Friday, November 9, 2012

Shhhh! Silents, Please! Marion Davies in Show People

It’s one of the best deals around. In Beverly Hills, California, there’s a wealth of screenings available to you at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, located in the headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Yes, the folks who hand out those little naked guys at over-long ceremonies once a year.) It costs five bucks per person, and you don’t need to shell out for popcorn, because food and drink are strictly prohibited. There’s even free parking, in the garage of a nearby office tower. But be sure to buy your ticket early: these events are popular.

What you can expect for your $5 is a comfortable seat and a very long evening. Screenings always begin with a pre-show, at which the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp provides spirited commentary and historic context. He also rounds up special guests who offer their own perspective.

The screening I just attended was catnip for a highly specialized audience. Show People, starring Marion Davies, has much in common with this year’s top Oscar winner, The Artist. Both are behind-the-scenes sagas that tell of rises and falls within the movie industry. And both are silent movies. Released in 1928, Show People came out the year after The Jazz Singer revolutionized Hollywood with its introduction of sound. And so, delightful though it is, Show People feels a bit like an elegy for an era that was rapidly passing away.

It’s the story of pert Peggy Pepper, who arrives in Hollywood with stars in her eyes. Before long, she’s a hit in a knockabout farce –- complete with spritzes of seltzer water, custard pies in the kisser, and inept cops falling into a water trough –- that’s an homage to the herky-jerky movies of Mack Sennett. Her leading man tries to be philosophical when she’s whisked off to High Art Studios to become a dramatic actress. At High Art (represented in the film by the MGM backlot), she hobnobs with celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, playing themselves. Now redubbed Patricia Pepoire, she is taken in hand by a suave John Gilbert type who persuades her to behave more like a Grande Dame. This leads to funny scenes in which Davies is clearly mimicking the Grandest Dame of the era, Gloria Swanson.

There are inside jokes aplenty. Early on, Peggy turns down an autograph request from Charlie Chaplin, because she doesn’t recognize him without his Little Tramp trappings. Soon afterward, arriving at her studio, she sees an elegant woman alight from a limousine and saunter off, swinging a tennis racquet. When told this is Marion Davies, Peggy (played of course by Marion Davies) does not seem impressed.

Guest of honor when I saw Show People was historian Kevin Brownlow, to whom we owe so much regarding the preservation of silent film. Brownlow explained that Davies’ consort, William Randolph Hearst, had to be lured from the set so he wouldn’t see his beloved drenched with a fire hose. (Hearst flatly refused to let her be hit by a pie.) Brownlow also revealed that there originally was a scene where Davies, a talented mimic, impersonated Greta Garbo. It was cut by MGM, because “you don’t laugh at Garbo.”

Before the lights dimmed, two men in my row were intently discussing the obscure silent movies that were their mutual passion. The older man asked if the younger had seen the 1980 screening of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, at which Carmine Coppola conducted his own musical score. The younger man replied, “I wasn’t born then.” No matter: it’s never to late to fall in love with silent film.


  1. What a incredible event to attend! How I wish I could be there on the West Coast sometimes - screenings like this one at AMPAS; or a revival of some 70's grindhouse flick over at the New Beverly. I have to content myself with the Fathom Event screenings here at my local multiplex - so far Casablanca, Singing in the Rain, The Birds, and a double feature of Frankenstein/The Bride of Frankenstein have been shown. Next is To Kill a Mockingbird this Thursday. No special guests, but you do get Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz hosting a short behind the scenes piece in front of the picture. Do you ever attend the Turner Classic Movies festival they put on in Los Angeles?

    Show People sounds like a corker - I love that they have the Marion Davies in-joke - that's very meta for a movie made only a decade and a half after the first feature film!

    I will also state for the record that I have never laughed at Garbo.

  2. I never laughed at Garbo either, but of course "Garbo Laughs" became a big catchline for "Ninotchka" eleven years later.

    Why is it called the "Fathom Event"? I assume there's no connection to the 1967 film, "Fathom," starring Raquel Welch, right?

  3. No, although that movie recently joined the ranks in my video vault - Fathom Events is the company that provides the programs at theaters all over the country - they do the above Turner Classic Movies screenings as well as other programming, all of which can be viewed at your local movie theater - Broadway shows, opera, rock concerts, and even childcare lectures.