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Show People (King Vidor, 1928)


In Show People, a light satire of Hollywood, Marion Davies plays Peggy Pepper, a belle from Georgia who is brought to tinseltown by her father in hopes that she has what it takes to become a star. Of course she does, and what results is an entertaining and frequently hilarious trip up the Hollywood hierarchy. Directed by King Vidor, this sly comedy wastes few opportunities to skewer its own kind. From Pepper’s early days at a Keystone-like comedy house to her pompous turn as a leading lady, Vidor finds things to poke fun of at every step. Visually, the film has a great deal of variety, from overwhelming opening montage of Hollywood landmarks to the maze-like studio backlots, to the opulent backdrops that we see once Pepper becomes a star. Show People offers a tantalizing glimpse at the glamor and history of classic Hollywood, including no small number of actual locations. The business of making movies is treated like an eternal lark here, and the free for all that Pepper’s life becomes means an endless parade of costumed extras, plenty of opportunities for advancement and no small amount of personal indignity.


Anchoring the movie is Marion Davies, whose performance is knowing (Peggy even spots Davies at one point) and likeable. There is a humorous demonstration of Peggy’s lackluster acting abilities when she first arrives at the studio, and the joke here is that she’s so inadequate as an actress that she is more suited for comedy than drama (to invoke tears, the stagehands have to cut onions and play a violin). Davies doesn’t exactly show a great deal of range, but she effortlessly carries the film, lending Peggy enough of a character arc that the story never feels like a cobbled together series of skits. Her performance is bolstered by a number of terrific star cameos from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge and director King Vidor himself. It probably could be argued that Hollywood never self-promotes as vigorously as when it turns the camera upon itself, even if the intended effect is satire. Show People’s doubled insistence that anyone can become a star and that movie stars have to work hard to be successful are undoubtedly self-serving, but these messages are tied to a familiar rise to fame narrative that functions here almost as well as it ever has. Show People is a classic of its type, certainly more entertaining than The Artist, which recycled the same material to considerably diminished effect.



Jeremy Heilman