“Show People,” the 1928 satire of Hollywood, could be considered the great-grandfather of last year’s “The Artist,” the Oscar-winning homage to the early days of filmmaking. The fast-paced comedy, starring Marion Davies and directed by King Vidor, spoofs the top stars of the day (many of whom make cameos in the film, including John Gilbert and director John Ford). It screens Thursday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
“I think it’s one of the most authentic films about Hollywood because it was made by somebody who was deep in the making of films and was a brilliant filmmaker himself,” said Kevin Brownlow of Vidor. Brownlow, the noted film historian, preservationist and documentarian who won the motion picture academy’s Governors Award in 2010, will present the print he restored about 30 years ago. “It had all of these other people in the film who knew the industry inside, and some of the in jokes are marvelous,” he added of the film.
“Show People” was a satire of the career of actress Gloria Swanson, who is best known for her role as Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s seminal 1950 Hollywood tale, “Sunset Boulevard.” But she was also one of the biggest stars of the silent era, beginning her career in such comedies as “Teddy at the Throttle” before segueing into highly dramatic roles. She also started a trend among actresses in 1920s Hollywood of marrying royalty. Swanson’s third husband, Henri de la Falaise, was a marquis.
There’s little wonder why Swanson never saw “Show People”: “People were keeping it from her,” quipped Brownlow.
Davies plays Peggy Pepper, who is driven by her father from Georgia to earn her fame and fortune in Hollywood. She begins doing low-budget comedy productions while romancing costar Billy Boone (William Haines). But she turns her back on him and her comedy career when she signs with a prestige studio and becomes a serious dramatic actress as Patricia Pepoire. And just like Swanson, she is set to marry royalty — only this one turns out to be a phony.
Cari Beauchamp, author of “Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood,” said the film “is wonderful. I think one of the joys of seeing ‘Show People’ on the big screen is to be able to see all the details of the sets and locations.”
The film, said Brownlow, is also a tribute to the legendary comedy producer Mack Sennett. “Vidor knew the Sennett studios were closing down, so he took them over and he shot at the studios.”
“Show People” was the perfect vehicle for Davies, who earlier in 1928 had wowed audiences with her comic turn in the hit “The Patsy.” The blond, bubbly actress, whom writer Adela Rogers St. John described as the bubbles in Champagne, was the longtime mistress of newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst. Cosmopolitan Productions, the film company he created in 1918, produced nearly 50 of her films.
“I think she has the potential of being rated the finest comedian of the silent days,” said Brownlow.
Not only did she handle slapstick scenes with crackerjack timing, Davies also excelled at dead-on imitations of the leading ladies of the day, including Pola Negri, Mae Murray and Swanson.
“She and Marion were not close,” said Beauchamp of Swanson. “Marion did not think Gloria had a sense of humor about her persona. Gloria took her work and her persona very seriously. When she left her house, she left her house as a star. She didn’t see humor in making fun of what she took very seriously.”
Davies’ reputation as an actress was maligned in 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ masterwork, which was a thinly veiled account of Hearst and his empire. Kane’s mistress, called Susan Alexander in the film, is portrayed as a neurotic, untalented singer with aspirations of being an opera star.
“When you see ‘Show People,’ it puts an end to the lie of her being anything like Susan Alexander,” said Beauchamp.
For more information on the screening, go to https://www.oscars.org.
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