FROM THE ARCHIVES: Show People
Reviewed by Thomas Doherty

An M-G-M film and a Marion Davies production; directed by King Vidor; original story by Agnes Christine Johnston and Laurence Stallings, adapted by Wanda Tuchow; titles by Ralph Spence; photographed by John Arnold; edited by Hugh Wynn; settings by Cedric Gibbons; starring Marion Davies, William Haines, Dell Henderson, and Paul Ralli. DVD, B&W, silent, 78 min. A Warner Archive Collection release.

The Hollywood on Hollywood film—the genre where Hollywood entertainment is drawn from the backstage shenanigans of Hollywood cinema—began almost as soon as the motion-picture industry set up shop in Hollywood. If, as legend has it, audiences once flinched before oncoming trains and ducked when an outlaw fired his pistol into the camera, protomoviegoers soon became savvy cinephiles, hip to the artifices and techniques of the new medium and cynically cognizant of the false fronts behind the set designs of stardom.

Made on the cusp of the sound revolution, with a music track but no dialogue, King Vidor’s Show People (1928) shows people how thoroughly TMZ-style film-fixation had penetrated American culture by the late 1920s. Fast-paced and fast-talking (well, intertitled), it firmly rebukes the popular notion of silent cinema as a slow-mo realm of stilted pantomime, Victorian morals, and spellbound-in-darkness gawkers. We’re all in on the joke and everybody’s in showbiz.

Unlike us Jazz Age sophisticates, wannabe marquee name Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) is a rube in Tinseltown. “I didn’t think they made ‘em that green,” cracks a director, sizing up the clueless ingénue. Chauffeured from Georgia by her Dixiefied daddy, General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson), she is fresh off the mint-juleped plantation, or maybe straight out of the first reel of an old chestnut like The Birth of a Nation (1915). With her little-girl curls, powdered makeup, and crinoline Southern belle dress, complete with matching parasol, she is a retro vision of genteel femininity, before gin-swilling flappers relegated corsets and hoop skirts to the clothes attic of history. When a dizzying montage of Hollywood storefront signage (the M-G-M camera generously pans the gates of its rivals at Paramount, Fox, and First National) flashes before her, the new hick in town eventually gets the picture. “It must be Hollywood,” figures Peggy.

Well, after a fashion. Already Hollywood (“a golden spot on the map”) is less an industrial site than a mythic zone, a star-crossed promised land—El Dorado or Babylon—where a casting director’s whim can mean fame and fortune or failure and degradation. The Hays office, the oligarchic consortium formed in 1922 in the wake of the sordid Fatty Arbuckle scandal, where a young party girl died during a wild weekend orgy, was charged with cleaning up the image of the company town and warning off corn-fed gals who might be lured West on dreams of stardom only to fall into perdition. “Periodically Hollywood crashes through with a screen story about itself, thereby branding as insincere its own frequently stressed propaganda for restless females to stay away,” Variety cynically observed in its original review. “Show People is enough to discount all the stories the Hays office can send out in a year’s time. There never was a girl who got into the movies so easily as this heroine.” The biggest threat to Peggy’s virtue is that the spotlight of stardom will blind her to true love and make her deny her better nature.

Peggy’s path to name-above-the-titledom is greased by good-natured funnyman Billy Boone (gay icon William Haines, nothing special), a “custard pie artist from the slapstick `lots,’” who takes her under his wing and into his heart, schooling her in the aerodynamics of pie throwing and the hydraulics of seltzer water spraying. Though the self-styled artiste whose thespian chops were the “talk of Savannah” wants to be a “great dramatic actress,” she learns to take it on the chin like a trouper and soon has ’em rolling in the aisles.

Beneath the pancake makeup, the girl has talent to burn, and well she might: she’s played by Marion Davies. Perhaps best known today as the mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst and the model for the talentless Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), Davies was in fact a versatile and charming gamine, a free spirit with the malleable face and game-for-anything moxie of a natural-born screen comedienne. Sure-footed though she was in the comedic mode, her buttoned-down patron Hearst insisted she take on classier, respectable roles, a backstory that informs Peggy’s own career trajectory. In a warm appreciation in her 1999 study Silent Stars, film historian Jeanine Basinger set the record straight and gave the actress her due, calling Davies “a delicious comedienne whose films are unpretentious entertainments in which she is beautiful, peppy, funny, and highly appealing.” To watch Davies light up Show People is to see how dreadfully unfair the Welles-Mankiewicz caricature was to her legacy.

After catching the eye of a high-powered casting director, Peggy bids a tearful farewell to Billy and the gang at the slapstick stock company. In a poignant long shot, she scurries away though the backlots, disappearing in the distance, into the ethereal realm of real stardom. Appropriately, she lands smack in the kind of high serious hokum that was the specialty of director King Vidor, who with The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928) earned plaudits from critics who usually looked down their noses at Hollywood fare. At a film preview, the screen flashes a title card for the featured attraction reading: “John Gilbert in King Vidor’s Production Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini,” typical of the high-born fare that was M-G-M’s bread and butter and a hit for Vidor in 1926.

At High Arts Studio—a mixture of United Artists pretense and M-G-M largess—Peggy meets leading man Andre (Paul Ralli), a virtual body double for John Gilbert, who fancies himself a European nobleman (real name: Tony, former spaghetti-slinging Italian waiter). Rebranding herself Patrice Pepoire, she primps and pontificates for the Hollywood press corps. Throughout Show People, the fake sincerity of show business—the publicity machine, the stunt work, the on-location fabrications—is exposed more as a review session for the in-the-know than an education for the uninitiated. Hence, a sight gag worthy of a Buster Keaton film: a back shot of a director, in a chair labeled “director,” and a man sitting next to him in a chair labeled “yes.” The film’s faith in the screen IQ of its audience may be best illustrated in a sequence in where Andre, the male hero of a film within the film, in long shot, leaps from a rock into a lake, followed by a quick shot of the bedraggled stunt man dragging himself from the water as a stagehand dumps a bucket of water on Andre, who then runs into camera range to rescue the girl. Later in the same sequence, a director tells Billy to jump into the selfsame lake from a rock—and a long shot shows a figure, which we have just been taught is certainly not actor William Haines, making a perfect clownish swan dive into the lake.

Since movie stars litter the streets in Hollywood, cameo appearances abound, usually heralded by a wide-eyed intertitle announcing, “That’s John Gilbert!” Many of the stars have lost their luster over the years and some of the cameos and inside references are apt to be lost on contemporary viewers not immersed in the fan magazine faves of the silent age. “Lew Cody and Elinor Glynn,” squeals an intertitle, swooning over the then-famous actor and then-ultra chic inventor of the “It” girl persona. Though Charles Chaplin needs no introduction, he gets one, presumably because he appears sans Tramp gear. “Who is that little guy?” wonders Peggy. When the camera pans a stable of M-G-M stars, the modern viewer is apt to want a pop-up option to identify faces whose glimmer has faded over time. Peggy sits between action-adventure hero Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Western star William S. Hart, but a few seats away is none other than Mae Murray. Forgotten today, Murray was known as “the girl with the bee stung lips,” and she gets stung deliciously by Davies’s imitation. Gloria Swanson, who like Peggy went upwardly mobile on the star chart from Mack Sennett bathing beauty to Cecil B. DeMille muse, is also tweaked around the edges. The eyes of the contemporary trade press help connect the dots. Variety again: “Miss Davies is obviously mimicking the peculiar pucker of the lips identified with Mae Murray, former M-G-M star. This is broad burlesque. However, at other times, the story suggests the career of Gloria Swanson, particularly with emphasis upon the custard pie gal becoming an emotional actress. Bebe Daniels is also suggested.” The Film Daily also got the joke, chuckling: “The way [Davies] spoofs Mae Murray is a riot.” No less a riot is the way she spoofs herself. When Peggy spots an effervescent flapper springing out of a roadster, tennis racket in hand, her companion points out. “That’s Marion Davies.” Peggy screws up her face: she’s not such a big deal. Self-reflexivity ain’t nothin’ new.

Swanning like Swanson, Peggy—sorry, Patrice—now plays in high-class costume dramas, bloated entertainments which leave her slapstick fan base cold. To complete her unholy transformation, she plans to marry the pretentious Andre, but we all know there is no chance of that happening, that Billy will crash the wedding and pull her off her high horse with a custard pie epiphany.

Of course, a Hollywood on Hollywood film demands a sappy Hollywood ending. The last vignette finds Peggy on set, sitting with none other than King Vidor himself, who is directing what appears to be a sequel to The Big Parade, with Peggy having gotten Billy the part of a doughboy and, unbeknownst to him, her love interest. They kiss, Vidor yells “Cut!” and the couple keeps right on smooching.

The quality of the film is superb (maybe Peter Bogdanovich is right about 1928 being the greatest year in Hollywood history), but the print unspooled on the DVD has its flaws—splotching, scratches, missing a frame or two, the sound tinny. Those of us spoiled by the pristine restorations from Kino and Criterion need to be reminded that the Warner Archive series is about availability, not perfection, that the version of Show People salvaged here is more in the way of whetting one’s appetite for the major do-over the film deserves than a definitive edition keepsake.

A synchronous sound but pretalkie production, Show People conspicuously omits one important item of motion-picture tradecraft from its self-referential inventory: the audio revolution it was made in the midst of. Was it too early or too close to home? At one point in the film, to get Peggy in the emotive mood, a pair of musicians plays off screen on what was not yet a soundstage, with no intimations of the mortality of the silent medium, no warning of the microphones waiting in the wings, ready to shatter the world that Show People preserves. Indeed, already the anarchic spirit of the Mack Sennett–Hal Roach two-reelers celebrated herein seem the entertainment options of a bygone age. Vidor also celebrated the revivifying power of screen comedy in the famous ending to The Crowd, where a sea of faces in a motion-picture theater forgets the woes of life and laughs at the antics of bonehead slapstick. Yet the future of Hollywood comedy—fueled by the rapid-fire wordplay brought in with sound—will not be in madcap slapstick but in slick, ironic entertainments quite a lot like Show People.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

To purchase Show People, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.