Sunday, March 22, 2015

Show People (1928)

Director: King Vidor                                      Writers: Agnes Johnston & Laurence Stallings
Film Score: William Axt                                Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Marion Davies, William Haines, Dell Henderson and Harry Gribbon

Hollywood was going through a rough transition in 1928. With the success of The Jazz Singer over at Warner Brothers solidifying the legitimacy of sound, the other studios suddenly found themselves behind the technological curve with hundreds of silent films still in the production pipeline. Nevertheless, that was also the first year of the Academy Awards and with films like William Wellman’s Wings and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise as examples of the very pinnacle of silent film art, there was still a lot to admire. Show People, by King Vidor, was one of the first of it’s kind, a film about the movie making industry, and it would be a formula that the studios would return to countless times during the golden age as homages to silent pictures of the past gained traction with moviegoers. The film is a light comedy starring Marion Davies, who had been mired in large, extravagant productions due to husband William Randolph Hearst’s influence. But she did poorly in those pictures, prompting the less than flattering portrayal of her in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Had she been in more films like this, however, her reputation might have been more positive.

In many ways the film is merely an excuse to parade some of MGM’s biggest stars across the screen. The plot is corny and unbelievable and unfortunately set the stage for all kinds of similarly stilted attempts at celebrating the silent era from Hollywood Cavalcade to Chaplin. Marion Davies plays a Southern belle who comes to California with her father, Dell Henderson, a Southern colonel convinced that her daughter’s parochial acting success will earn her an automatic entre into the film business. But she is herded into the line of extras along with hundreds of others, oblivious to the fact that she has no talent at all. In the commissary comedic actor William Haines takes a liking to her and gets her a spot in one of the comedies he’s filming. The director, Harry Gribbon, sets up her scene for her and Davis, convinced she is about to walk into a dramatic masterpiece, is hit with a pie in the face. Her outrage, however, is perfect for the scene and after a bout of tears learning what her fate is to be, quickly climbs the ladder of success, moving beyond the comedies Haines is stuck in and becoming a big star. When this happens she loses the charm she once had and, believing her own press, shuns the lowly comedians, including the heartbroken Haines, who gave her her start in the business. But Haines isn’t about to give up on the girl he loves.

Marion Davies is not a great actress, but she does have a certain amount of charm that is effective in a role like this. William Haines, on the other hand, tends to wear thin after a while, but that may have been due to the part he plays rather than his acting ability. The great Dell Henderson tends to steal the show when he’s onscreen. Taken as the frothy comedy it is, it’s not an unentertaining film overall. John Gilbert makes a couple of appearances as himself, as does director King Vidor. But there is also a great scene involving Charlie Chaplin. Seeing Davies in her first comedy, he goes over to get her autograph but she is so busy talking to Haines that she ignores Chaplin, only learning afterwards who he really was. The Washington Center for the Performing Arts has, for years now, presented a silent film series each spring. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to attend. But a few weeks ago I was able to see their presentation of the MGM film Show People with an original score performed on the Wurlitzer organ by Dennis James. Of course “The Mighty Wurlitzer” has been denigrated over the years as being hopelessly old-fashioned and out of date, as passé as silent films themselves. But this was an absolutely delightful afternoon. The instrument was impressive and added another dimension to an average film and made it a truly memorable experience.

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