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Dixie Dugan personified the flapper image: sassy, adorable, and bursting with vitality. She was created by J. P. McEvoy for a pair of highly popular comic novels, serialized in Liberty magazine during 1928-29. The character is best remembered now as the central figure in a long-running comic strip—one which far outlasted the era with which Dixie was identified—but even before the comic strip was launched, First National bought the rights to the material and adapted the first novel to the screen. (The second book would follow, two years later.) Up-and-coming starlet Alice White, blonde, 23 years old and cute as a button, was assigned the plum part of Dixie. Although the talkie revolution was under way, it was decided that Show Girl would be an all-silent feature, with jazzy musical accompaniment courtesy of the Vitaphone process. (The sequel, Show Girl in Hollywood, which also starred White, would be made with full sound.) And for icing on the cake, a number of familiar, seasoned character actors were signed for supporting roles.
When we first meet Dixie she's a working girl, living with her family in Brooklyn. Her Ma (Kate Price) is a beefy matron who may remind comic strip buffs of Toonerville Trolley's Katrinka, while her pint-sized, bald-headed Pa is thoroughly henpecked. (James Finlayson plays this role, cast very much against type.) Dixie's boyfriend Jimmy is a reporter, suitably cynical and wise-cracking. Although her circumstances are modest Dixie is ambitious, and when she auditions for a pair of producers she quickly lands a featured spot in a nightclub act, opposite a temperamental partner, Alvarez. She soon becomes involved with an older man, Jack Milton, whose interest in her is decidedly more than platonic. After a couple of melodramatic twists in the plot, including a false kidnapping stunt intended to boost her career, Dixie winds up as the star of a Broadway musical, written by Jimmy.
Clearly, this is not a deep or especially plot-driven film, nor was it ever meant to be one. Show Girl is a lightweight, diverting showcase for perky Alice White, and serves as a prime example of the kind of entertainment designed in its day to amuse the "tired businessman." The film's look and tone—and for that matter, its Vitaphone score—are reminiscent of the same studio's Colleen Moore vehicle Why Be Good? (Coincidentally, the only known surviving print of that feature was found in the same vault in Italy where, last year, the sole surviving print of Show Girl was located.) And while Alice White has a sweet, engaging quality, she's not in Moore's league as a comedienne. Much of the humor in Show Girl is carried by the saucy title cards rather than through visual comedy. Aficionados of '20s slang will have a field day with the language. One of my favorite examples is Dixie's unusual euphemism for bunkum; instead of relying on the more commonly used period expressions such as applesauce or horse feathers, she calls it "donkey fuzz!" (I guess that one didn't catch on.) Another plus are the dance numbers, which show off White's abilities to best advantage. I confess I was a little disappointed by the scenes involving Kate Price and Jimmy Finlayson as Dixie's parents. With these two comedy veterans I expected fireworks, but instead their byplay consists mostly of a single running gag, which in my opinion was repeated once or twice more than necessary before the inevitable pay-off.
Still, why quibble? I'm glad this feature was rediscovered—happily, complete and in pristine condition—and that the delightful Vitaphone score survives as well. Show Girl is a pleasant diversion, a welcome treat for silent film buffs, and a most agreeable way to spend an hour or so, whether or not you happen to be a tired businessman.
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