Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Film Review: Show People

"Show People" *** (out of ****)

Hollywood. The place where dreams become a reality. Everyone dreams of making it big and becoming a star. Everyones wants their entitled 15 minutes of fame. In our world today this sounds pretty relevant. All of these moronic reality television shows, "everyday" people wanting to become famous by singing, dancing, showing us want kind of morons they are, crashing into the White House, whatever! Of course the impulse to become famous isn't a new concept. People have long had that desire and Hollywood has made several films about it. King Vidor's "Show People" (1928) is a somewhat satirical look at Hollywood and what it does to people.

The film is a follow-up to Vidor's previous collaboration with star Marion Davies, "The Patsy" (also 1928, I have reviewed it already). Both of these movies are generally considered among Davies best performances, with "The Patsy" generally slightly edging it out. And I have to agree. I think as far as Davies' performance goes, "The Patsy" allows her to display her talents a bit more.

In "Show People" Davies plays Peggy Pepper, a young woman who wants to break out in the movies. Her father, Colonel Pepper (Dell Henderson), drives the two all the way from Georgia to California. He firmly believes in his daughter's talents. He knows she has what it takes to be a star.

This isn't the normal formula these type of stories follow. Usually the parents are against their child's desire to act. Acting wasn't considered a respectable profession. If the story revolved around a young man, usually he was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, "The Jazz Singer" (1927). If it involved a young woman, she was expected to get married and start a family, "The Extra Girl" (1923) with Mabel Normand. Here though we get the story of the pushy parent. Parents who want to use their children to fame and fortune.

"Show People" doesn't make Peggy suffer much to find her big break. It comes rather easily. A comedian, Billy Boone (William Haines) takes an immediate liking to her and in order to impress her, gives her a chance to act in a comedy. The only problem is, he doesn't tell Peggy it is a comedy. Like most people, Peggy looks down upon comedy as "vulgar". It isn't legitimate acting. She wants to do drama. But Peggy turns out to be a big hit in comedy. Still she yearns to make the transition to drama and eventually does.

The film now wants to be a love story showing how these two people drifted apart. They were in love but her fame has went to her head. She now sees herself as an artist and hangs around a different set of people. All the major stars. And goes around with her leading man co-star, a supposed Count, Andre (Paul Ralli). He fills her head with grand ideas. She deserves a man like him not Billy, a silly clown.

"Show People" doesn't really tells us anything about show business or for that matter show people. There are no great insights here. The story is fairly conventional. The main point of the movie, I would expect, was to showcase Davies, whose own career was the exact opposite of her character here. Davies was the mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who produced motion pictures. He too felt comedy was beneath Davies and wanted her to act in drama. But Davies really started to gain an audience once she did comedy.

King Vidor was a great filmmaker, one of the giants of the silent era. He is responsible for what might be my favorite silent film, "The Crowd" (1928). When I comprised my list of the best films of the 20s, I included that film. It is nothing short of a masterpiece. Vidor also directed the WW1 drama, "The Big Parade" (1925), once considered one of the greatest films ever made the film is now sadly forgotten. It hasn't even been put on DVD yet. A criminal act in my opinion. It is in Vidor's more dramatic films we see his genius. I'm all for comedy. It is my favorite genre. But these comedies aren't about Vidor, they are pot-boilers for Davies. She is in the spotlight. In the dramas, while of course we pay attention to the acting, Vidor's craft is more on display. If you want to see Vidor at his best, watch "The Crowd" or "The Big Parade".

What I don't like about "Show People" is I didn't find it very funny. It is better than "The Extra Girl" however. But, I've yet to see a comedy better than "Exit Smiling" (1926) with Beatrice Lillie, that deals with similar material. Davies is good here and there are moments to enjoy but the film doesn't go in all the directions it could have. Peggy becomes a star too quickly. There is no great conflict. There aren't enough scenes with Billy, we loose him as the story goes on. We don't feel the strain of their romance as much as we should. Also, the print I saw, which aired on Turner Classic Movies, was edited heavily. TCM usually airs the best prints available, so I don't blame them, but clearly there are missing scenes.

Film buffs will also be excited to know there are a lot of cameos in this films, I guess to add to the "inside" feel of the film and I guess these moments are suppose to make us laugh. Some of the more famous faces we see are Charlie Chaplin (not in his tramp costume), Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Norma Talmadge (whom KINO has just come out with a DVD set) and Vidor himself, directing Davies.

Those interested in the history of homosexuality in cinema will get mad at me if I don't mention the leading man in the film, William Haines was gay. He was considered one of the top male box-office draws of the late 20s. What is shocking is that he was "out of the closet" so to speak. He was very open about his lifestyle and lived openly with his lover. Some rumors have circulated that Louis B. Mayer asked Haines to marry a woman and give up his lover. When Haines refused, Mayer withdrew his contract. Haines' name is usually absent from some of the big names of the silent era. We normally think of Valentino, Gilbert, Barrymore and Fairbanks but Haines was attracting the ladies' eyes as well. And it seems a few of the men too.