Show People (1928)

Feature Article Film Review

SHOW PEOPLE

Release Date: 20 November, 1928

Studio: MGM

Director: King Vidor

Starring: Marion Davies (Peggy Pepper), William Haines (Billy Boone), Dell Henderson (General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper), Paul Ralli (Andre Telefair), Tenen Holtz (Casting Director), Harry Gribbon (Comedy Director), Sidney Bracy (Dramatic Director), Polly Moran (The Maid), Charles Chaplin (himself), William S. Hart (himself), Douglas Fairbanks (himself), John Gilbert (himself)

Scenario: Agnes Christine Johnson, Lawrence Stallings

Titles: Ralph Spence

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1921-1930

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1921-1930, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.

Synopsis

Peggy Potter and her father, Colonel Marmaduke Oldfish Potter have arrived in Hollywood from their home in Georgia. Colonel Potter intends to get his daughter into the movies. When they try to enter a studio, they are directed to the casting office. The casting office is full of aspiring actors. At the window, Peggy shows the clerk her photos which are her baby pictures. She also acts for him, miming emotions such as meditation, passion, and anger. She does not get any parts, however.

Later, Peggy and her father are down to their last forty cents for lunch at a studio cafe. As they eat, an actor, Billy Boone, dressed as a clown, joins them at their table. He is smitten by Peggy and invites her to come to his studio for a tryout. At Peggy's tryout, Billy, wearing a large moustache, plays an exaggerated scene involving a cook and a tray of dishes. When Peggy is called in, she opens the door, Billy ducks, and she is hit in the face with water from a seltzer bottle. The director calls for a close-up of her response to the water. Peggy had been expecting a more serious scene, and she runs off crying. Billy follows and encourages her to keep her chin up. She goes back on the set and faces the seltzer treatment.

Peggy is now a successful comic actress. At the premier of the comedy, the audience laughs as a car full of exaggerated cops chase Peggy down a road. At the end of the comedy, Billy is ready to leave, but Peggy wants to stay to see John Gilbert in Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) directed by King Vidor. Billy scoffs at the stuffy drama and takes Peggy to the lobby to hear comments about their comedy. A man approaches Peggy and Billy to obtain their autographs. Peggy tries to brush him off, but Billy is cordial and signs willingly and gets Peggy to sign too. The man enters his limousine and drives away. Peggy asks who the man is. Billy says, "Charlie Chaplin".

Peggy and Billy go to a cafe for dinner. They are approached by the talent scout from a prestigious studio who requests an interview. At the studio for the interview, only Peggy is signed. There is nothing available for Billy. Back at the comedy set, Peggy finishes her picture and says goodbye to cast and crew, including Billy.

At her new studio, tests of Peggy are being made. The director asks her to mimic seeing the man she loves, and the man she hates, and back and forth between them. Then he wants tears because she has learned that the man she loves is dying. No tears result. The suggestion that she think of her father dying of starvation brings on laughter. Copious tears follow the idea that she has left behind those she loves. When the director wants a switch to laughter, she cannot stop crying.

Peggy is introduced to her leading man, Andre Telefair. He is the dark, romantic type in the popular, Latin mode. He advises Peggy to acquire a more regal and superior manner. Her new haughty look involves a slight opening of the mouth and a quiver of the upper lip. At an interview, Andre introduces his new leading lady as Patricia Pepoire, a direct descendent of Robert E. Lee. In Billy's apartment, Billy and Colonel Potter are preparing dinner. Billy phones Peggy to join them. At Patricia's palatial home, the maid answers. She informs Billy that Miss Pepoire has a prior engagement. Patricia goes out with Andre and their sophisticated friends. She is rapidly distancing herself from Billy.

Patricia's historical romance is being filmed near a lake. Patricia, dressed in an 18th century gown, is rescued by Andre from an attacker. Andre makes passionate love to her. Her acting has become snooty and grandiose. Nearby, Billy's comedy troupe is filming a typically exaggerated comedy scene. Billy, wearing a large moustache, sees Patricia and greets her. She is embarrassed to be seen with him. Billy thinks she is only kidding around. When Andre comes over, she becomes more embarrassed by Billy. She says that he will always be just a silly clown. Billy leaves saddened.

Time passes, Patricia, dressed for her part in another historical romance, is lunching with other actors. Patricia is seated between William S. Hart (in full cowboy outfit) and Douglas Fairbanks (in a business suit). Fairbanks entertains her with some slight of hand with his knife. A messenger announces that the head of the studio wishes to speak with her, at once. He informs her that exhibitors are rejecting her pictures. The public does not like the stuffy actress she has become. She rejects this declaration.

Patricia has accepted Andre's marriage proposal. Since he is actually a count, she will become a countess. On her wedding day, Billy crashes her home and confronts her. They are arguing, and Andre enters the room just as the exasperated Billy throws a pie at her. The pie smacks Andre, and the angry Billy leaves. Peggy breaks down crying and calls off the wedding.

Peggy has learned her lesson and resumed her natural behavior. She is filming a World War I comedy/drama with King Vidor, the director. She has a new leading man, Billy. They start filming, carry on a little business, and then kiss. The kissing does not stop when the director says "Cut". Vidor shrugs, and the rest of the cast and crew break for the day.

Discussion

Show People is a comic story about the making of a movie star. In the initial stage, she is a naive, but talented, natural actress. Once success arrives, she progresses into haughtiness and loses her connection with her audience. At the end she has returned to her natural self and will regain her fans. These stages in her career are related to the types of movie she is making and their respective leading men. In her first stage, she appears in a Mack Sennett type, pie-in-the-face, broad comedy. Her leading man wears a baggy clown suit and a large moustache. After she moves to the classier movie studio, she appears in historical epics. Her leading man is from the Latin lover school, dark and romantic. In the last stage, she is appearing in a WWI romance set in the French countryside, complete with farmhouse and geese. Her leading man is a handsome doughboy.

The program at a theater of the time would include a newsreel, a short film (usually a comedy), and the feature. Several studios, including those of Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, produced short comedies to play on theater programs. The Keystone Cops and their exaggerated, baggy pants comedy style, as performed by Peggy and Billy, were old-fashioned by 1928. Small studios producing inexpensive, slap-stick style, comedies were at the lowest levels of the movie business. Peggy's career begins at one of these studios and moves upward from there.

At Art Films, she is in a high class studio. Her haughty behavior spoofs Hollywood glamour actresses, especially Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri, who were a regarded as the equivalent of Hollywood royalty. Both Swanson and Negri held actual titles (a least for a while) by marriage to a marquis and a prince, respectively. Patricia's film, an elaborate historical romance, is similar to films which the major studios had produced throughout the 1920s. Davies herself had made these types of films. Her patron, William Randolph Heart, may have preferred her in period films. Her co-star in the historical romance is a slightly-exaggerated takeoff on the Latin-type, romantic actors, such as Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Navarro, popular at the time.

The final film within-the-film appears to be a version of the hugely successful World War I epic The Big Parade, which also has a country girl heroine and doughboy hero. Having dropped her exaggerated behavior and resumed a natural acting style, Peggy is making an appropriate film. Her costar is Billy who has risen to starring roles in first rate movies. The director of Peggy's WWI film, King Vidor, appears in this scene and does a bit of acting. Vidor, of course, was the director of Show People and The Big Parade.

At all stages of Peggy's career, behind-the-scenes filming activity is shown. At the comedy studio, the director sets up the scene, and the props are prepared. A chase involving Peggy and a band of comic police is filmed from a camera on a moving car. At the major studio, tests are made of the new actress. The scene of the WWI film being directed by Vidor includes views of some of the crew and equipment. These scenes glimpse filmmaking techniques of the 20's.

Various real-life show people make guest appearances. Charlie Chaplin collects autographs. John Gilbert appears briefly three times. He is shown entering the studio gates in his limousine, and he appears in a brief clip from Bardleys the Magnficent is shown at the movie theater where Peggy and Billy have gone to watch their comedy. This obscure film was also directed by King Vidor in 1928. Gilbert is also seen at lunch in the MGM commissary.

During the commissary scene, Marion Davies, as Patricia in costume, is seated at a large table with a group of MGM players. The actors are: Polly Moran (who is also in Show People), Dorothy Sebastion, Louella Parsons, Estelle Taylor, Claire Windsor, Aileen Pringle, Karl Dane, George K. Arthur, Leatrice Joy, Renee Adoree, Rod La Rocque, Mae Murray, John Gilbert, Norma Talmadge, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and William S. Hart. Except for Davies, dressed in a historical costume, the women are not in costume, and they all look alike. Each of them is wearing a cloche hat and a dark dress. Each hat covers dark, bobbed hair and frames the face. Their figures all seem to be of similar light builds. Except for Norma Talmadge, none of these actresses is familiar today. The more recognizable MGM actresses of the time, such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, are not present. The men are more individualized. Karl Dane, tall and heavy, contrasts with diminutive George K. Arthur. Douglas Fairbanks, as always, looks short, balding, and unimpressive when not in costume or in action. William S. Hart, who made his last movie in 1926, is unmistakable.

Show People is one of the highlights of Marion Davies' career. Her comic talents, warm and charming personality, and pretty features are emphasized. She dominates the film, and the audience enjoys her company. She is first seen dressed as a ridiculous "southern belle" complete with lacy skirts, bloomers, and parasol. Her demonstration of acting in the casting office consists of a series of exaggerated, and funny, facial impressions. She bursts into tears when first squirted with water. It is said that Hearst did not like the idea of Marion being hit with a pie in the face, and water was substituted. The wiggling of her lip to express the haughtiness of Patricia is quite amusing, and she continues to use this expression as long as Patricia dominates her behavior. Patricia's exaggerated movements are formal, stiff, and vain, while Peggy's are much freer and more natural.

William Haines has a relatively small part as Billy. He has been reported as doing the picture out of friendship for Davies. However, the reviewer for Variety reports that Haines was displeased with the assignment. Haines' character is a clown on the set, but, off the set, Billy is rather serious. He nicely expresses Billy's pain when "classy" Patricia is embarrassed by his friendly greeting. Despite the briefness of his role, Haines projects a pleasing personality and a relaxed and natural acting style.

Dell Henderson has a small part. He is the comic Georgian colonial, who is trying to get his daughter into the movies. His character is only present for the first third of the film. Polly Moran has some funny moments as a maid.

Show People is also one of the highlights of the career of King Vidor. The great success of The Big Parade had placed Vidor in the first rank of MGM directors. William Randolph Hearst wanted him for Marion's director. Earlier in 1928, Vidor and Davies had had a notable financial and critical success with The Patsy, and Show People was similarly successful. Although Peggy's career is telescoped, the film is smoothly paced and unhurried. Under Vidor's direction, the acting emphasizes comedy, without crossing into caricature. Satire and barbs at the movie business and its personalities are effective and amusing, but also sympathetic. The audience understands that show people - actors, directors, and crew - enjoy making movies.

Reviews

New York Times: "Hollywood Life Satirized", by Mordaunt Hall. November 12, 1928.

Reviewer Mordaunt Hall found the film to be a clever comedy and hardy satire which mostly simmers along in a delightful fashion. "The wit is keen and well-thought out, and even the more obstreperous moments are effective because there is an excuse for the boisterousness." He praises Marion Davies for her unusually clever acting. His praise for director King Vidor includes a critique of the acting of William Haines. He says that Mr. Vidor, who has proven himself proficient in handling players, has accomplished the seemingly impossible "by eliciting a restrained performance from William Haines, who actually compels sympathy for his character."

Variety: Show People, by Land. November 14, 1928.

The review by Land is positive, but has some barbs too. He says that the film is all immensely colored, glamorous beyond reality, and calculated to sell plenty of one-way tickets going West (for aspiring actors). It has laughs, studio atmosphere galore, intimate glimpses of various stars, considerable Hollywood geography, and just enough sense and plausibility to hold it together. He notes the satiric barbs seemingly directed at John Gilbert and Mae Murray (who are in the lunch scene) and the story elements which suggest the careers of Gloria Swanson and Bebe Daniels, and also that Peggy Pepper is a composite character of a variety of Hollywood personalities. He states that it is not a pretty picture of human nature, and Peggy's distended ego has a familiar quality about it. He states that William Haines was reported as squawking when assigned to co-star with Marion Davies. As Haines' feared, he is submerged in a story revolving around the feminine character. "A picture aimed for quick popularity succeeds in its purpose."

New York Times: "American Antiques", by Howard Thompson. October 2, 1967.

Howard Thompson saw a couple of "American antiques", Show People and Applause, on the final afternoon of a film festival. He considered Show People the lesser of the two. He describes Miss Davies as a vervy heroine, and Mr. Haines combines energy with a poignancy that is penetrating. He found the film noteworthy mainly for the "ghostly parade of studio royalty making guest appearances."