#242) Show People (1928)

show-people-movie-poster-1928-1020435011

#242) Show People (1928)

OR “A Star is Torn”

Directed by King Vidor

Written by Agnes Christine Johnston and Laurence Stallings

Class of 2003

The Plot: Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) travels from Georgia to Hollywood with one goal: to become a star. Aided by her father General Marmaduke Pepper (Dell Henderson), Peggy gets her start in a frivolous Mack Sennett-esque comedy. Peggy is hesitant to do the film, preferring to be a dramatic actress, but co-star Billy Boone (William Haines) advises her to “take it on the chin” and guides her through the production. The film is a hit, but Peggy immediately abandons Billy for another, more prestigious studio, rebrands herself as “Patricia Pepoire”, and starts dating suave leading man Andre Telfair (Paul Ralli). Peggy must choose between her glamorous but empty Hollywood dream, or a less exciting but more fulfilling life with Billy. Added Bonus: This movie has more Hollywood cameos than “The Player”.

Why It Matters: Deemed a “silent gem”, the NFR praises the film for “[g]ently skewering the industry that created it”, and gives shoutouts to Davies and Vidor.

But Does It Really?: “Show People” is a perfect representation of the silent era’s last hurrah. Released one year after “The Jazz Singer”, “Show People” is one of the last silent films to succeed during the sound craze. Also on display are the fine comic chops of Marion Davies, whose personal life has overshadowed the work of a promising comedy star. “Show People” never overstays its welcome, ages far better than many of its contemporaries, and still manages to be a funny love letter to early Hollywood. Worthy of preservation, and definitely worth a watch.

Everybody Gets One: This film’s two leads are probably better known for their off-screen lives rather than their on-screen work. Forever identified as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies was a popular silent film star who specialized in light comedy. Hearst’s possessiveness over Davies’ career and his push for her to be in more dramatic work did more harm than help. Co-star William Haines spent years as a bit player before finally breaking through as a leading man and box-office draw. He was fired from MGM in the mid ‘30s when Louis B. Mayer forced him to choose between his career and his homosexuality. Haines chose the latter and retired from acting soon after.

Wow, That’s Dated: This movie is the giant megaphone wielding, mood music playing world of the 1920s Hollywood Studio System.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Show People” would have been eligible for the 2nd Oscars in 1930, the only year no official nominees were announced. Was “Show People” snubbed in favor of “talkies”? Was it even on the Academy’s radar? Or did the Oscar’s dismissal of comedies start early?

Other notes

  • While released through MGM, “Show People” was produced by Cosmopolitan Productions, the film company created by William Randolph Hearst specifically for Marion Davies. She’s even credited as a producer.
  • We open with a lot of shots of 1928 Hollywood, including the studio entrances of Paramount, MGM, and the long gone First National. Also, I suspect that phonograph shop isn’t there anymore either.
  • “Beezark”? I guess it means a lunatic or crazy person. Intertitles are a gold mine for ‘20s phraseology.
  • You know what I miss? The name Marmaduke. It roughly translates from Gaelic to “leader of the seas”, I don’t see why it can’t still be a name. And if you ask me, does anyone really remember that dog? So much for being a “great” dane.
  • This is John Gilbert’s easiest paycheck; just step out of your car and say hi. I wonder if this was a “Bowfinger” situation and he didn’t even realize he was in a movie.
  • It took me almost 250 movies, but at long last we have a “pie-in-the-face” gag. Hearst objected to Davies being the recipient of said pie, so a compromise was reached: someone else would get the pie, while Davies would get spritzed with a bottle of seltzer water, which she takes like a pro.
  • Harry Gribbon is giving me everything as the comedy director. His physicality is perfection. It’s a shame most of his movies are lost.
  • Gloria Swanson gets name-dropped twice as a comparison to Peggy’s success. I guess it really was the pictures that got small.
  • And then the cameos start pouring in. Charlie Chaplin is very game as the celebrity fan that Peggy doesn’t recognize. Matinee idol Lew Cody is chatting up “It” author Elynor Glyn. There’s even an appearance by that young starlet Marion Davies, whom Peggy takes an instant dislike to.
  • Davies’ physical timing is exceptional; she is giving a solid performance through-and-through. What could have been if only Hearst hadn’t gotten in the way?
  • Why is Billy dressed like one of the SNL Bees?
  • The banquet scene is a who’s-who of silent film stars. Most of them are unrecognizable today, but among the diners are Louella Parsons, John Gilbert (again!), Norma Talmadge, William S. Hart (in his final film appearance), and Douglas Fairbanks.
  • Shoutout to Sarah Bernhardt, only recently departed at the time of filming.
  • The final cameo is reserved for the director himself. King Vidor pops up in the last scene as, what else, a film director.

Legacy

  • Both Marion Davies and William Haines made the transition to talkies, but Hearst’s excessive lobbying severely limited Davies’ film options, until she finally acquiesced and went into early retirement. She stayed by Hearst’s side up to his death in 1961.
  • After being fired from MGM, William Haines and partner Jimmie Shields lived together and operated an interior design dealership until Haines’ death in 1973. William Haines Design is still in operation and very successful (though their website still lists Nancy Reagan as a client).
  • Lucille Ball cited Marion Davies as an influence on her own comic persona. If only Marion had gotten involved with a Cuban bandleader instead…
  • For the record, the character of Susan Alexander Kane, untalented opera singer and mistress/second wife of “Citizen Kane”, is not based on Davies. Hearst and Davies still took the film as a personal attack, but Welles would state in later years that he admired Davies both as a person and as a performer, calling her “an extraordinary woman”.

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