History is written by the victors. In cinema, it’s those who become more successfully, either critically or commercially. Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges demise of Mitchell Leisen meant that until recent he wasn’t held in much consideration. Yet, there is a more famous example. Citizen Kane as everyone knows was partly based on the life of Randolph Hearst; consequently Susan Alexander Kane, the character’s second wife and failed opera singer, must have been based on Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress. This has lead to the myth that Davies was poor actress.
I have heard many arguments against this opinion, but had no opinion as I had never seen any of her films. Whatever the truth, the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane will forever fall over Davies and if nothing else because her films are quite hard to come by. This week I got a chance to see at the BFI one of her celebrated comedies “Show People” and now I am inclined to agree with those who think that Susan is not a fair portrait of Marion. She was hilarious.
King Vidor’s “Show People” is, after “Sunset Blvd.”, arguably the biggest satire Hollywood ever made of itself. It’s equally sharp, but the bitterness is not yet – sound has yet to come and erase the first generation of demigods. This is the story of an aspiring actress, Peggy Pepper, who becomes a hit in slapstick comedies and metamorphoses herself into Patricia Pepoire, the serious thespian she always wanted to be. It’s not too hard to fast forward twenty years to the late forties and see in Patricia, Norma Desmond. In fact, the film’s story is loosely based on Gloria Swanson’s path to stardom.
Supporting Davies is another forgotten star of the late silent period – William Haines. Haines’ career was partly boycotted by Louis B. Mayer because the (fairly) openly gay actor didn’t want to have a fake marriage preferring to live with his partner. Like Davies he lasted a few years into sound and then bowed out and pursued an alternative career. In this film, despite his leading man status, and the obvious chemistry between the leads, he is really there to support the main star, to the point where nearly disappears for most of the second half of the film. But in his early scenes there is certainly an energy and a presence there that made me curious to see more of him. And I might have too much hindsight, but after his the way he moves onscreen during his first scene, wasn’t anyone suspicious of his bachelorhood?