Director: King Vidor
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is an entry in the Movies about Movies Blogathon, hosted by Mike Phillips of Goatdogblog.
Marion Davies means different things to different people. To those unfamiliar with silent films, which comprise the bulk of her filmography, she may mean nothing at all. To others, she is the mistress of newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart and the model for no-talent singer Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Finally, to those who love silents, she is one of the silver screen’s first and best comic actresses.
Davies, born Marion Douras, began her career in show business on stage, where she made a great success in a variety of comedies, musicals, and as a chorine in The Ziegfeld Follies. She made her first film in 1917 and three more in 1918, two with backing from Hearst. She worked steady and successfully, promoted prominently by the Hearst newspaper chain. By 1928, she was a major star able to secure the services of the best talents available. MGM’s Show People was produced by “Boy Wonder” Irving Thalberg, directed by the great King Vidor, and features cameos and short scenes by such big stars as John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin playing themselves—a true insider look at Hollywood. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that this film is lit from within by the comic gifts and down-to-earth charm of its star Marion Davies.
Show People, a quintessential movie about the movies, tells the story of Peggy Pepper (Davies) a southern belle from Savannah, Georgia, driven cross-country by her daddy, General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson), to become a big star in Hollywood. Bumping along the uneven roads in their open-top jalopy, the General and Peggy, looking all the world like Col. Sanders and Little Bo Peep, finally find their groove in the streetcar rails that run past the major film studios of the day—Fox, First National, Universal. The Peppers pull up at the gate of Comet Studios, where Peggy tells the guard that she wants to speak to the president. “What about?” he asks. “I want to be in the movies!” “Casting office,” he replies, pointing to his left.
Full of enthusiasm, Peggy and the General walk past the other wannabes to the receptionist’s window. “I want to be in the movies,” she declares. The receptionist calls one of the casting directors (Tenen Holtz) over. “Can you act?” Oh yes, the Peppers assure him, and the General hands Peggy his handkerchief. She raises it in front of her face. When her father calls out an emotion, “Sad…Angry…Yearning,” Peggy lowers the scarf to reveal her interpretation of each feeling. They’re laughingly bad. Peggy is so sincere, however, the assistant gives her a card to fill out.
Weeks go by, and Peggy’s big break still hasn’t come. She’s not even getting extra work. At the studio canteen, she and the General try to make their 20 cents go as far as possible. They sit down near a pleasant young man who recognizes a starving artist when he sees one. He introduces himself as Billy Boone (William Haines), a working actor at the studio. Peggy says she has hopes of becoming a dramatic actress. Billy shares his meal with them. Overjoyed, the Peppers befriend Billy. He later delivers on his promise to get Peggy work on one of his pictures.
Peggy’s first day on the job has her weaving her way through various sets to find the one where she belongs. She ruins a take by tiptoeing across a set as a torrid love scene ensues in the foreground, and narrowly escapes a drenching as bathing beauties splash in a pool. Finally, she locates Billy, who introduces her to the director (Harry Gribbon). He gives her her direction—come through the door and look surprised. She goes to the other side of the door as the other actors practice various pratfalls, with one of them getting knocked to the ground several times. Finally, the director calls action and cues Peggy to come in. When she steps through the door, she is hit from across the set with a stream of seltzer water. Her surprise is genuine, as her gape-mouthed drenching has the cast and crew in stitches. Peggy, however, is humiliated and runs off in tears. She wails to Billy that she wants to be a dramatic actress. He tells her everyone has to pay their dues and encourages her to be a trouper and go through with the film. Summoning all her strength, she prepares to come through the door again for some close-ups of her “big moment.”
When the film premieres, Billy takes Peggy to see it. She watches the audience laugh hysterically, and gains a bit of pleasure from it, even as she winces painfully to see herself hit with pies and being chased by Keystone Kops. After the screening, as Billy and Peggy stand in the vestibule of the theatre, a producer and a little fellow named Charlie Chaplin converse. “She’s really got something,” the producer exclaims. Chaplin spies her and Billy, and goes over to them. He pulls out his autograph book and asks them to sign: “I’m just crazy about signatures!” Peggy is annoyed by the intrusion, but Billy gladly signs and hands the book back. “Who is that little fellow?” Peggy asks as she watches him get into a limo. “Charlie Chaplin!” Billy exclaims. Peggy faints into his arms.
Peggy continues to churn out comedy shorts, but eventually the call comes from High Arts Studio. She and Billy enter the studio grounds. A car pulls up, and a man and woman get out. “Who is that?” she asks Billy. “Marion Davies,” he answers, and Davies as herself looks around. In an endearing bit of self-deprecation, Peggy shows that she doesn’t think Davies is all that much. The pair forgets about Davies, and goes to the office. Trying to calm Peggy’s nerves, Billy says he won’t sign if they don’t take her, too. Alas, when the receptionist calls for Miss Pepper, they both get up. “Miss Pepper only,” says the receptionist. Peggy says she won’t sign if they don’t take Billy, but the crestfallen Billy encourages her to go on.
On her last day with her old gang in the comedy unit at Comet, Peggy becomes tearful and promises not to forget them. Billy, however, is not at the farewell party. She finds him waiting outside the soundstage door so he can speak to her privately. He says his good-byes and seals them with a kiss. Tearfully, Peggy goes off to become a star. And boy does she ever! At the advice of her leading man Andre Telefair (Paul Ralli), a phony count who used to be Tony the pizza slinger, she changes her name to Patricia Pepoire (a reminder of Marion’s own change to the Anglicized “Davies” on beginning her stage career) and transforms into a diva. She rarely sees Billy or her father (who, strangely, has been MIA until the scene below), so Billy calls her up to invite her over for dinner. Her pretentious buffoon of a maid (Fanny Brice lookalike Polly Moran) answers the phone:
One day, Peggy is shooting in the same location as Billy’s film unit. He sees her and stands out of sight to watch her play. After the director yells cut, he approaches her and starts kidding her about the old days, pushing at her until she snaps. She’s humiliated by the sight of him and never wants to see him again. Billy, hurt and thoroughly chastised, slinks off to become a part of “Patricia’s” buried past. Trying to put her beginnings completely behind her, Peggy is set to marry Andre. But as her attendants put the finishing touches on her wedding attire, she flashes back to all the good times she had with Billy. She calls off the wedding.
In the end, Peggy, her swollen head shrunk down to size, asks King Vidor to cast Billy in her next picture. When he reports for work, Peggy hides and instructs King not to say that she is in the picture, too. When Billy comes to the door of a cottage on the set, Peggy walks through it. The lovers are reunited, both having learned valuable lessons—Peggy, about humility, and Billy, that keeping audiences laughing is a safe career path but one he has outgrown.
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. l