Immediately before "Show People" King Vidor directed Marion Davies in "The Patsy", the story of a not-so-ugly duckling who is in love with her shallow sister's beau. She thinks she lacks "personality", her father disagrees. Her mother (played by Marie Dressler) thinks she is a major cause of problems and much prefers her sister.
I saw this film a few months ago, and again tonight at the BFI. Tonight's screening, part of Birds Eye View film festival boasted of a new score by a "multi-talented singer-songwriter" that has "made a name for herself as an innovative composer". Had I read that description before I bought the ticket, I would have stayed away - she made the music all about herself and not about the film. As a result it killed its natural rhythm and a few comic moments. It created noises slightly out-of-sync with the action (e.g. a plate crashing) that distracted too much. Plus it was loud, invasive and not in the tiniest suited for the action. We were even treated to a song...
And yet, despite all this, Marion Davies' performance shone through. I think I prefer her other Vidor film, but she has great moments. One is a sequence of imitations of great starts of the silent era including Lillian Gish and I think Pola Negri. Another is when she tries to get a "personality" and suddenly quotes witticisms unexpectedly. She's hilarious when trying to persuade the man she loves to kiss her (something on the lines of "what's a kiss between friends") and she engages your sympathy when she is being treated as second class by her mother and sister. She also manages to create those little funny moments that help create a good film - making sure her loved one gets the biggest ice-cream bowl. I can only say it's a pity that more her stuff isn't easily available.
Providing great support and nearly stealing the show is Marie Dressler. I think that had the Oscars a Best Supporting Actress from the beginning, she would have been a serious contender. The first act of the film, during a Sunday meal, is proof enough of that. She bosses one daughter and her husband left, right and center. She's delightfully overbearing when she manages to displace her husband from his seat, take the newspaper from him, play the ill and suffering wife and insult him all in a few minutes. You are left in no doubt who's the boss. She wants her daughter to marry a man that is both a good match socially and that both can boss around but at same time betrays her eagerness to rise socially, even ignoring an insult. Despite all this, she has a heart and while you laugh at her and sometimes with her, by the end you love her.
I have absolutely no idea who was the actress playing the vamp-ish sister, but I quite like her, as I did the father in his scenes with Davies. There was believable tenderness between the two.
I want to see more of Vidor's late silents. They are well constructed films, well acted and well directed. Martin Scorcese said he did one for himself, one for the studios. I assume under the first category fall "The Crowd", "Duel in the Sun" and "The Fountainhead". I struggle to say which one I liked the least. "Duel in the Sun" is just plain awful (Jennifer Jones and Selznick taking a lot of the blame) but the other two try too hard to be relevant. Yet, his studio assignments, star vehicles such as this, "Show People" and "Stella Dallas" seem to me much more interesting. Maybe he just relaxed. Whatever he did, I like it.