Monday, September 13, 2010

Show People (King Vidor, 1928)

"With me it was 5 per cent talent and 95 per cent publicity." 
-Marion Davies

If you have ever seen any of Marion Davies comedies, you know the above quote is total balderdash, and most likely, at least partly, quite tongue-in-cheek.  Yet that is the perception many have of Marion Davies.  Well, at least those who even remember the long forgotten actress.   For those few who do remember her, she is known mainly as the paramour of a wealthy mogul who had a film studio created just for her.  But there is more than just that.  Much more.

In one of those stories just dripping with irony, it was infamous newspaper tycoon (and later movie mogul) William Randolph Hearst who gave his young mistress, Marion Davies, her first big break in Hollywood, yet (and here is the irony dripping part of our story) it was his insistence on Davies starring in lavish period dramas (something she was not very good at) instead of the quick-witted comedies the actress was so adept at playing, that led to her eventual decline in popularity and even more eventual fading into obscurity - a mere scandalous footnote in film history.

Famously (or is that infamously?) thought of as the inspiration behind the ill-fated (and quite talentless) Susan Alexander character in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (just as Hearst was the model for the titular good ole Charlie Kane) Davies has indeed had her share of Hollywood Babylon-like tall tales told about her.  Welles, though obviously using Hearst as the model for Kane, has denied Susan Alexander was based on Davies (at least not completely on her) and has been quoted as saying "Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen".  Though there is the rumour that Hearst's nickname for Davies nether regions was Rosebud - that's neither here nor there I suppose.

Another tale has Davies having an affair with Charlie Chaplin right under Hearst's fat cat nose and being involved in the murder of Thomas Ince aboard Hearst's luxury yacht (a tale that is retold in Peter Bogdanovich's 2002 film The Cat's Meow, featuring Edward Herrmann as Hearst, Eddie Izzard as Chaplin, Cary Elwes as Ince and Kirsten Dunst as Davies).  The fact that Ince died on land, a day after leaving the yacht, of heart problems, is still not enough to put this urban legend to rest though.  But enough about Davies supposedly sordid lifestyle (mostly exaggerated of course), let us get on with why we are here.  To reuse part of Mr. Welles' quote from above, we are here to talk about Marion Davies being "one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen".  Namely, her work in King Vidor's 1928 silent comedy, Show People.

Though a loose interpretation of the early career of Gloria Swanson (that ill-fated young starlet who would one day play an almost mirror image of her forgotten self in the great and tragic Billy Wilder noir, Sunset Blvd.) could also have quite possibly been based on Davies herself.  The story of the wonderfully named Peggy Pepper, a young Southern girl (Davies of course) who comes to Hollywood, along with her father (the typical blow hard Southern Colonel type), to become a great star of gorgeous, flowing epics.  Yet, just like Davies, the girl finds herself the star of slapstick comedies (though Davies' comedies were far from slapstick, one gets the coincidental idea) and completely unhappy with what she perceives as a failure on her part to become the dramatic star she had always dreamt of being.  Though in actuality, Davies loved doing comedy (it was only Hearst, in his desire to see Davies at her most glamourous, who pushed her toward the dramatic) Show People can be construed as being similar to Davies own career problems in many ways.

In many ways, this is a feminine take on the classic Hollywood story of Merton of the Movies (eventually made into 3 movies, in 1924, 1932 and finally in 1947).  After being tricked into doing comedy (her screen tests, as they were, though meant to be dramatic, were hilarious enough to be cast in what she thinks is a dramatic motion picture) Peggy Pepper becomes unhappy with her slapstick stardom, even though she finds true love in comic co-star Billy Boone (played with the usual glee by star William Haines, whose own career would plummet only a few later, due mainly to his insistence on living life as an openly homosexual actor - an act that Louis B. Mayer would not stand for) and turns instead toward the dramatic films she so desired to make.  Of course this only made her unhappier as she loses (temporarily of course) Billy during this foray into the "more legitimate" kind of moviemaking. 

Yet through all this unhappiness we find (of course) quite a bit of laughter, and a lot of said laughter is brought on by Davies and her willingness to do anything for a laugh.  A beautiful woman (a sex symbol even!?), Davies was not afraid to contort that gorgeous face into something that would make even Buster Keaton bust a gut.  Show People was the second of three films she would do with King Vidor (The Patsy, a great comic film in its own right, where we get to see Davies impersonate Lillian Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri - all of whom she was famous for mimicking at her Hollywood parties - and Not So Dumb were the others) and it was he who seemed to bring out the best in Davies.  One thinks of melodrama when they think of Vidor but it was his gift at directing comedy (a sort of Chaplinesque comedy usually) that made Davies' own gift for comedy come out stronger than it had in other films.  We also get to peek Chaplin in a particularly hilarious cameo in Show People (was the rumour true?) and it is just another nod to Davies' gift that the great comic genius would do her film.

Davies was what one could call a born comedienne (much like Lucille Ball would be called years later - another beauty willing to play it for laughs) and it is a shame her career faded so quickly.  A tragic irony indeed.  To use Mr. Welles quote for my own purposes just one more time, it is a shame that more people do not know of Marion Davies and her being "one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen".  A shame indeed.

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