Monday Editor’s Pick: Show People (1928)

by on January 17, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Jan 23 at 7:45* at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner


We’re in the home stretch of Film Forum’s great series “The Silent Roar: MGM 1924-29” – Monday nights thru Feb 6 – but two of our most anticipated screenings have yet to come: 1928 King Vidor comedies starring Marion Davies, The Patsy and Show People. Imminent silent film historian Kevin Brownlow calls the latter, playing this week, “That rarities of rarities – a picture about Hollywood which is not only hilarious but accurate…Vidor not only shot in the original Sennett studios, he used several Sennett comedians, and captured the atmosphere to perfection.”


Dennis Cozzalio in a great piece on Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule:

Unfortunately, the reemergence, such as it is, of Marion Davies on DVD does not yet include perhaps her most beloved movie, 1928 silent comedy Show People, directed by King Vidor. Show People is one of the first, if not the first, and certainly one of the best of all Hollywood comedies, that is, comedies that shine a light on the moviemaking process and the glittery allure of the movie business. Davies’ wild over-emoting in her audition scene is a highlight in a movie filled with highlights (I wondered if Naomi Watts saw this performance before jumping into Mulholland Drive), and Show People stands, some 80 years after its release, as one of the funniest movies to ever come out of Hollywood.

Davies’ Peggy lands a series of jobs which put her on a distinctly Gloria Swanson-esque career track, while Billy remains mired in the land of Mack Sennett-type bit players. Of course this disparity in experience is grist for the movie’s ripe sense of parody, but it’s also a terrific showcase for Davies and her comic talents (arguments over which should abruptly end after seeing this movie) as well as a glimpse inside MGM during a period when the movies themselves were about to change forever. It’s up for grabs just how talented Peggy and Billy [Haines] really are, but in Peggy’s case her wild-eyed energy is enough to get her noticed, and enough to position Davies to let loose the gifts of mimicry and snap comic timing that were the stuff of legend within the walls of San Simeon. (A scene where she is commanded to cry on cue and finds the act near impossible is a gut-busting classic.) Davies and Haines knew the Hollywood world inside out, of course, and both had star images that were sharply at odds with their own personal lifestyles– Davies was nothing like the Hearst-groomed waxwork candidate on display in most of her movies, and Haines was gay and living a relatively uncloseted life—so you can feel the relish and joy with which they rip into this genial parody of the Hollywood styles and fashionable entertainers of the day.

The movie deserves its stellar reputation, and I just wish that it would somehow be rediscovered so that more people who, like me, only knew Marion Davies from what we were told by Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz could discover for themselves what an effervescent, charming actress she was.



Cullen Gallagher thinks these are the real highlights of the series, for Our Town Downtown:

The real hidden gems of the series are two films starring the criminally underrated Marion Davies, an immensely talented actress equally adept at slapstick comedy and subtle characterization. Her spirited portrayal of the “ugly duckling” younger sister hopelessly in love with her older sister’s beau in The Patsy (1928) (Feb. 6) is utterly delightful, and the film’s unpretentious charm is a surefire bet even for those new to silent cinema.

Davies’ parodic expertise it at its peak in Show People (1928) (Jan. 23), a backstage satire about an aspiring actress trying to break into movies. Released in the middle of Hollywood’s transition to sound, Show People is a final glimpse at the silent empire at its height. Within a year, the talkies would have permanently conquered the industry. This series, however, is proof that sound didn’t fully kill silent cinema; these talk-less pictures continue to entertain new generations of filmgoers.


Gallagher also features a slideshow of the film’s intro – which features real location footage of Hollywood studios – at his blog with Alt Screen editor Brynn White, Moonlight & Pretzels.

Kevin Hagopian in his notes for Penn State University:

There they are, arrayed around a table in the MGM commissary, the greatest stars in the cinematic firmament. Film history would never see a shot like this again. There’s William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Norma Talmadge, and John Gilbert. There’s Mae Murray and Renee Adoree, Rod LaRoque and Karl Dane, and there’s Leatrice Joy and Claire Windsor and Aileen Pringle and Dorothy Sebastian and Polly Moran…
It is 1928, and this is a scene in King Vidor’s witty Hollywood satire, Show People, MGM was only five years old, but it was bursting with talent; Buster Keaton and Ramon Navarro, Lillian Gish and Norma Shearer, Lon Chaney and Greta Garbo; the prestigious MGM roster was the envy of Hollywood. Many of them lived extravagant lives, in fantastic, hideously overdecorated mansions, their garages stuffed with Duesenbergs, their guests sipping the finest bootleg champagne at midday. Frivolous and hedonistic, silent screen stardom was a fabulous Jazz Age whirl. At that moment, no two MGM performers loomed larger in the artificial constellation of movie stars than Show People‘s leads, comedienne Marion Davies and handsome, athletic William Haines.
Show People may well be both Davies’ and Haines’ best film, a memento of two careers that are now both lost to all but toilers in film archives. Davies, as “Polly Pepper,” is a Hollywood hopeful fresh in from the sticks, with a manic energy that substitutes nicely for either talent or beauty. Davies’ mimicry was the toast of San Simeon, and Show People is, among other things, an extended but good-natured jab at Gloria Swanson, then the screen’s reigning glamour queen of the screen. The film’s slapstick humor may also have reflected Davies’ longing for her comic roots, but even here, Hearst intervened, insisting Marion not take the requisite custard pie in the face in a crucial scene. A squirt of seltzer water, he felt, would be more dignified. No matter, for Davies is in top form, and Polly’s “acting audition” sequence, with its oddball, strenuous emoting, is one of the funniest bits in silent film.



Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

A delightful look at silent Hollywood, in which Marion Davies (the mistress of William Randolph Hearst and thus the model for Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane) reveals her talents as a likeable parodist, playing a young hopeful who graduates from custard-pie target in slapstick comedies to Gloria Swanson-style grande dame. All twitchy lips and histrionic gestures, she manages to make credible the character’s rise to fame, despite minimal talent, through her combination of glamour, seduction and acute ambition. A fine example of Hollywood gently satirising itself, with cameo appearances from many luminaries (including Fairbanks, Chaplin, William S Hart, John Gilbert and Elinor Glyn), plus Vidor himself during the final romantic reunion with her long-forgotten fiancé.


Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

William Randolph Hearst insisted that Marion Davies appear in costume pictures; he liked her to be a romantic maiden, and–what was irreconcilable with her talent–dignified. But in the late 20s she broke out and made some funny pictures: THE RED MILL, THE FAIR COED, the wonderfully good-humored THE PATSY, and this slapstick parody of Gloria Swanson’s career–how fame went to her head. Randolph Hearst wouldn’t let Davies do a custard pie sequence, despite her pleas and those of the director, King Vidor, and of Laurence Stallings, who was one of the writers. (Many years later Vidor described the conference that Louis B. Mayer called so that Vidor could make his case to Hearst for the plot necessity of the pie.) The film is light and deft and charming.



Molly Haskell on Davies for the Village Voice (September 1972):

In her two 1928 films with Vidor, Miss Davies reveals herself to be far from the no-talent nepotistress of record, a comedienne of considerable invention and grace who was, if anything, hampered rather than helped by the misguided publicity efforts of her patron [William Randolph Hurst]. Show People, celebrated for the cameo appearances of illustrious locals, is the “inside Hollywood” story of a would-be actress – Davies – who arrives from Georgia with her Daddy and high hopes. Following a career course patterned vaguely on Gloria Swanson’s, she succeeds in slapstick comedy, at a Sennett-style studio, only to set her sites on “serious” drama. She signs a contract at “High Arts Studio,” where she learns to laugh and cry on cue, and is completely derailed by her own self-importance and pseudo-glamor – again, a false “personality” – and by her leading man, a pizza-parlour count. She recovers her footing in a pie-in-the-face and siphon-squirting finale, as the comic spirit reigns triumphant. There are hilarious pricks in the Hollywood balloon along the way – a director’s convulsed overreaction at his own picture; on the set, a chair beside the director’s with Y-E-S inscribed on the back; the transition, behind a bush, from stuntman, to romantic lead in a cloak-and-dagger epic.
Since the message, like Sullivan’s Travels, is that America, Hollywood division, does comedy best, one wonders why Vidor, no less than Davies, abandoned an obvious flair for comedy and satirical foolishness in his later films. His current companion Colleen Moore, in her most famous picture Ella Cinders, reveals herself as a comic of the same “personality” school as Marion Davies. A cavernously angular brunette, she makes up for being less beautiful by having more personality: the eyeball rolling feat which made her famous, and, in the picture, got her the role in a Hollywood film. And thus is the average American female reassured that personality triumphs over glamour – or – in a more positive light – that comic talent triumphs over no-talent.


Marilyn Ferdinand for Ferdy on Films:

A quintessential movie about the movies […] This fictional film within the real world of Hollywood, dotted with its biggest stars playing themselves, is both a lampoon of what happens to star-struck, naïve kids when faced with fame and fortune and a flattering gaze at Hollywood’s elite. The film certainly touches on the broken dreams that are the lot of most of Hollywood’s hopefuls, but sticks within the Jazz Age ethos of glorifying high society. We completely believe Marion as a goodhearted soul who lets her image get the better of her—in fact, Marion Davies was said to be just as good-natured despite being surrounded by the rich and riches associated with Hearst. Nonetheless, the film is obviously an inside job, one that probably thrilled audiences of stargazers while promoting MGM’s human “product.”

My favorite scenes are between Haines and Davies. Great friends in real life, they are able to be emotionally open to each other. When Billy comforts Peggy, the scene is longer than I would have expected, giving the pair ample room to talk through her trauma in a very realistic way. In addition, when Peggy banishes Billy from her life, her anger and cruelty come vividly off the screen. Haines deftly plays Billy’s bewilderment and incomprehension and brings his sad resignation slowly and painfully to the surface. It’s a devastating scene that might provoke a few tears.

Beyond these stellar attributes, it’s a genuine thrill to see the real facades of the great Hollywood studios, particularly since some of them are gone or merged with other studios. Watching Peggy tiptoe through set after set shows exactly how active the studios were churning out every variety of entertainment. And when Billy’s troupe comes upon Peggy’s High Arts production, we get a feel for the location shooting that was the norm in the silent era.
Show People is a truly fine film that showcases the enormous talent of Marion Davies, a talent that would fade from movie screens in only a few short years. I think of it as both a love letter to Hollywood and to one of the greatest funny women it ever produced.



Chris Dashiell for CineScene:

Hollywood poking fun at itself is not always a guarantee against tedium, but in this case the result is a great deal of fun. The story is bright and funny, and Vidor moves things along at a good clip. Most of the credit, though, goes to Davies, an actress who spent most of her career in costume dramas and romances, here showing her considerable flair for comedy. The facial contortions her character puts on when she tries to “act” are a scream – when Peggy becomes a glamour queen, Davies shapes her mouth into a grotesquely clenched, Swanson-like oval that had me rolling. (In fact, the character’s career seems to be a parody of Gloria Swanson’s.) Another highlight is a scene in which a director tries to get her to cry on cue, with a violinist playing “Hearts and Flowers,” a man peeling an onion nearby, and the director coming up with one lugubrious scenario after another in an attempt to force some tears out of her.
Made when silent movies were already doomed by the advent of sound, Show People is something of a final tribute to the Hollywood of that time. It features cameos from Chaplin, Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Elinor Glyn, and many others. It also provides a fascinating glimpse of the studio environment in the late 20s. It looks like it was great fun to make, and today it’s still fun to watch.



Raymond Durgnat in Film Comment (July/August 1973):

Aspiring film actors wait outside the casting director’s office, all slumped, patient or passive. But spunky Peggy and her pa step right up to the hatch, won’t take no for an answer, and do their stuff. It’s all very Harold Lloyd in principle, except that, by a nice irony, their stuff’s as bad as could be. Her demonstration of different emotions-with its resourceful use of an unfolded handkerchief to correspond to a cut, and the casting-office hatch as a close-up frame-is such a mixture of the ingenious and the awful that the casting clerk can’t but stare, boggle, laugh, and let her in. Life has its winners and its losers. Talent without initiative is nothing, whereas initiative without talent has at least a chance of proving itself to be something it didn’t know it was (i.e. awful enough to be amusing) and gradually becoming good enough for Hollywood hokum. For Capra’s slickness and Cukor’s fluid warmth, Vidor substitutes a deliberateness and an energy from which a certain placid ruthlessness emerges. A sufficiently trenchant irony (Peggy and her father, each lost in a private, disparate style of pretension) also has a quality of quiet patience, almost gentleness, as if no energy and enthusiasm could thrive without a certain self-centeredness. They involve sins which are natural enough, and so can be purged more readily and naturally than meanness and other twists. In the end, inspiration and illusion are heads and tails-a matter not so much of morality as of a life force whose roots go deeper than morality as human beings can frame it.
Vidor also manages the rather daunting task of poking fun at slapstick, a feat achieved thanks to his sensitive eye for physicality. (The jumps which the cops do as they run are just a bit too deliberate, too heavy.) A similar nuancing of comic business occurs when Peggy, having been brought to her senses, continues the funny business in a manner which isn’t exactly reverent but is imbued with a quality of spiritual liberation. In an earlier scene, the director instructs her, “Don’t anticipate,” and we anticipate her anticipating, which is a neat and subtle twist.
An amazing comic chase, where everything runs along including a laid-out corpse, anticipates the more Boschian flights of Tex Avery (although this was, of course, the era of the great Ub Iwerks and other crazy cartoonists). Although Vidor is hardly remembered as a comic director, show people’s smooth nuances enable it to be seen forty-five years later with very little “making allowances,” even of the intuitive sort which one practices unconsciously-and it whets one’s appetite for all those other early Vidors which weren’t remembered by that most unreliable of oracles, the critical consensus.


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