April 5, 2010

Show People (1928)
Grade: 55/100

Director: King Vidor
Stars: Marion Davies, William Haines, Paul Ralli

What it's about. A comedy about actors in Hollywood during the late silent era. Southern belle Peggy (Marion Davies) arrives in Tinsel Town with her pompous 'Colonel' father (Dell Henderson), both certain that Peggy is destined for immediate stardom. But their first wake-up call arrives when they see the number of hangers-on waiting without luck for work.

Peggy is fortunate, though. She's pretty, she's unintentionally funny, and she catches the eye of Billy (William Haines), a 'B' movie comic. He steers her to his second-tier studio, where she finds work and proves adept at slapstick. Peggy and Billy become an item, but their romance ends when producer Albert Conti whisks her away to a prestigious studio.

Peggy becomes a movie star, wealthy and successful, but she also becomes conceited, which eventually ruins her box office. The now affected Peggy sets a wedding date with snobbish Andre (Paul Ralli), but before she can marry, Billy tries one last time to get through to her, and return her to her formerly winsome state.

How others will see it. The real pleasure of Show People comes from the cameo appearances of movie stars. Charlie Chaplin, sans his tramp outfit, plays a prank on Peggy, and other briefly seen notables include frequent Garbo co-star John Gilbert, action star Douglas Fairbanks, cowboy William S. Hart, Norma Talmadge, the first to leave her footprints at Grauman's theater, and a youthful King Vidor.

Classic film fans will recognize William Haines, a star in the late 1920s and once again playing the brash boy-makes-good character he patented in Tell It to the Marines.

However, the star here is Marion Davies, today best known as the long-time mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Both were memorably misrepresented in Orson Welles' remarkable Citizen Kane. But unlike her shrill and talentless counterpart in Kane, Davies had legitimate ability, and was a lead actress through her final film Ever Since Eve in 1937.

The leads and star cameos add interest, but do not adequately explain the current popularity of Show People. The movie was added to the National Film Registry in 2003, and has unusually high user ratings at imdb.com. Women 45 and older award it a whopping 9.8/10, delighted throughout by the comic antics of Davies and her All American Boy love interest, William Haines. Male viewers under 45 are less enthralled, but nonetheless give the movie 7.7/10.

How I felt about it. Show People is much admired, but we suspect all along that Peggy will end up with romantic ideal Billy and not the conceited and foppish Count Andre. We find it curious that Peggy's father is apparently sharing a small apartment with Billy at the same time that Peggy is living alone in an oversized mansion.

We are not surprised when the pie Peggy throws at Billy instead ends up on the face of Andre, but we wonder why Andre doesn't clean up his face for the rest of the picture. Finally, we note that the moral of the movie, be true to your comic self, doesn't explain why Billy, who has practiced the moral continuously, remains an unknown, while Peggy became a top-billed star as a phony dramatic actress.