolph Hearst, who desired to make classy movies for the well-to-do audiences who consumed his magazines. Hearst wanted Davies in stylish, elegant surroundings on screen, and Joseph Urban's work was practically synonymous with those qualities.

Urban signed with Hearst in 1920 as the studio's artistic director despite having no experience in designing for black-and-white. Hearts offered an exorbitant salary, which Urban saw as his ticket to creating his own architectural firm, but Urban also threw himself creatively into figuring out the film medium. He overhauled the studio lighting system so as to "suggest" color in the sets, and he told an interviewer at the time: "With proper backgrounds, furniture that belongs to those backgrounds and decorations that suggest color, the mind of the spectator can be made to think in colors even when they are not shown." Of course, Urban was also helped by Hearst's high budgets, allowing Urban great latitude in his wondrous designs.

The work paid off. One critic, writing for the Motion Picture News, praised The Bride's Play as "a colorful production." He also lauded the "sumptuous settings" and "atmosphere of moated castles... Joseph Urban, who is responsible for these artistic effects, is deserving of the highest praise for embellishing the feature with such an old-world atmosphere." The New York Evening Telegram declared, "Miss Davies appears in one of the most beautiful and charming pictures of her screen career."

Urban stayed under contract to Hearst until 1925, all the while still designing operas. In the years that followed, he went on to reinvigorate American architecture by stylishly designing or decorating numerous theaters (including the Ziegfeld), nightclubs, private homes, and notable Manhattan buildings. He also created the interior d├ęcor for the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, which was built for Marjorie Merriweather Post and decades later acquired by Donald Trump.

Many of Urban's buildings have been razed over the years, but his film work remains a fascinating glimpse into his style. It was unusual for such a prominent architect and designer to be involved in motion pictures, but as architecture critic Paul Goldberger has written, Urban had a strong sense of drama in all his work and often blended the notions of functional and fantastical. "There was no contradiction in Urban's mind between the fantasy of the stage set and the reality of the building," Goldberger wrote. "In his career the two seemed natural mates, each enriching the other... It is no exaggeration to say that Urban's stage sets are infused with a degree of architectural realism, and his buildings with a degree of theatrical fantasy."

By Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:
Jeanine Basinger, Silent Stars
Randolph Carter and Robert Reed Cole, Joseph Urban: Architecture, Theatre, Opera, Film
Paul Goldberger, "At the Cooper-Hewitt, Designs of Joseph Urban," The New York Times, Dec. 20, 1987
Christopher Gray, "An Architect's Evocative Legacy of Fantasy and Drama," The New York Times, Nov. 14, 2004
Fred Guiles, Marion Davies
Kenneth MacGowan, "Caprice Viennois" (profile of Joseph Urban), The New Yorker, June 25, 1927
David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst

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