Saturday, September 6, 2014

Stubs – Show People

Show People (1928) Starring: Marion Davies, William Haines, Dell Henderson. Directed by King Vidor. Screenplay by Agnes Christine Johnston (treatment), Laurence Stallings (treatment), Wanda Tuchock (continuity) and Ralph Spence (titles). Produced by Marion Davies, King Vidor  Run time 63 minutes. US. Black and White. Silent, Comedy.

For many today Marion Davies is only thought about in terms of her relationship with William Randolph Hearst, the publishing giant. Her depiction in Citizen Kane (1941) haunts her legacy. Rather than the talent-less singer Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), Marion Davies was a successful actress, who wrote and produced films. Like Kane, Hearst did promote her career, forming Cosmopolitan Pictures in conjunction with Adolph Zukor at Paramount to do so.

As part of the deal, Paramount got access to stories already published in Hearst magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, from which the studio borrowed the name, Harpers Bazaar and Good Housekeeping; More importantly for Hearst, he found a platform for Davies. She would star in a total of 46 films (29 silent) for the studio. Originally distributed through Paramount, Cosmopolitan moved to Metro (which became MGM) in 1923 and stayed there through 1934. A disagreement with Louis B. Mayer would send the distribution to Warner Bros, until 1938, after Davies had retired from the movies. While most of the studios output involved Davies, hers were not the only films the studio produced. While attached to Warner Bros., Cosmopolitan would produce John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Howard Hawk’s Ceiling Zero (1936).

Davies made her first screen appearance at the age of 19 as a model in a fashion newsreel. But the following year, she wrote and starred in Runaway, Romany (1917). Hearst was apparently relentless in promoting her career, some say to its detriment. While Hearst wanted her to be a great dramatic actress, she is probably best known as a comedic actor, thanks in large part to King Vidor, who was able to catch her life of the party attitude in the three films he directed her in: The Patsy (1928), Not So Dumb (1930) and Show People.

In Show People, Davies plays Peggy Pepper, the daughter of Colonel Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson), who drives her from Georgia to Hollywood so she can get her big break in films. They know they’ve made it to Hollywood, because everything is named after the town, Pharmacy, etc. One of the interesting aspects of the films is the drive by of the then locations of First National, William Fox and Paramount studios on their way to the MGM lot in Culver City.

Peggy and her father find that everything's named after Hollywood when they arrive in town. 

Father and daughter notice John Gilbert (appearing as himself) getting out of his car at the gate on Washington Blvd and naturally try to drive in behind him. But studio security stops them. Col. Pepper announces that he would like to meet the president of the company, so he can put Peggy into the movies. The guard directs them to the casting office.

They walk past other would be actors in the waiting room to speak to the clerk in charge. When the clerk asks if she has any photographs, meaning headshots, she produces photos from childhood. But she wins him over when she demonstrates her range of emotions through facial gestures. Amused, the casting clerk signs her up. While waiting to be cast and no money coming in, the Peppers are down to their last 40 cents. At the commissary, the Colonel charms a server into giving him more than three crackers with his soup, by flattering her about how much she looks like Gloria Swanson.

Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) displays her range of emotions while her father,
Colonel Maraduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Hendderson) callls them out.

While they’re eating, Billy Boone (William Haines) invites himself to sit with them. Billy is a slapstick comedian. He sizes up how desperate their situation is and offers to help her get work at Comet Studios, where he works.

The Colonel drives her the next day and drops her off at the front gate. Believing she has been cast in a dramatic role, Peggy wears her best and prettiest party dress. Comet is supposed to be a stand in for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, the home of slapstick comedies and in fact these scenes were shot at the old Mack Sennett studios in the Edendale area of Los Angeles. On the way to the set, Peggy manages to disrupt other films already shooting, including one that is filming bathing beauties running around a pool.

The trays were bigger back then. The Colonel and Peggy going through the line at the studio commissary.

On the set, the director tells Peggy to wait her cue and enter the room looking slightly surprised. But what she walks into is a typical slapstick shoot. She is hit in the face with seltzer water and there are pies being thrown. The cast and crew are very impressed by her natural reaction, but Peggy is horrified and runs off the set. Billy follows after her and convinces her everyone has to “take it on the chin”, citing Swanson, Daniels and Lloyd as stars who have been through it before. Convinced she is paying her dues, Peggy returns to the set and her scene is reshot in close up.

Harry Gribbon plays the Director of Peggy's first film appearance.

At the film’s premiere, Billy and Peggy are a hit, even getting a request for autographs from none other than Charlie Chaplin, also playing himself. But despite her success in comedy, Peggy still longs for dramatic roles, which she considers to be real art. Billy argues that comedies are better because they keep audiences laughing and happy.

Charlie Chaplin approaches Peggy and Billy (William Haines)
for an autograph after seeing their film at it's premiere.

Later, at a restaurant, Peggy is invited by a casting director, who is impressed that her real personality comes across on screen, to High Arts Studio. But the studio is only interested in hiring her and has no interest in Billy. At first, Peggy refuses, telling the studio she won’t sign without him being hired too. But Billy convinces her that he can “take it on the chin.”

Peggy returns to Comet Studios to say goodbye to her friends. She tells Billy they will still see each other, but he predicts things will no longer be the same between them, adding rather philosophically they are at a “crossroads” with their career paths going in different directions. He encourages her to seek her dream.

At High Arts Studio, Peggy undergoes a screen test. In order to get her to cry on camera, the director asked her to pretend her lover is dying. Even though the crew tries to help her cry, playing sad music and cutting up onions, Peggy cannot shed a tear. But when the director suggests that she pretend to be in love with someone at the “crossroads of life”, Peggy can’t help crying, no doubt thinking of Billy. Peggy, in fact, can’t stop crying, even after the crew has packed up and left.

Forward steps André Telfair (Paul Ralli), Peggy’s self-centered leading man, who tries to comfort her. After pointing out that she has graduated from "cheap comedy," he suggests that she must now acquire a new personality, a superior manner and new friends, and offers to introduce her to "the elite of Hollywood."

He confides in Peggy that he is really Andre d'Bergerac, le Comte d'Avignon. Peggy takes André’s suggestions to heart, changing her name to Patricia Pepoire and developing affected mannerisms, which she believes evoke refinement. During an interview, with Louella Parsons, the well known Hollywood reporter for the Heart papers, Peggy talks about her life. Seeing that she is telling the boring trutch, André interrupts, claiming to Louella that Patricia is a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and "has chosen film as her medium of self-expression."

Andre Telfair (Paul Ralli), Peggy's self-centered leading man at High Art Studios.

While Peggy becomes spoiled and self-centered, living in a mansion with a maid to serve her, Billy's life remains pretty much the same. On a whim, he calls to invite her to come over to dinner, but she refuses, as she is now dating André.

Later, Billy discovers that he and his Comet Studio colleagues are shooting on location near the site where Peggy and André are filming. Billy approaches Peggy, but she is too ashamed to let her colleagues see them together. And when she introduces him to André, Billy recognizes him as Andy, a former waiter who served him spaghetti at an inexpensive restaurant. Offended by the allegation, Peggy calls Billy a "cheap clown" and returns to shoot her scene, as Billy sadly watches, no longer part of her world.

Back at the studio, while having lunch at the stars' table in the studio commissary, with the likes of Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert, Mae Murray, Douglas Fairbanks and William Hart, Peggy is ordered to the producer's office. He shows her the many telegrams from theater owners across the country complaining about her new image and canceling their bookings. He demands that she again become the "real Peggy Pepper" in order to win back her fans.

Lunch at the studio with (from left to right): Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert, Mae Murray, Douglas Fairbanks, Peggy (Marion Davies) and William Hart.

But André tells her no one understands a "great artist" and soon the newspapers announce their upcoming marriage, which will be held at her mansion. On her wedding day, the uninvited Billy sneaks into her house as part of the wait staff and has the maid bring Peggy to meet with him in the dining room, which is set for the post ceremony feast.

Peggy in her wedding dress before she cancels the marriage to Andre.

Billy pleads for her to reconsider, and accuses her of ruining her career and marrying for a phony title. To help her remember the good old days, he impulsively spritzes her with seltzer water, just like her first day on a movie set. Angrily, Peggy picks up a pie and throws it at Billy; he ducks. Just then André enters the room and he is hit in the face with the cake. When Peggy cries, the sorrowful Billy admits he is a clumsy fool and does not hear her calling for him as he leaves. Alone with André, Peggy claims that they are both fakes and that Billy was the only real person, and cancels the wedding.

Peggy's next picture is set in a European village during World War I. At her suggestion, the director, King Vidor (playing himself), hires Billy as his new leading man. Billy is unaware that Peggy is his leading lady and arrives on the set just before the camera starts rolling. Billy plays a soldier reuniting with his sweetheart and is already acting in the scene before Peggy makes her entrance. Billy is stunned to discover he’s acting with Peggy. She advises him to "take it on the chin." Per the script, soldier kisses girl and Billy kisses Peggy passionately. Vidor calls for a cut, but they are still kissing. Finally, Vidor calls it a day and the crew picks up their equipment and leaves Billy and Peggy in passionate embrace.

In a surprise bit of casting, King Vidor plays himself, here with Peggy on the set of her movie.

King Vidor, the film’s director, had a career that spanned nearly seventy years. Beginning in 1913, he was a freelance newsreel cameraman and projectionist. He came to Hollywood in 1915, where he worked as a screenwriter, director and producer. His Peg o’ My Heart (1922), which he made for Metro Pictures, won him a long term contract from Goldwyn which later merged into MGM. Some of his bigger films include: The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928), The Patsy (1928), Show People, Hallelujah! (1929, his first sound film), The Champ (1931), Bird of Paradise (1932 for RKO), Our Daily Bread (1934 for United Artists), Stella Dallas (1937 for Goldwyn), The Citadel (1938 for MGM), Duel in the Sun (1946 for David O. Selznick) and War and Peace (1956 for Paramount Pictures). He also did some work on the Kansas scenes for The Wizard of Oz (1939), but did not receive any screen credit. Nominated five times for Best Director, Vidor never won, but he did receive an honorary Academy Award in 1979.

William Haines plays Billy, Peggy’s love interest. Haines was apparently not the first choice of King Vidor’s. He wanted James Murray, whom he had worked with in The Crowd (1928). But Murray, an alcoholic, failed to show at the studio. Shooting had already started before Irving Thalberg helped Vidor find Haines. Haines had begun his film career in 1922 as part of the Samuel Goldwyn Company’s New Faces of 1922. Signed to the studio, he played mostly bit parts. His break came in 1923, when he had a significant role in Three Wise Fools. Loaned out to Fox for The Desert Outlaw (1923), Haines was again loaned, this time to Columbia for a five picture deal in 1924. Haines’ screen image as an arrogant young man who is humbled by the last reel first crystalized in Brown of Harvard (1926). He would have a string of hits including Little Anne Rooney (1925) with Mary Pickford for United Artists and Show People for MGM. Haines was a top box office draw from 1928 to 1932. In 1930, in fact, he was voted the top box office attraction in the country in a survey of film exhibitors. He successfully made the transition to sound in Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928) and Navy Blues (1929).

William Haines was a leading man in Hollywood before he came out of the closet.

Haines personal life would prove to be his downfall, at least as far as an actor is concerned. In 1926, he met James “Jimmie” Shields on the streets of New York. He convinced Shields to move with him to Los Angeles and the two lived as a committed couple. In 1933, Haines was arrested at YMCA with a sailor he’d met in Pershing Square, leading Louis B. Mayer to issue him an ultimatum. Either Haines had to agree to a sham wedding, called a Lavender wedding, or choose Shields. To his credit, Haines chose Shields.

After being fired by MGM, Haines quit acting in 1934 and started an interior design company with Shields. William Haines Designs remains in business to this day. All was not happy for the couple. In 1936, they were dragged from their home in Manhattan Beach and beaten by a crowd after being accused by a neighbor of propositioning their son. The attackers were never charged with a crime and the case against Haines and Shields was dropped due to lack of evidence. Haines and Shields would remain together until Haines’ death in 1973.

One of the interesting aspects of the film are the cameos and references to old Hollywood studios and stars. Marion Davies even makes an appearance as herself, which doesn’t impress Peggy. Other stars, as mentioned, make cameos in the commissary scene. But actors are not merely limited to face time, they are talked about as if the audience of the time was very familiar with them.

When Billy tells Peggy about taking it on the chin or paying dues as did Swanson, whose own rise to fame is somewhat parodied by the film, and Harold Lloyd, these are names which seem to have some recognition to this day. But when Billy uses the name Daniels, does everyone know he meant Bebe Daniels? Perhaps best known for her role as Dorothy Brock in the musical 42nd Street (1933), Daniels had appeared in nearly 230 films, many of them silent, dating back to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910), in which, at the age of nine, she played Dorothy Gale, a role Judy Garland would make famous in The Wizard of Oz.

Bebe Daniels as Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910).

Another star who gets mentioned, as in André telling Louella, Peggy has “the temperament of…” is Alla Nazimova, aka Nazimova, a Russian born actress who came to America in 1903. She didn't make her first appearance in movies until 1916, starring in the filmed version of the play War Brides. Signed by Metro Pictures, before its merger into MGM, Nazimova was making $13,000 a week in 1917. The films she made were very successful for the new studio, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen any of them. She did produce and star in Salomé (1923), a film that is often referred to as one of the first art house film made in the U.S., with highly stylized costumes, minimal sets and exaggerated acting. Salomé is a film adaptation of the play by Oscar Wilde. The film, like others she produced on her own, were commercial and critical disasters. By 1925, Nazimova, unable to find financial backers for her films, gave up Hollywood and returned to acting on Broadway.

Alla Nazimova in Salome (1923).

Charlie Chaplin’s appearance in the film was most likely done out of his friendship with Hearst and Davies. Rumors of a love affair between Chaplin and Davies were rampant. There is even a theory that the death of director Thomas Ince was connected. In November 1924, while aboard the Hearst yacht, Ince became ill and died. On board in addition to Ince, were Hearst, Davies, Parsons and Chaplin. Supposedly, Chaplin and Davies had slipped away to have sex and Hearst, armed with a gun, went looking for them, shooting and killing Ince by mistake. While Chaplin and Davies were obviously good friends and Chaplin was oftentimes a guest at Hearst’s famous castle, there is no proof of the affair or of Hearst killing Ince.

Charlie Chaplin and Marion Davies, relaxing in the projection
room at William Randolph Heart's San Simeon, were old friends.

While I found Davies to be an attractive woman and a good actress, I can’t say I laughed very much at the film. I’m wondering if it’s a sense of humor that doesn’t age well or what. I don’t think I’m immune to slapstick, since I’ve laughed at the works of Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Lloyd, all of whom were practitioners of the art form. I did read that Hearst did interfere with some of the scenes in the film. In the slapstick sequence, as an example, when Peggy was learning the ropes, Hearst refused to let her be hit in the face with a pie. Seltzer water was a compromise solution.

But I watched the film because I was interested in its historical qualities. I love seeing scenes of Hollywood back in the 1920’s and watching as directors called out to the actors during filming with musical accompaniment to set the mood of the scene. Seeing behind the gates, even glimpses, makes this film worth watching if you love old Hollywood. The cameos of the stars of the day, even the ones we’ve largely forgotten, brings a certain gravitas to the film. Even if they were only appearing to make nice with the powerful Hearst and his publishing empire, playing themselves makes the film seem more real.

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