Marion Davies knocks ’em dead in this witty comedy about showbiz. In a tale that is a combination of Gloria Swanson’s story and Merton of the Movies, Marion plays a newcomer to Hollywood who wants to make her mark in drama. William Haines, a kindly slapstick comedian, takes her under his wing and her career begins to take off but she soon outgrows him. Will her emerging ego destroy her career or will she realize who her real friends are?
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
The show must go on.
Marion Davies is my favorite silent era comedienne. She is also one of my favorite comedians, period. Witty, lively and a wicked mimic, Davies made sparkling comedies– when she was allowed to. Much as I hate to define an actress by the man in her life and much though I prefer to stay out of performer’s real world romances, it would be misleading to talk about Marion Davies without mentioning William Randolph Hearst.
In brief, Hearst met and fell in love with Davies. He immediately took charge of her career, starring her in expensive and much-hyped dramas.
On the surface, it sounds like the tale of a gold-digger and her sugar daddy but the truth is far more complex. Marion Davies was, by all accounts, a sweet and funny woman who genuinely returned Hearst’s affections; she was also a talented actress but her talent was for comedy.
Hearst’s insistence that she star in big, beautiful dramas hid her greatest gift: her quicksilver wit. She wasn’t bad in the historical films, quite the contrary, but the plot and pacing often subdued her comedic gifts. (For an example of what I mean, check out Little Old New York: Marion is hilarious but the film is dull, dull, dull and there’s only so much one star can do.)
The comedies that she did make were absolute proof of what her true talent was. And that is the last you will hear of Mr. Hearst in this review (oh all right, there will be a tiny bit at the end). And there will certainly be no coverage of Cat’s Meow or other scandal and speculation. This post is about the wonderful comedic legacy Marion Davies left on the screen.
Show People is one of the few true comedies that Davies made during the silent era. It boasts fast-paced humor, a lively leading man in the form of William Haines, a gentle ribbing of Hollywood and more star cameos than you can shake a stick at. Ready? Here goes!
Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) is a Southern belle who has traveled with her father, Colonel Pepper (Dell Henderson) to California to be a star. However, hitting the big time is harder than it looked back in Georgia and the father-daughter duo are reduced to a diet of beans and saltines when they meet Billy Boone (William Haines).
Billy is a semi-successful comedian working for a Sennett-esque custard pie outfit that churns out comedies on the cheap. Rambunctious but kind underneath, he plunks himself down at the table where the weary Southerners are dining. In spite of her prissy demeanor and initial rudeness, Billy takes a shine to Peggy. Her opinion of him improves when he promises to get her into pictures. The problem? He didn’t tell her what kind of motion pictures.
Peggy visualizes herself as a great dramatic actress (in spite of her meager skills) but Billy has hired her to take a bottle of seltzer in the face as a character in his latest comedy. Peggy overcomes her mortification (especially after being reminded that Gloria Swanson started out in knockabout comedy) and soon she and Billy are a popular comedy team. They are also starting to be a romantic team off-screen.
However, the big studios come a-knocking and they only want Peggy; Billy must stay with his fake mustaches and custard pies. Soon, success has gone to Peggy’s head and she has become an insufferable diva.
Will Peggy return to her senses? Will Billy have to throw pies forever? Will this Hollywood dream end happily? Watch Show People to find out!
One of the great pleasures of watching Show People is keeping a lookout for the numerous star cameos and 1920’s Los Angeles landmarks. The “Comet Studios” comedy scenes were even shot at the original Sennett Studios!
Here’s a gallery of the stars. Click on any image to enlarge.
A virtual who’s who of silent Hollywood!
Show People is a humorous twist on Marion Davies’s own story. In real life, she was a comic who was trapped in dramas. Peggy is a would-be dramatic actress trapped in comedies.
The film has two clear influences on its story: The first (and usually the only one cited) is the rise of Gloria Swanson from knockabout comedy to big-time drama and the second is the wildly popular book (and play and film) Merton of the Movies.
Like Swanson, Peggy starts out in wild slapstick comedy, a genre that she dislikes and is embarrassed to be associated with. Like Swanson, she heeds the call to the big time and is soon the star of stylish dramas. And there is even a little dig at Swanson’s aristocratic marriage– Peggy’s co-star, suitor and self-proclaimed count, Andre, is in fact Tony, a spaghetti house waiter.
Like Merton Gill, Peggy is a naive bumpkin who is reduced to near-starvation before she receives help from a stunt comic, who paves her way into the motion pictures via comedy. (In the case of Merton, he is aided by a spunky would-be comedic starlet and stuntwoman, Flips.) And like Merton, Peggy is a prissy little thing with dreams of great dramatic triumphs. Of course, the joke on Merton is that he is a terrible actor and will always be in comedy. Peggy is terrible at first but she learns quickly.
While the story is charming, it is Marion Davies who really puts the whole thing over. She was a genuinely beautiful woman with an elastic face. She grimaces, contorts and otherwise does her very best to get a laugh.
Her comedic strength lay in her deadly accurate impressions of other stars and her hilariously exaggerated send-up of acting tropes. In Show People, her character is stuck in the acting style of the Nickelodeon era. Nothing is too melodramatic! You beast! You brute! You villain!
To give the images context, I should note that in the early years of motion pictures, performers would indeed have samples of their assorted emotions printed to demonstrate their range. Here are some from Florence Lawrence, widely considered the first true movie star:
And some from Ruth Roland:
Once again, Marion is right on target!
Let’s take a moment to talk about the rest of the cast, starting with the leading man. If you were to somehow take onscreen charm and charisma and mold them into human form, you would probably end up with Billy Haines. He had the breezy charm and flippant humor that worked perfectly with Marion’s zaniness and he does a mean Ford Sterling impression. However, he also handles his emotional scenes with great sensitivity that is all the more touching when contrasted to his earlier rowdy behavior. He is truly the heart of the film. (Billy Haines fans take note, I will be covering Mr. Haines in more depth in a later review. This Marion’s time in the sun!)
Dell Henderson is adorable as Peggy’s eternally hungry father. Henderson debuted in 1928, meaning that he was a twenty year industry veteran when he made Show People. (He worked with D.W. Griffith and, to a lesser extent, Mack Sennett.) While his part is less important in the second and third acts, he is a real scene stealer in act one.
Australian performer Sidney Bracey takes on the role of the exasperated dramatic director. Once again, we are privileged to watch a talented character actor. Bracey’s director is a neurotic man who must deal with the increasingly tyrannical Peggy.
In a final bit of self-aware humor, the knockabout comedy director is played by Harry Gribbon, a veteran of Sennett studios. He debuted in 1915 as an extra in an Arbuckle-Normand short. Gribbon worked for a variety of studios and his drew on his 13-year career as a funnyman to send up comedy directors.
And I couldn’t possibly end this review without mentioning Polly Moran. Another Sennett veteran, Moran plays Peggy’s snobby (and completely nutty) maid.
Oh yes! And my own favorite silent film historian (junior league) makes an appearance as well. I loved Coy Watson Jr.’s autobiography, The Keystone Kid, and I enjoyed his bit part as an office boy trapped between Peggy’s snobbery and a producer’s temper.
King Vidor leaves his usual, more serious fare behind and seems to be having a grand time directing this little confection. He also directed Davies in her hit, The Patsy. In a sly wink, the dramatic film that Peggy wants to see and Billy hates is Bardelys the Magnificent, directed by Vidor and starring his wife, Eleanor Boardman (oh yeah, and John Gilbert). The film was considered lost for years, the footage included in Show People was a tantalizing glimpse. But Bardelys was discovered alive in France, though it needed a bit of TLC. It has since enjoyed DVD release and triumphant screenings.
In spite of the talented director and supporting cast, do not doubt for a minute that this is Marion’s movie from beginning to end. The camera loves her and she turns in one of the most side-splitting performances of any era. She’s not just a funny lady, she is a funny star!
Marion Davies’s reputation has been steadily polished over the past few years. Her charming comedy films are enjoying a wide audience on both television and DVD. However, it never hurts to remind movie fans that Marion Davies could have succeeded (and perhaps have been even more successful) going it alone. Marion’s films more than speak for themselves. She had a powerful lover, yes, but she was above all one of the great comedic talents of the silent era.
The old description is true: Marion Davies = the bubbles in champagne.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½
Where can I see it?
Show People is available on DVD-R from Warner Archive. It features the original synchronized score. I know the original scores are important for historical purposes but I am not an enormous fan of them. Recording technology was simply not up to par yet. If you can manage it, try to get your mitts on the VHS/Laserdisc release, which features a lush score by Carl Davis.
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