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Colonel Pepper brings his daughter, Peggy, to Hollywood from Georgia to be an actress. There she meets Billy who gets her work at Comet Studio doing comedies with him. But Peggy is discovered by High Art Studio and she leaves Billy and Comet to work there. For her new image, she is now Patricia Pepoire and ignores Billy when he sees her on location. When she is not longer wanted by the little people who do not understand "ART", she plans to marry Andre to get a fake title. Billy will not let her go without a fight. Written by
Tony Fontana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Silent era Hollywood examines itself in a Fun-house mirror
"Wisecracker," the biography of actor William Haines, offers a gratifying anecdote about the former star when he was past 70 and long retired from making movies. The old gent was not sentimental, and seldom watched his own films, but in 1972 he was persuaded to attend a Los Angeles museum screening of Show People, the late silent feature in which he co-starred with Marion Davies. Before the screening, Haines was worried that this comedy would provoke the wrong kind of laughter, but he was pleasantly surprised (and no doubt relieved) at how well it held up, and how much the young audience enjoyed it. Watch the film today and you can see why: Show People is a delightful Hollywood satire that retains its charm because it lampoons its targets with wit and flair, yet without malice. It's still funny, and its satirical points still resonate. Needless to say, the technology of movie-making has changed vastly since the silent days, but the pretensions and follies of the filmmakers themselves haven't changed all that much.
Show People also stands with the very best surviving work of Marion Davies, a first-rate comic performer who deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of great comediennes. Where her career was concerned, however, Davies was both blessed and cursed by the patronage of her paramour, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. It's well known that Hearst exerted strong influence over Davies' choice of material, and well known too that, despite her gift for comedy, he initially preferred to see her play dignified heroines in period costume dramas. But by the late '20s, for whatever reason, Marion was permitted to strut her stuff in several exuberant light comedies, including The Red Mill and The Patsy. In my opinion, however, Show People, directed by the great King Vidor, is her most enjoyable showcase. William Haines gives an engaging, likable performance as her boyfriend and co-star Billy Boone, but this is the leading lady's show all the way.
Marion plays Southern belle Peggy Pepper, an aspiring actress who storms Hollywood accompanied by her father, determined to become a movie star. (Her dad Colonel Pepper is played by actor/director Dell Henderson, a veteran of Griffith's Biograph dramas whocoincidentally?resembled Hearst!) One of Marion's funniest bits, often excerpted elsewhere, is her audition at the Comet Studio casting office. While Dad helpfully identifies the emotions she portrays ("Sorrow! . . . Joy!") and drops a handkerchief across her face, Peggy assumes the appropriate expression and posture. She's hired, only to discover that Comet makes low-brow comedies, the kind of comedies where people squirt each other with seltzer, and inept cops tumble over each other racing to the rescue. Of course, Comet is intended as a take-off of Mack Sennett's Keystone, but the real target of the satire becomes clear as the story unfolds. As Peggy Pepper rises in the Hollywood hierarchy she leaves Comet for the more prestigious High Art Studio, assuming the name "Patricia Peppoire" as more befitting her new station in life as a serious actress. At some point it occurs to us, as it surely did to viewers in 1928, that Davies' rival Gloria Swanson started out in Keystone comedies before rising to prominence in serious dramas for Cecil B. DeMille. And as Miss Peppoire takes herself more and more seriously, giving the high-hat treatment to former colleagues such as lowly comic Billy Boone, Davies' performance takes on an element of wicked parody aimed squarely at Gloria herself. This is especially notable during an interview sequence, when Miss Peppoire's spokesman spouts pretentious nonsense while the star delivers a spot- on impersonation of Swanson. I suppose this was intended as a friendly spoof, but I have to wonder if Swanson maintained a cordial relationship with Davies after this movie was released.
In any event, Show People is a delicious treat for buffs, who will relish the parade of star cameos throughout. Charlie Chaplin contributes a nice bit, sans makeup and looking quite distinguished, eagerly seeking Patricia Peppoire's autograph! And, in a show of good sportsmanship, Marion Davies herself contributes a cameo appearance, evening the score for poking fun at Swanson by poking fun at herself. (The joke being that Miss Peppoire finds Miss Davies quite unimpressive.) This is a silent film that viewers not especially attuned to silents might appreciate, at least those viewers with a taste for movies about the movie business. Show People surely belongs in the company of such classics as Sunset Boulevard and Singin' in the Rain, among Hollywood's most expertly produced, invigorating exercises in self-examination.
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