It’s common knowledge that the character of Susan Alexander, Charles Foster Kane’s tone-deaf paramour in Citizen Kane, parallels the life of actress Marion Davies. As the mistress of publisher William Randolph Hearst, many assumed that her being cast in pompous dramatic period films during the height of Hollywood’s silent era resulted from the mogul’s attempt to flatter his own ego. To a certain extent, the stylus of the historical record has moved in her favor. She is now remembered as a gifted comic actress and a sharp business woman who bailed Hearst out of several financial straits in his twilight years, rather than as the shrill, talentless harpy in Orson Welles’ opus.
Alexander’s illustration of a cultural divide between highbrow opera and lowbrow cabaret mirrors the theme of one of Davies’ mid-career forays into comedy, Show People. This movie mocks the pretensions of serious costume dramas that she was becoming associated with, comparing them unfavorably to their joyful slapstick counterparts. However, unlike in Kane, where Alexander is ridiculed for accepting her lover’s assistance for a fancy career, King Vidor’s comedy gently flatters his star, praising her for skills that hitherto may have gone unnoticed by most audiences.
The film begins with Peggy Pepper (Davies) and her father, “The Colonel,” driving down Hollywood Boulevard in an overloaded Model A. Representing Southern aristocracy hitting the skids, they seek fame as an avenue for redemption. Crashing the studios for auditions, Peggy’s pretensions of refined dramatic training (“Her acting is the talk of Savannah”, her father proclaims, without irony) catch the eye of a puckish actor and assistant director (William Haynes) for Comet Pictures, who casts Peggy in a manic slapstick farce just for the pleasure of squirting her in the face with the proverbial seltzer bottle. When the fury of her reaction receives generous laughs from the crew, the director, having a “Eureka” moment, elevates Peggy to the film’s female lead. Soon, both father and daughter are on their way to stardom, she in outlandish comedic vehicles and he in Civil War epics portraying buffoonish Confederate officers.
Yes, the story is pretty slight, but Vidor and his writers draw on the viewers’ familiarity with film lore to create numerous light comic set pieces. Audiences consumed fan magazines that presented the environs of the movie colony in a glamorous light. In the silent era, tourists often visited movie sets, as their presence off-camera generally did not interfere with the shoots. The film plays on these expectations early on by having a naïve Peggy wander onto, behind, and between sound stages depicting a variety of movie genres under production. There is a loving sense of the absurdity of Hollywood inauthenticity conveyed by making the movie making artifice self evident. Likewise, viewers also journey into the cafeterias where stars and extras dine in a plethora of costumes representing the varieties of pictures being shot on the lot. This “behind the scenes” casualness also allows for numerous off-the-cuff cameos by big name actors, like Charlie Chaplin (out of character) Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, and William S. Hart. Hollywood comes off like one big community of celebrities just hanging out.
Peggy’s rise to fame illustrates a core change in values that the movies, and their auxiliary media of fan magazines and gossip columns, exercised on American culture during the Jazz Age. The conditions of her celebrity reject the preconception that artistic brilliance rests on rarefied notions of tastes and mannered forms of artistic expression (as dramatized in Davies’ dead-on parody of the facial mannerisms of Mae Murray, her professional rival in her “prestige” pictures). Rather, her attractiveness relies on the magnetism generated from her authentic reactions to absurdly comic situations, like riding a pig or getting hit in the ass by a 2×4. In the ethos of 20s America, celebrity wasn’t formed by accepting tastes associated with the station in life that you were born in, but by the intensity of your personality. It’s no surprise that novelist Elinor Glynn, who coined the term “It” when defining the indescribable qualities of personal charisma, makes an appearance, flattering Peggy for her photogenic charisma. Show People validates the arrival of a new meritocracy, where class and work come secondary to the glory of personal authenticity.
Or so it seems. As her star rises, Peggy’s snobbery returns, and when “High Class” pictures comes a-calling, she abandons her old studio (and beau, her former AD) for the Norma Shearer route, changing her name to “Penelope Pepoire”, making stodgy costume pictures and entering a staged, passionless romance with her debonair co-star, Andre Telfair. For all of her newfound fame, this attempt to forge a public persona to match her screen image fosters a longing for the vitality and community of the old slapstick troupe. Eventually, various plot mechanisms, culminating in a reprise of the old seltzer water gag, forges a reconciliation and acceptance of the character to the modern morality of personality.
Davies involves the audience in a type of knowing self-parody. When Hearst created Cosmopolitan Pictures in 1918, he cast his mistress in elaborate period dramas that, while exuding the gloss of a Victorian sense of class, also smothered the youthful dynamism of its star. Show People projects a new definition of the American character in its satiric rejection of cultural hierarchy. The quality of a popular art does not rest with stilted academic training, but evolves with the camera’s natural ability to tap into the unique charisma of its stars. The path to notoriety and success lies with the indelible uniqueness of one’s personality. Subsequently the cinema captures the ascent of a new meritocracy built on the attractiveness of being who you are.
While ostensibly a light-hearted expose of the behind the scenes workings of the Hollywood dream factory, Show People is, at its core, a fanciful validation of the illusion of modern celebrity, a modest affirmation of the morals and values of self-actualization that defined the ethos of a revitalized urban youth of the Roaring 20s. It aims to scrape away the fake glitter and tinsel of American cinema to uncover the real glitter and tinsel, but without malice. It stands in marked contrast to Citizen Kane, where the image of the entertainer is subjected to the darker, more demagogic pursuits of the oligarchs of mass culture. Economic anxiety and the rise of fascism will do that to our entertainment, and new paradigms for viewing celebrity culture emerge to reflect that changing mood. Hollywood will often reflect back on the presumed innocence of this period and its contemporary movies, sometimes with nostalgia (Singing in the Rain), and sometimes with morbid fascination (Sunset Boulevard), depending on the national mood. Next month, I will discuss how Woody Allen’s mockumentary Zelig works in dialogue with this film.