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Davies and Hearst: 'Show People'

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Friday, Jun 22, 2012
Caught between comedy and class.
cover art

Show People

Director: King Vidor
Cast: Marion Davies, William Haines

(USDVD release date: 14 Jun 2012)

For many years now, the dope on Marion Davies has been that she was a talented comedian (or comedienne) who often found herself stuck in heavy dramatic roles at the behest of her boyfriend William Randolph Hearst. For a long time, she labored under the onus of this reputation as a star whose career was bought and partly ruined by a millionaire. Her reputation has been improving now that we’ve been able to get a closer look at some of her silent films, and indeed her comedies often showcase a funny and dynamic presence. Perhaps her best vehicle is this self-mocking Tinseltown tale.

Peggy Pepper is driven into Hollywood by her father, an Old South aristocrat fallen on hard times, and instantly gets a job in the movies. She fancies she’ll be a great dramatic success, but slapstick comic Billy Boyle (William Haines) lands her a gig getting pies in the face. This leads to her equally instant and unlikely transition to dramatic doyenne Patricia Pepoire, but will she forget all the little people?
Peggy begins as one pretentious type and evolves into another who is perceived as even more phony. The backstage relationships are the same kind of “hokum” the movie mocks, and that’s part of how the film works. Hollywood has always been excellent at sending itself up, the better to freshen the baloney. Indeed, most of our cynical impressions about the movie business have been packaged and sold to us in the movies, so that what we think we know is this multiple mirror image.

Davies is hilarious in all phases of her character, and has a particularly marvelous close-up in which she tries to imitate Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri all at once. You needn’t be familiar with them to laugh, thanks to Davies’ expressive skills on this clean print with a music and sound effects track, made on demand from Warner Archive. Several stars make cameos, including Charles Chaplin, John Gilbert, and even Davies herself, whom Peggy doesn’t much like. While the movie celebrates baggy pants and seltzer bottles, it remains the kind of class act that sometimes eluded Davies when the class was laid on too thick.


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