As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow—the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane—I rejoice in this opportunity to record something which today is all but forgotten except for those lucky enough to have seen a few of her pictures: Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person.
--Orson Welles, Forward to The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst by Marion Davies
It's hard to escape Hollywood's mythmaking machine when it turns its eyes upon you. Such was the doom of Marion Davies, who is today more famous for having "inspired" Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane than she is for anything else she might have done in the world. Ask anyone who dabbles in movies. This is true in the same way that Lizzie Borden gave her mother forty whacks. Everyone knows it, so it MUST be true*. This has another urban legend attached to it, too, in so far as the word in movie space is that William Randolph Hearst's fury at Citizen Kane stems from the fact that "Rosebud" was allegedly Hearst's pet name for Davies's clitoris. I don't know if that's true, but in this, as with everything else about Hollywood, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
All of which is grossly unfair to Marion Davies. Welles was right about her, if a bit belatedly. She was a remarkable woman. She didn't need Hearst. She was rich in her own right, her fortune having accrued through her own talent and hard work. She was intensely involved with her own productions. If anything, Hearst's meddling harmed her, both as an actress and as a legacy. Welles calls Davies a delightfully accomplished comedienne, and that's absolutely true. In another reality, Davies is thought of in the same breath as Harold Lloyd or Laurel and Hardy as one of the great silent comics (though perhaps not in the same breath as Keaton or Chaplin). In this reality, Hearst wanted to see her in dramatic roles. Comedy never gets any respect. Davies, it turns out, was also self-aware and self-effacing, and you can see her waging a kind of guerrilla campaign against Hearst's meddling in Show People (1928, directed by King Vidor).
Davies plays one Peggy Pepper in Show People, whose father brings her to Hollywood to become a star. The Peppers as we find them at the beginning of the movie are a pair of rubes from Georgia. Colonel Pepper demands to see the head of Comet Studios in order to introduce his daughter. They get shuttled to the casting office instead, where Peggy's audition consists of making faces at the casting director. They spend a while as day players, eking out a subsistence on what forty cents will get you at the studio commissary. It's there that they meet Billy Boone, who works as one of the studio's comedians. Billy and Pepper strike up a friendship, and he vows to get her work with his troupe. The comedy department is a raucous bunch in which everyone there is desperate for a new gag. Pepper, however, isn't in on the joke. She came to Hollywood to play fine dramatic parts, and finds herself in slapstick pictures. Still, it gets her noticed. At a preview of one of her pictures, a man asks her for her autograph. "Who was that?" she asks Billy. "Charlie Chaplin," he replies. Soon she's whisked of to High Art Studio where she's slotted into dreary costume dramas opposite the completely phoney elitism of leading man Andre, who fancies himself a count. He fills Peggy's head with notions of how it takes an air of superiority and contempt to hold the screen in dramas, and that this is a facade that must be maintained at all times. She's a success, but it quickly goes to her head. When Billy tries to see her, she brushes him off. She's too good for him now. When her pictures begin to tank, she decides to marry Andre as a means of staying in the public eye, but Billy crashes the wedding to bring her back to Earth. Fortunately, true love wins the day.
This all sounds pretty corny to a modern audience, I guess, but it's a sweet movie that's a LOT more sly than you would expect. There's a deep well of metacinema in this movie, as there is in most movies Hollywood makes about itself. The act of making a movie about a Hollywood studio is fundamentally narcissistic, but the movie makes narcissism the very subject of the movie. Davies, who was the producer of the movie with the always-unbilled Irving Thalberg, stakes a claim on being the auteur behind Show People by the simple virtue of providing a wall of biography against which her director, King Vidor, bounces his balls. Davies is making a show of how ridiculous she is in costume dramas for Hearst. She's also putting the wind up Thalberg's skirt because the boy wonder gave plum roles in dramas to his wife, Norma Shearer, at Davies expense on more than one occasion. (Cue Joan Crawford's complaint that it's easy to be a big star when you're fucking the boss). There are levels to the metacinema in this movie. It's probably wrong to try to identify an auteur here, because King Vidor gets his jokes in, too, whether it's inserting a love scene from one of his other movies, casting himself as the director of the film Peggy stars in at the end of the film, or re-creating the end of The Big Parade in the same scene. Still, Davies is central to the film's best joke, in which another actress arrives at the studio driving like a bat out of hell. She get's out of the car and Peggy asks Billy who she is. "Marion Davies," he says, and a more different actress would be hard to find.
It should be noted that Show People was made at the very end of the silent era, and by 1928, the techniques of silent filmmaking had reached an apex that sound films would take years and decades to ascend once silents were scrapped. Certainly, film acting took a huge step backward once the movies started talking. My own favorite performance from the early days of talkies is Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, and, significantly, he has no dialogue. But the silent actors? My god, they were expressive. Broader, certainly, but they had to communicate everything with a facial expression, with a body posture, with a gesture. There's an intensifying effect that goes along with this. It's not the method, by any means, but it is perhaps more suited to laying bare the inner life of a character. Davies is a complete master of this. The early scene in the casting office is a good example. It requires her to be completely awful for comic effect. Any good actor will tell you that it's hard to play a bad actor, and Davies pulls it off. The movie derives a LOT of its underlying pathos from the contrast between the faces Davies puts on for the cameras and the faces she puts on in her private moments. They're night and day different, and they're suggestive of an actress with a deep understanding of the difference between acting and a bunch of dumb show. It's an interesting contrast, too, with William Haines's Billy, who is noticeably the same person when he's doing broad comedy and when he dials it down for the disappointment he feels when he's thrown over by Peggy. Haines was a good and likeable actor whose career in film was abruptly brought to an end when he refused to marry a beard once the production code was enforced. Haines's presence in the film is another subtle influence from Hearst, who was uncomfortable with Davies's leading men. Haines, who was openly gay, gave Hearst no cause for jealousy.
If this all seems overly gossipy by my standards, well, it's impossible to avoid when you discuss Show People. Believe me, I would be comfortable if I could just look at the film, but Show People is SO enmeshed with Hollywood culture and with the biography of its star that it weaves a web into the broader community. I don't think you can adequately understand the film without this grounding because it's the basis for most of the film's in-jokes and directly influences the way some things are staged. Hearst, for example, didn't want to see Davies get a pie in the face, so she dodges the pies this movie throws in favor of a seltzer bottle to the face. I guess Hearst had no qualms about seeing her get wet. I can only imagine how King Vidor navigated the requirements of his star's insistent paramour, but the movie provides him with plenty of latitude to assert his own anima. My favorite shot in the movie is positively Godardian: a director attempts to get Peggy to cry by invoking the image of her saintly father starving to death, which cuts to an image of the gluttonous Colonel Pepper chowing down on a chicken leg, then cuts to Davies laughing her ass off. The Nouvelle Vague boys didn't really invent much, even if they pretended that they did. There's also an element of, well...not documentary, really, but of sociology. Stylized and romanticized as it is, Show People is a portrait of a specific place in time. When the movie is filming a movie studio, it's filming a movie studio rather than a set (though it's often filming sets, too; this can be confusing if you think too deeply about this film's set of reality). One of the opening shots of the film is a montage of the facades of movie studios, including Fox, Paramount, MGM, the now-defunct First National. Sure, this was shot for a movie, but these were real places. The movie further populates the background with real people playing themselves, whether it's Chaplin or Fairbanks or whoever. Douglas Fairbanks is shown wearing a black armband in the film; when he shot his scenes, he was in mourning in real life. That's not there for the benefit of the film, though it ultimately benefits the film. This all ties the film to gossip culture.
A quick word about the presentation. I saw this at Columbia, Missouri's Ragtag Cinema as part of their springtime Pre-Code series. The organizers had a bit of a dilemma with Show People, because their sources for the movie had, alternately, good picture (relatively) with crappy score and good score with crappy picture. They wound up splicing their two sources together with the aid of Columbia Access Television. For the most part, it works, but the series organizer pointed out to me after the film that it loses sync somewhere in the middle, only to catch up in the end. It doesn't actually hurt the movie much, which is interesting.
*In fact, Lizzie Borden was rightly acquitted of murdering her parents because she was knocked out on laudanum at the time of the crime. FYI.