Wednesday, September 16, 2015
It's a shame that Marion Davies is known today primarily as William Randolph Hearst's mistress, and hence the presumable model for the talentless opera singer Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). For Davies was not only not an opera singer, she was also bursting with talent. Show People demonstrates her skill for comedy, acknowledged as an inspiration by such later glamorous comedians as Carole Lombard and Lucille Ball. Everything Davies could do except talk -- this is one of her last silent films -- is on display, including her skill at slapstick: She does a fine pratfall and takes copious amounts of seltzer in the face. (Hearst reportedly forbade her being the recipient of a custard pie -- that was somehow one shtick beneath her.) She mugs divinely as the comic actress Peggy Pepper who is "promoted" into the serious artiste Patricia Pepoire. Attempting a Mae Murray-style bee-stung lips, Davies comes up with a hilariously rabbity moue. The movie also gives us a chance to see William Haines at work. One of the few leading men of the day who dared to lead an almost openly gay life, Haines plays the comic actor who gives Peggy her first break into pictures, loses her when she tries to become a dramatic actress, but of course finally gets her after she sheds the Patricia Pepoire persona. When he was ordered by MGM's bullying Louis B. Mayer to pretend to be straight in his offscreen life, Haines quit pictures and became a successful interior designer; his life partner, Jimmie Shields, became his business partner as well. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were among their clients. Show People also has cameos by Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and other stars of the day. Peggy Pepper even encounters Marion Davies herself in one scene.