Tuesday, 3 April 2012

There's no people, like... Show People (1928)

One of the films cited as a major influence on a recent academy award winner, King Vidor’s Show People (1928) is indeed deserving of its reputation. There had been other films taking a humorous look inside Hollywood and you could position this one as a link between Souls for Sale (1923) and Bombshell in (1933) – both fawned over elsewhere in this blog.

There were many more to follow but Show People performs its task with wit and energy and an eye-popping cast of bit-parts and fly-bys from MGM’s stars. Not knowing a huge amount about the film, I sat as slack-jawed as any late 20's movie-goer (I know; the family have commented on that habit...) as the camera panned along to reveal a set of lunch guests ranging from Mae Murray, John Gilbert, Renne Adore, Leatrice Joy, Norma Talmadge, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart.

Show People is what you could call post modern; self-referential to a greater degree than pretty much any other movie on movies I’ve seen from the silent period. Marion Davies character arrives at the studio to see an actress she barely recognises, asking who it is she’s told that it’s Marion Davies – “who? I don’t like her much” she mouths.

Earlier on she fails to recognise the slight handsome man with grey hair who asks her to sign his film programme… she feints after been told it’s Charles Chaplin.

Marion plays innocent Peggy Pepper who is brought to Hollywood by her father, General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson) with the determined, but totally wrong, assumption that she’ll be welcomed with open arms. After trying and failing to follow John Gilbert into the studios, they are sent to casting and the first of many humilations.

They encounter a jobbing slapstick actor, Billy Boone, played by the eternally sunny William Haines, who determines to help them as far as he can.

He gets Peggy a chance in one of his comedies and, playing it straight, she gives the perfect, un-anticipated, response when squirted in the face with soda water and getting involved in a custard pie fight.

She hates it but the film crew love it and thus begins her rise towards success albeit not quite as the dramatic actress she wants to be. Seeing her film being laughed at by an uproarious audience in cinema, gives her little pleasure and she makes Billy watch the main feature, Vidor’s Bardleys the Magnificent. On seeing Eleanor Boardman (the boss’ wife...) being romanced in the boat, she declares that that is the kind of actress she wants to be… Multiple levels again as Davies herself was more naturally a comedic than dramatic actress – not that Randolph Hearst would ever agree.
But Peggy goes from strength to strength and is soon selected ahead of Billy by the studio for more feature work. They change her name to Patricia Pepoire and make her date a fellow star, Andre Telefair (Paul Ralli) a phoney French “count” who we later discover, used to wait on tables.

Ms Pepoire becomes more and more removed from her friends and family and starts to believe her own publicity: Hollywood always on the defensive by this stage. Billy sees Peggy filming a dramatic encounter with Andre as his Keystone-style Komedy crew are filming themselves in a madcap chase but he just can’t reach her – even Andre is closer to getting the joke.

But even when audiences begin to turn, Ms Pepoire doesn’t get it. She agrees to marry Andre and all seems to be lost. Can Billy find a way to not only see sense but to win her back? Honest laughter may be the solution!

Show People is a well-worn story very well wrought and is enlivened by the constant rush of surprise guests, especially at that luncheon. King Vidor himself even pops up directing a sequence not unlike part of The Big Parade – it’s a real joy to see him in the action, so many admirable films in the twenties and beyond.

William Haines is so hugely underrated, one of silent cinema’s great “lost” characters; he’s nothing less than excellently energetic in every role I’ve seen him play and, for some reason he kept reminding me of Paul Rudd in this movie…maybe it was the bee-pullover and the handlebar moustache?!

Marion Davies is also a hoot and, in a similar way to Haines, is an expert at light comedy and not taking herself too seriously. She pulls an odd tooth-revealing smile, when posing as Ms Pepoire, playing along with the suggestion that she resembled the strikingly profiled Mae Murray.

She’s great at pulling faces and there’s an hilarious sequence when she acts out seeing her lover on one side and her enemy on the other… like she’s watching the most emotional tennis match imaginable.

Show People is genuinely funny and it’s a tribute to its quality that this remains the case. I don’t think The Artist would have been the same without it.

The audiences must have loved the fact that these actors where so ready to bring themselves down to earth. And, to this extent, Show People, can only have helped to strengthen the complicit agreement between the watched and the watchers: “you pays your money and we hope you make us your choice.”

For such a good movie though, it’s a frustration that Show People isn’t more readily available. The same is true of some other Vidor classics as well: what’s going on here?! VHS copies are still available and the film is shown on the US TCM.

Maybe someday this will be on a box set with The Crowd, The Big Parade and Proud Flesh… in the meantime, keep your eyes peeled…


  1. Marion Davies and William Haines are so delightful in this film. It should be required viewing for all who think that Marion Davies and Susan Alexander of Citizen Kane are remotely similar - and William Haines is sadly in need of a revival! Thanks for spotlighting this delightful film.

  2. Thanks FC - it's so frustrating that this film hasn't got a DVD release. It deserves more as do Haines and Davies!

  3. I have loved that "casting" scene since i saw this film as a teenager! But i couldn´t remember the title of the film until i found this blog. Thanks!

    1. You're very welcome Diana - it's a lovely movie with lots of set pieces that stay in the memory!