Silent and early sound film star Marion Davies was a wonderful comedienne when given the chance, and perhaps there was no greater opportunity for her to show her talents than in 1928’s Show People, her last major role in a silent film. Of course, the argument is still going on that she was really like Susan Alexander, the sweet, slightly dumb, and only slightly talented “singer” who was Charles Foster Kane’s second wife in Citizen Kane (1941). As the film Mank ties to makes clear, Marion was not Susan. But Kane’s huge shadow over the world of film history has so associated Susan with Marion that Marion’s true talents may take a few more decades to find their place in people’s minds and film history books.
It wasn’t only Dorothy Comingore’s blistering performance as Susan that has cemented the wrong impression in people’s minds. There were three other circumstances that have conspired to keep Davies wrongly reimagined. One was the thisclose connection between Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst. Yes, a few red herrings were thrown in so that Orson Welles’ filmic creation was only 97.5% on the nose. But every adult in 1941 knew that Kane was Welles’ version of Hearst on the screen, and it was easy to make the leap to assume that Hearst’s mistress, Davies, was properly portrayed in all her lack of talent and ditsiness by Comingore.
Another was the reality of Davies’ life circumstance and rise to fame. Her lover and supporter was likely the most powerful man in America, as big a figure then as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos are today. He and Davies were by far the most famous adulterous couple in the country, setting up home in Hollywood and at San Simeon in San Luis Obispo, with Mrs. Hearst firmly and permanently ensconced in New York City. (Hearst never divorced his wife and married Marion, even though they lived together for decades.) In spite of her fame as an actress, she was not always cast correctly, and every viewer knew where the money was coming from for Cosmopolitan Pictures, Hearst’s production company that majored in Davies’ career. No matter what she may have accomplished in her films, there were these huge shadows that always hung over her—Hearst himself, and her relationship with him.
The third factor that continues to muddy her reputation is her bad handling by Hearst in her film roles. It’s finally been widely conceded that the film roles that Hearst wanted for his lovely mistress—historic, dramatic costume pictures, didn’t serve her talents as well as the comic roles that she longed to play. But how talented was she comedically? Few have seen her best work these days, and perhaps the best demonstration of her talents is in a silent film—Show People. (Her first sound film, Marianne, is painfully bad on many levels, though Marion did very well in sound films, her stutter notwithstanding.) Show People is probably the one film that film historians should see to get a proper accounting of Davies’ skills.
If ever a silent film felt modern, it is Show People. It’s a straight-up satire with the cocky attitude of Singin’ in the Rain with some of the sauciness of Blazing Saddles. The story is simple and rife with comedic opportunities. Southern belle Peggy Pepper (Davies) comes to Hollywood with her father, assuming that her acting success in Savannah, Georgia will quickly translate to success as a dramatic actress. The rest is both obvious and meta at the same time. After trying her luck unsuccessfully as a dramatic star, she finds her true footing in silly screwball comedies, complete with pies in faces and plenty of tripping. Of course she meets a handsome young man along the way, someone unimpressed with stardom and who is just interested in Peggy for herself. Peggy loses her sense of self, becomes Patricia Pepoire, decides to live for “art,” and almost marries a narcissistic count who bears a close resemblance to John Gilbert, one of the biggest male stars of the time. Nothing unexpected happens, but it’s a joy to watch things play out as Peggy eventually comes to her senses.
Davies’ acting here is great. When Peggy tries “serious” acting, Davies lands a lovely bit of satire as she tries different facial expressions that reputedly express shock, love, anger, surprise, etc. She continues overacting “just so” throughout and gives a great comic performance. That is the first big comedy delight.
The second is all her famous friends that make cameos. Of course, most are unknown to most viewers these days, but these are not second-stringers by any stretch. According to IMDB, the following then-famous people appear in this order:
- Dorothy Sebastian
- Louella Parsons
- Estelle Taylor
- Claire Windsor
- Eileen Pringle
- Karl Dane
- George K. Arthur
- Leatrice Joy
- Renée Adorée
- Rod La Rocque
- Mae Murray
- John Gilbert
- Norma Talmadge
- Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
- William Hart
Then there are three other erformers that put the guest star conceit over the top. The first is Charles Chaplin, then the most famous person in the world, asking Pepper for her autograph. She doesn’t recognize him, and nearly dismisses him completely until her love interest forces her to give the autograph. As Chaplin gets into a car to ride off, she asks who “the little man” is. Her reaction is perfect. Later, Peggy has a scene with famous director King Vidor, who here plays…a director. Of course, he is also the director of Show People.
Then, my favorite and the most meta of all, there is a scene near the end when Pepper, decked out in her usual old-fashioned Southern belle dress, is on the studio lot when a car approaches, and a modern-looking, well-dressed star exits the car and walks off. Pepper asks who it is, and her companion explains that it’s Marion Davies. Peggy’s reaction, again, is priceless. There are also moments of imitation, when Marion effects the “bee-stung” smile of silent star and The Merry Widow lead Mae Murray. (TBH, the moment can be read today as a take on Gloria Swanson as well.)
The film is the flip and flippant side of What Price Hollywood? and the various A Star is Born films, with a learning curve and a happy ending. It’s not the plot that holds our interest; that’s as deliberately predictable and hackneyed as they come. What the silly plot holds is one of the most modern-feeling comic performances in a silent film, and one that film historians need to see to put Marion Davies in her rightful place.