Friday, 11 December 2009

Show People (1928)

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.
The screening I attended was introduced by Kevin Brownlow who pointed out several of the in-jokes that recur into the movie. Some are obvious like the John Gilbert character, some of the faces doing cameos (Chaplin, Gilbert himself, etc.), some not entirely obscure, such as the sets that resemble (or maybe are the same) as Vidor’s hit “The Big Parade”. Many, however, are lost to me, and I imagine to all but a very, very small minority of the audience. This is a tragedy, as it is obvious a contemporary audience would have got the jokes, thus making the film twice as funny. Kevin Brownlow told us he had one of the crew watching the film and telling many of these jokes. I would love to have been there. My favourite moment has to be when aspiring Peggy meets Marion Davies herself. She was not impressed.

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?


VP81955 said...

It should be noted that Chester Foster Kane was not based entirely on Hearst, but was a composite of several magnates -- and in fact, Susan Alexander Kane was derived from one of these people, who built an opera house for the love of his life.

Davies was a talented actress, and while the Hearst press' fawning over her helped a bit, she was genuinely popular (most of her films made money, contrary to folklore) and regularly got positive reviews from the non-Hearst press. She was also beloved in the film community for her generosity and high spirits.

To his credit, Welles praised Davies, apologizing for the misconceptions about her that "Kane" created, when he wrote the foreword to "The Times We Had" a Davies autobiography of sorts culled from audio and written recollections near the end of her life.

Other Davies films I'd recommend include "The Patsy" with Marie Dressler and "The Red Mill." (Another film I'd like to see is "The Fair Co-Ed," a distaff version of '20s campus comedies; Marion plays a star basketball player!)

For more on Davies, see my entry at For more on "The Fair Co-Ed," see

Miguel said...

I've amended my sentence on Hearst to better reflect what I actually wanted to say.

I knew that Welles apologised to Davies later on, but by then the myth was already becoming the truth.

I have seen "The Patsy" since and I loved Marie Dressler in it.