1928 was a frightening year for the film industry. The first feature with synchronized dialogue, The Jazz Singer, had premiered the previous October, casting doubt on the ability of silent films to endure as an art form. Stars feared for their careers while studio bosses worried about their bottom line. The career of Marion Davies, however, was soaring. After a long fight to create her own persona, she had established herself as a top-tier comedienne. Three exceptional comedies—The Patsy, The Cardboard Lover, and Show People—were released within seven months of each other, and all met with great acclaim. Show People was the cap on Davies’s glorious year of 1928, and her swan song to the silent era.
By the time she made Show People, Davies had been making films for over a decade. Her first feature, Runaway Romany in 1917, had attracted the attention of William Randolph Hearst, the press baron who harnessed the power of the motion pictures to further his journalistic interests. He fell in love with Davies, on screen and off, and signed her to his New York-based Cosmopolitan Productions. Hearst put Davies in roles that reflected the way he saw her—as an ethereal, angelic beauty, dressing her in elaborate costumes and surrounding her with imposing sets.
Davies was a vivacious, ebullient personality who delighted in fun and playful pranks, and felt stifled in her roles. She longed to play a “modern girl,” and when Cosmopolitan moved west and partnered with the newly-formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Davies began an active campaign to change her image. Nearly everyone saw Davies’s natural gift for comedy; director King Vidor, a frequent guest at Hearst’s San Simeon ranch, witnessed her exceptional talent for mimicry. “We saw Marion doing all these imitations at the ranch,” Vidor said later, “and we would laugh at her performances.” Vidor’s dramatic direction of The Big Parade attracted Hearst to Vidor as a director for Davies, and Vidor agreed on one condition: the film would have to be a comedy.
Hearst agreed to let Vidor try, and the result was The Patsy, a raucous film that allowed Davies, in Vidor’s recollection, to “just be herself all the time.” The film was met with triumphant reviews, and Vidor found Davies “a joy to direct.” Davies hired a full quartet to play mood music during scenes, which Vidor found relaxing, and the atmosphere was laid back and fun. He was eager to work with her on another project, and fortunately there was a perfect script ready for production.
The scenario that ultimately became Show People was an early MGM acquisition. Originally entitled Polly Preferred, MGM had purchased it in 1925 and the script department spent three years fine-tuning the story, including changing its name to Show World before settling on the final title. The film follows Peggy Pepper, a young actress from Georgia who arrives in Hollywood eager to make it in the movies. She befriends Billy Boone (William Haines), a young comedic actor who helps her rise through the ranks of the studio. She quickly becomes a big star, which goes to her head until Billy playfully brings her back down to earth.
The version of Show People that made it to the screen is loosely based on the early career of Gloria Swanson, who had her start at Mack Sennett’s Keystone. Davies knew Swanson well. She was an occasional guest at Davies’s parties and by this time having an affair with Joseph P. Kennedy, another member of the Hearst/Davies circle. Swanson’s tendency to take herself too seriously led Davies to craft a devilish impersonation of the actress, played to perfection throughout the film.
Show People is delightfully self-aware, and the cameos and in-jokes are as fun as the film itself. Marion Davies’s quartet plays Peggy Pepper’s on-set musicians. Charlie Chaplin makes a cameo as an autograph seeker, and Davies herself plays “Marion Davies,” much to Peggy’s disdain. Fans of silent film will delight in a pan of the commissary where Peggy (transformed into “Patricia Pepoire”) eats lunch with a who’s-who of MGM stars.
On the set, Vidor found the same relaxed atmosphere that he had enjoyed on The Patsy. But not all went smoothly on the production. Leading man James Murray, whom Vidor had recently directed in The Crowd, had sunk deeper into alcoholism and could not be found when production began. Vidor wanted to give him work, but after three days of no leading man, he was forced to pull Murray from the production.
William “Billy” Haines was a brilliant replacement. He was a big star in light comedies, good friends with Davies, and a frequent guest at Hearst’s ranch. The chemistry between Haines and Davies is evident from the start, and Haines’s star power helped the production enormously. Haines also had a particular bond with Hearst. His interest and eye for antiques had endeared him to the ardent collector, who became something of a mentor. Haines was openly gay, and when Louis B. Mayer pushed him out of MGM for it in the early 1930s, he created a lucrative interior design business at Hearst’s suggestion.
Vidor, Davies, and Haines all got along exceptionally well, personally and artistically. Hearst, however, disliked lowbrow humor and kept an eye on every aspect of the production. He objected to a scene in the script where Davies took a pie in the face. “I’m not going to allow Marion to be hit in the face with a pie,” he insisted. When it became clear that the scene could not be shot with Hearst on set, a plan was devised to have the Los Angeles Examiner call Hearst to the office for an urgent conference. While he was out, they filmed the scene—using water from a siphon bottle instead of a pie.
Show People was released in October of 1928 to spectacular reviews. The critics were impressed with the charming story and the nuanced performances. “So clever is the comedy in Show People,” the New York Times wrote, “that it would not be at all surprising to hear that many in the audiences had sat through it twice … While there are one or two instances here where the fun boils over, most of the time it simmers in a delightful fashion.” Several newspapers were amused by Davies’s cameo in her own film, including the Pasadena Post, which quipped, “Marion Davies arranged for Marion Davies to appear in a Marion Davies production.”
The premiere coincided, almost to the day, with the anniversary of The Jazz Singer’s first public showing. Though Davies made one more silent film, Marianne (shot twice, once as a silent feature and again as a sound film), Show People was her last silent release without a sound counterpart.
Davies struggled more than others with the coming of sound. She had a persistent stutter, present since childhood, that she was convinced would ruin her career if talkies should become industry standard. “Not only was I appalled at the idea,” she said later, “but … I wished the earth would open up, because I said ‘I cannot do sound pictures.’”
Following several shelved films, hours of voice work and bouts of anger and frustration, Davies completed the sound version of Marianne and arrived at the premiere feeling tense. When the film started, she couldn’t bear to watch or listen to herself. She began to cry. But through her tears, she noticed that the audience was reacting to the funny spots with uproarious laughter. Davies’s anxieties slowly disappeared, and by the end of the film, she felt talkies might work for her after all. This experience was a poignant mirroring of Peggy Pepper watching her first film in Show People.
Indeed, despite her stutter, Davies became one of a handful of silent stars to survive the transition to sound. It was a testament to her grit, stamina, and hard work. In recent decades, Davies’s reputation has been sullied by Citizen Kane and the comparisons to Susan Alexander, the talentless opera singer pushed by Kane in the film. Orson Welles himself acknowledged the harm the film has done to Davies and how wrong the comparison is. “Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen,” he wrote in the foreword to 1975’s The Times We Had, marketed as her memoir.
Show People is a perfect example of these gifts. Not only is it a masterpiece of Hollywood self-examination, featuring two stars and a director all at the top of their game, but it remains the crowning achievement of Marion Davies’s career, and a bittersweet farewell to the silent era.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra