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Show People

Show People

1928. M-G-M. Directed by King Vidor. With Marion Davies, William Haines, Dell Henderson, Paul Ralli.

Show People probably never meant to be an end-of-an-era classic—who knew that the stock market would soon crash or that talking pictures would reshape the industry? But it happened, and now this very polished, good-natured, hugely entertaining piece of insider filmmaking looks in retrospect like an affectionate farewell to the Hollywood of the 20s.

It perfects the formula (and some of the gags) that we saw in Ella Cinders, made two years earlier: a small-town girl comes to Hollywood, gapes along with us at the local sights and personalities, becomes a star through her own natural vivaciousness, and discovers that it's not so great at the top.

In Show People, the girl is played by Marion Davies; she's not as striking looking as Colleen Moore in Ella Cinders but she's very funny and lively. The film is billed as "A Marion Davies Production," and if it's true that W. R. Hearst insisted on putting Marion in heavy costume dramas when her true talent was as a comedian, this movie hits close to home. Marion's character, Peggy Pepper, starts out in slapstick comedies but soon joins "High Arts Studio,." where she is immobilized in hoop skirts and wigs and paired with a European lounge-lizard leading man. Peggy changes her name to Patricia Pepoire, snubs her old friends, almost marries a phony count, and gets a predictable comeuppance. The only way to be a true star, Peggy learns, is to be yourself.

Show People contains wonderful footage of Hollywood in the 20s, including the gates of long-vanished studios, casual movie-making on the streets of Los Angeles, newly-built Beverly Hills mansions, location trips to the surrounding countryside. How innocent and bucolic it looks! A long sequence showing the filming of a comedy short—brainstorming, rehearsal, improvisation, rigged props, retakes—looks almost documentary.

In her odyssey through Hollywood, Peggy meets a number of bona fide stars. Right off the bat she spots John Gilbert getting out of his limo. Later, Charlie Chaplin asks for her autograph (they were apparently called "signatures" then); she doesn't recognize him out of costume and almost swoons when told who he is. A glamorous woman with a tennis racket emerges from a car. Peggy asks "Who's that?" and is told "That's Marion Davies." Peggy looks after the actress appraisingly for a few seconds, and then gives a dismissive grimace that says, "Enh, she's not so hot."

The most star-heavy scene gives the picture's strategy away. This is after Peggy is well established at High Arts. A title announces: "Lunch At The Stars' Table." We get about a 30 second pan around a table full of MGM stars—John Gilbert, Norma Talmadge, Mae Murray, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and others. Except for Hart, none is in costume and they are hardly eating lunch. They have clearly been assembled and posed for this shot—each perks up and does a little routine when the camera gets to her or him. This is not studio cafeteria atmospherics, this is Guest Appearance. The subtext is that Marion asked a bunch of her friends to stop by and be in a shot or two. There is such an air of privilege and abundance—of a wealth of talent, of time, of resources. All very good-natured, friendly, accessible. By this time, America was deeply in love with Hollywood, and Hollywood was basking in the affection.

Two similar scenes bookend Peggy's movie career, both purporting to show that when it comes to movie acting, the less artifice the better. In the first, Peggy's boyfriend, comic Billy Boone, has gotten her a bit part in a movie that she apparently doesn't realize is a slapstick comedy. Beautifully dressed, she enters to an unexpected torrent of seltzer water in the face. Her spontaneous dismay and fury delight Billy and the director; she's so "natural" and spunky that she becomes a star.

At the very end, Peggy engineers a reconciliation with Billy by similar means. Billy is in a movie (directed by King Vidor) playing a soldier who encounters a beautiful Mamselle in a French village. Peggy surreptitiously takes the place of the actress playing the French girl. When she enters the scene, Billy, surprised and delighted, forgets his character and the story, but it's the perfect reaction for the shot. (Then, of course, the director calls "Cut!" but they stay in the clinch as the crew packs up and slips away.)

This is a familiar gambit for movies about movies: filming either ruined or enhanced by someone behaving "naturally." The camera doesn't distinguish between staged performance and spontaneous emotion—it just photographs what's in front of it. Marion Davies herself, Marion Davies as Peggy Pepper, or Marion Davies as Peggy Pepper playing a Marquise all look pretty much the same. A movie can't put quotation marks around people or locations to let us know what level of artificiality we're watching at at any particular time. Conventions have evolved to help (no one ever appears in a fiction film as himself; a character giving a "performance" will use an exaggerated and arificial acting style; a movie-within-a-movie will have a visible frame around it; etc.). The fun comes when movies decide to ignore or subvert these conventions. Different levels of abstraction collide, and we're in self-referential heaven.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein