Monday, 15 January 2018

Ha-Ha for Hollywood... Show People (1928), with Cyrus Gabrysch, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image

Mordaunt Hall hit the nail on the head in his New York Times review: “So clever is the comedy in Show People… that it would not be at all surprising to hear that many in the audiences had sat through it twice.” Try five or seven times and it’s still a life-affirming hit.

This was the first time I’ve seen the movie in cinema though and with Cyrus Gabrysch’s playfully assured accompaniment and an audience of serious cinephiles getting every joke and spotting every starry face, it was as funny as ever.

I want to live in Billy and Marion’s world.

I always link this film with Souls for Sale (1923) starring King Vidor’s future wife, Eleanor Boardman and, in a cameo, the man himself, along with appearances from Mr Chaplin (filming Woman from Paris) and Erich von Stroheim (filming Greed, no less). It’s a film about making it in Hollywood and wraps the comedy around a more serious story although it’s also featured Boardman’s fellow New Face of 1921, William Haines as Pinkey, the assistant director; his first film credit!

The diminutive autograph hunter
In Show People we get Chaplin without his make up and someone who goes unrecognised by Marion Davis’ character Peggy Pepper, later Patricia Pepoire and we also get Eleanor Boardman, shown in the boat-under-the-willow-branches sequence from Bardleys the Magnificent along with John Gilbert, also directed, of course, by King Vidor.

Confused? You might be, but I recommend Souls for Sale to all who like the People of Show….

John Gilbert’s also *in* Show People walking into the studios ahead of Pepper and her father General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson) who brings her to Hollywood with the determined, but totally wrong assumption that she’ll be welcomed with open arms. After trying and failing to follow Mr Gilbert into the studios, they are sent to casting and the first of many humiliations.

New in town
Peggy is lucky enough to encounter Billy Boone (William Haines) in a studio canteen and he offends her by failing to take anything seriously; he’s an old enough hand to know the twin imposters of triumph and failure walk closely together in the dream factory.

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. 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 and who acknowledges Billy with the most effete of nods… (nothing is accidental when Mr Haines is around eh, boys?).

What a trooper!?
Miss 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 comedy 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 but can Billy find a way to not only see sense but to win her back? Honest laughter may be the solution along with soda water and cream pies…

Show People is a now well-worn story very well wrought and is enlivened by the constant rush of surprise guests, stars that are so in on the gag that they ham it up, especially the lunch time banquet in which Karl Dane, George K Arthur, Mae Murray, Renne Adore, Dorothy Sebastian, John Gilbert (again!), Claire Windsor, Leatrice Joy, Norma Talmadge (looking stunning by the way…), then Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart who get to send themselves up (Bill’s the funniest!).

Peggy transformed as Patricia Pepoire (any resemblance to Mae Murray etc...)
But I especially like Peggy’s response to seeing Marion Davies, asking who it is she’s told that it’s Marion Davies – “who? I don’t like her much” she mouths. King Vidor himself also pops up directing a sequence not unlike part of The Big Parade – looks like he knows what he’s doing alright!

Mordaunt Hall was even impressed with his handling of Mr Haines, a performer he seems unimpressed with: “Mr. Vidor, who more than once has proved himself a wizard in handling players, has accomplished here the seemingly impossible—by eliciting a restrained performance from William Haines. Mr. Haines, who has kicked over the traces in a number of films, in "Show People" actually compels sympathy for the character.”

Mr Haines
He concluded with even more compliments from his back handed delivery: “Miss Davies is beautiful in this film, but occasionally she does not hesitate for the sake of the part to show that with her hair pulled back she can look relatively plain…”

It’s fair to say that both Billy and Marion left their egos at the door for this film and, no doubt at Vidor’s prompting, just went for comedy broke!

The film was screened - free - as part of the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image winter season of events, further details of upcoming shows are on their site.

Show People is now available on Warner Archives DVD but it’s the kind of film that works best, is funniest, when you are in among the crowd, laughing… just like Billy and Peggy!

Top: The actual Mae Murray, Johnny G and Norma T
Bottom: Bill gets the draw on Doug, Pepper is impressed!

No comments:

Post a Comment