Two new arrivals have come to Hollywood. They are young Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) and her father, Colonel Pepper (Dell Henderson), and they have come to make Peggy a star! They make their way to the casting office in the hopes of landing a big role for Peggy thanks to, or perhaps in spite of, her acting abilities. But things don’t go as well as they hoped and father and daughter are soon scraping by on soup and saltines in the movie lot cafeteria. It is here that they meet Billy Boone (William Haines), a fairly successful comedic actor who works turning out slapstick flicks quickly and cheaply.
Billy is a bit brash and takes the southerners by surprise, but soon reveals himself to be a kind and helpful friend to have on the movie lot. Peggy is initially standoffish but quickly warms up when Billy, who has taken a shine to the movie novice, promises to help her break into movies. Peggy wants to be a great dramatic actress, so when she shows up the next morning she is ready to bring forth all the emotions needed. Unfortunately, the only emotion Peggy needs is shock because Billy hasn’t told her that she will be making her big acting debut taking a deluge of seltzer water to the face. At first, Peggy is horrified and refuses to go on. But after taking some time to talk to Billy, and remembering that Gloria Swanson got her start in comedy, she decides to take it on the chin and dive into comedy. Soon she and Billy are quite the successful comedy duo and romance is blooming offscreen as well. But soon the big studios come sniffing around and they want Peggy…only Peggy. Billy encourages her to take a chance on her career and follow her dream. Somewhat reluctantly, Peggy takes her leave from comedy and heads off to the big leagues of drama. Before too long Peggy has gained a giant ego, an insufferable attitude, and a new leading man.
Marion Davies used her life as inspiration for SHOW PEOPLE. In real like Marion Davies was a dramatic actress who longed to be in comedy. In addition to her own life, Marion Davies also borrowed from the early career of Gloria Swanson and the book/play/film MERTON OF THE MOVIES. Peggy is portrayed as somewhat of a simple country girl, a bit prissy, who dreams of making a big impact in the world of drama before being helped by a worldly comedic stunt actor a la Merton. Peggy also starts off in the world of slapstick before moving on the period dramas with extravagant costumes and sets a la Gloria Swanson. For her part, Marion Davies made SHOW PEOPLE in spite of the objections of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst and Davies were in a long-term relationship during which Hearst used his considerable influence to control the direction of Davies’ career. There are rumors that her frequent appearance in historical costume dramas came about because Hearst liked to see his lover in fancy ballgowns. Whether or not this is true, Davies wanted to make comedy and specifically this comedy and she didn’t let anything stand in her way. Hearst felt that slapstick was beneath her and would ruin her reputation but Davies went ahead anyway. Of note, the seltzer water was supposed to be a pie in the original script but Hearst insisted on the change.
This is my first experience with Marion Davies and now I am eager to see more. I am used to silent comedies being more physically based, but this is one of the most witty comedies that I have seen for a long time. Davies makes some fantastic facial expressions that not only make you laugh just because they are funny, but also because there are subtle ribs at other stars of the silent eras. If you are an avid silent film fan or historian of the silent era there are easter eggs galore for you to find. But more than that, I was surprised to see what a fabulous actress Marion Davies is as a whole. She not only is a skilled and witty comedienne, capable of physical comedy as well as verbal gags, but she is also able to convey emotions with an honesty and realism that was amazing to watch. The fact that she stood up to the man she loved and did what she wanted to make her career what she desired it to be only makes her more fantastic.
William Haines was a big surprise to me. I wasn’t sure what to think of him at first, as he started with his Sennet-esque impression. He was funny to be sure but Marion was funnier, at least to me. But when the quiet moments came, the loving moments between Billy and Peggy, the moments when real emotion was needed, William Haines truly shined. Billy looks at Peggy with true adoration and genuine affection which William Haines does to perfection. His over the top comedy and his brash attitude at the beginning melt away to reveal this kind and thoughtful man underneath. It is because of his emotional honesty combined with Marion Davies’ that SHOW PEOPLE has impact where is does instead of being “just a comedy”.
SHOW PEOPLE is a great look at the Hollywood of the silent era. Not only is the story a tribute to the history of the industry, but there are silent stars a-plenty to spot in this film. Some of those making cameos are Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies (no, that is not a typo), John Gilbert, Elinor Glyn, Louella Parsons, and Norma Talmadge. And that isn’t even all of them! If you know everything or nothing about the silent film industry you can enjoy SHOW PEOPLE. And you never know, you might just learn something too. I know I did!
Both Marion Davies and William Haines recently had episodes dedicated to them on the You Must Remember This podcast. Marion’s episode is here and William’s is here. Highly recommended listening to anyone who wants to know more about these talented performers.