Worth the Wait - Welcome Back, Dixie (and your parents)!
Once considered a Lost Film, Alfred Santell's "Show Girl" (First National, 1928) was discovered in an Italian film vault in 2015 and given a fast-track restoration. I heard that when the restored print had its world premiere in Italy, the Vitaphone sound discs (previously thought to be all that remained of the movie) were somehow not part of the showing. What a loss! Fortunately, they were incorporated into the film by the time the George Eastman Museum (Rochester, NY) gave "Show Girl" its U.S. premiere on October 18, 2016.
When the film was originally released in late September, 1928, the movie industry was in a nervous state of transition from silent to sound movies. "Lights of New York," the first all-talking feature film had opened two months earlier, but most films showcasing the new technology were still not true talkies, possessing only a musical score, selected sound effects, and sometimes even a song or two. This interim period gave studios the chance to learn how to use sound effectively. "Show Girl" is a fine example of the fun which sound initially brought to the movies for a very short period before the new sound technology temporarily crushed the late silent era's fluid camera movement. As such, "Show Girl" is invaluably instructive and hugely entertaining, plus the jaunty music score is an absolute delight.
The film's success gave Alice White's career a big boost, having broken into pictures just a bit over a year (and a dozen films) before. She was adorable to 1928 audiences and her allure is still evident today. (That Miss White repeated her character two years later in "Show Girl in Hollywood" is one proof of the film's impact.) Beautiful, self-assured, and wise in the ways of Broadway producers, her Dixie Dugan character (based on J.P. McEvoy's novel, which later became a long-running comic strip) holds your attention throughout the well-paced film's running time (barely over an hour).
The real revelation of the film for me (and perhaps for other viewers) were the characters of Dixie's parents, expertly played by James Finlayson (of Laurel & Hardy fame)and Kate Price (an Irish-born actress, little-remembered today, with over 300 film credits extending back to 1910). Mrs. Dugan's overbearing personality matches her towering physical presence causing Mr. Dugan to frequently cower in terror whenever she questions anything he says or does. Their scenes are cleverly accented by the film's musical score as wailing musical instruments perfectly mesh with their on-screen words -- a great example of how the new sound possibilities could add to rather than detract from the silent tradition. (Of course a skilled piano player or organist could attempt something like this, but how many theaters had such a musician? And besides, their sounds were never as funny as what we hear on the soundtrack).
The writer of the screenplay (or perhaps it's the titles writer) unleashes wonderful lines and delightfully mangles the English language several times as when one character talks about hiding her light under a bustle. The titles are so endearing that I almost feel bad for faulting one obvious defect in the screenplay: Romano (Donald Reed), a jealous tango dancer who provides a key plot point (and a little over-the-top amusement) before suddenly dropping out of the picture. But why carp?
Silent fans, you're in for a real treat when you see this film. Hey, Warner Brothers, could you also fast-track the DVD release? I'd love to find this one under my Christmas tree this year.
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