Sunday, November 4, 2012

King Vidor | Show People

a very serious actress
by Douglas Messerli

Agnes Christine Johnston and Laurence Stallings (treatment), Wanda Tuchock (continuity), Ralph Spence (titles), King Vidor (director) Show People / 1928 / the showing I witnessed as at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater, on Thursday, November 1, 2012

In the very year when American silent films had their last gasp, King Vidor and Marian Davies produced one of the best send-ups of the movie industry, almost cataloging the various silent screen stars—from Charles Chaplin, William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Norma Talmadge, and John Gilbert, to Mae Murray, Renee Adoree, Rod LaRoque and Karl Dane, Leatrice Joy  Claire Windsor, Aileen Pringle, Dorothy Sebastian, and Polly Moran, all in cameo roles—in the process of spoofing Gloria Swanson’s career. The two stars of the film, Marion Davies (as Peggy Pepper) and William Haines (Billy Boone), were themselves Hollywood royalty, and lesser figures such as Dell Henderson (as Colonel Pepper), Paul Ralli (as Andre), and King Vidor, playing himself, contributed to the sense that this film was, unknowingly, a kind “morgue” group photo of the numerous talents whose lives in just a few years would be ravaged by alcoholism, sexual scandals, suicide, and just plain forgetfulness of the American audience.

      Davies’ forced smile, as she reminds herself of her serious role as an actress, may have been based on that of Mae Murray, but her toothy performance of the plot of this slight yet enjoyable comedy is based on Swanson’s life, who like Peggy began working as a comedic actress before becoming a “true” star, whose every gesture was calculated to demonstrate the seriousness of her art, and who would marry into royalty (in Polly’s case, it was to have a phony French nobleman, Andre, whereas Swanson married Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, herself becoming, accordingly, a marquise). Swanson arose to fame through the Mack Sennett slapstick comedies, while Peggy Pepper (changed to Peggy Pepoire) in Show People finds fame, with Billy Boone, in the Comet Comedy company—which Vidor actually filmed on the old Sennett studios with some of the Sennett company. As in most Sennett comedies, Peggy was posed by Vidor to get a pie in the face, but the protests of Davies’ lover, William Randolph Hearst, left her only with a wet nose of seltzer.

     Kevin Browlow, involved with the restoration of this film (as well as Abel Gance’s Napolean) reassured the audience that Swanson never saw this film, but surely she knew about it; Billy Wilder later invited Haines to play a crony of Nora Desmond in another, much darker, Hollywood satire, Sunset Boulevard; noted, by that time, for his interior decoration, Haines turned the role down. Brownlow noted that of all the people he interviewed, Haines was the only one who refused to talk about Show People and other movies of the day.

     While there were several successful Davies works before this, including Vidor’s The Patsy, Davies’ career playing in costume epics such as When Knighthood Was in Flower had tarnished her screen image, and, just as Peggy is no longer a screen favorite once she becomes a “serious actress” in the film, Davies was no longer at her peak—probably the source of the myth, played out in Citizen Kane, that Hearst’s mistress was untalented. Anyone seeing Show People, however, will realize how mistaken that notion is, for Davies as the naïve Georgia belle is a natural comic, wonderful in her abilities to imitate the pretentions of Hollywood movie stars. That toothy smile and fluttering eyes are enough to send a large audience (in attendance at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Thursday night) into laughter (see the picture of Mae Murray, whom Davies’ imitates, above).

     William Haines, playing, as usual, a likeable, attractive, and masculine lead, stands his ground, reminding Peggy ultimately, of her roots, and, thus, saving her from the mistake of marriage to Andre.  The fact that Haines was a relatively open homosexual was unthinkable, surely, to his legions of his women fans. But only five years later, when Haines arrested for having sex with a sailor at the Pershing Square YMCA, Louis Mayer gave the actor an ultimatum to enter into a “lavender” marriage (a fake relationship which helped to hide the individual’s sexuality from the public) and give up his relationship with his companion, Jimmie Shields. Haines refused, retiring from the screen despite his continued popularity. Haines remained with Shields until his death in 1973.

      Vidor’s comedy is no masterpiece, but it does amiably take its audience along for one last slightly hysterical, silent ride through images of light and darkness.

Los Angeles, November 3, 2012

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