The Sunday Intertitle: Marion of the Movies

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Round at Marvelous Mary’s for steak pie, and sought to follow-up our previous screening of Clarence Brown’s THE SIGNAL TOWER with something more modern. We tried my disc of THE PALM BEACH STORY, but because Mary’s TV is stone age, the DVD player has to be connected to the TV through a VCR, and that set off the disc’s anti-piracy thingamajig, rendering the image unviewable. So we’ll have to have Mary round here to see it.

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No copy protection on SHOW PEOPLE, however. King Vidor’s comedy about going Hollywood is pretty simplistic compared to the elevated joys of Preston Sturges, but it’s truly charming. Stuffed full of guest stars, of whom we recognized John Gilbert and Charlie Chaplin (because they’re named) and Doug Fairbanks, William S. Hart and King himself. Oh, and Marion Davies as Peggy Pepper gets to glimpse Marion Davies As Herself, which takes the celebrity cameo gag to a whole new level. But as you can see, there’s a lot more I should have recognized.

Leading man Billy Haynes is a convincing boy-next-door, and the whole thing spoofs Gloria Swanson pretty heartily — Davies does a killer Swanson imitation whenever she’s acting stuck up. Vidor’s visual style is tamped down, but his compositions are very crisp as always, which helps the comedy.

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The purist in me notes that despite spoofing that part of Swanson’s career when she was a reluctant participant in Keystone comedies, the movie is one of those late silent era films which gets most of its laughs with the aid of intertitles. In a way, the silents were already straining towards talk. Slapstick is celebrated in a way that’s already nostalgic, for its simple sincerity rather than the skill of the participants. A wind of change is already rustling the stage scenery…

Insert Marion Davies boilerplate here — better at comedy, more talented than her CITIZEN KANE counterpart, etc. We recently watched BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES (1932), a backstage melodrama notable mainly for the understated perfs director Edmund Goulding obtains from such masters of schtick as James Gleason and Zasu Pitts. (Perhaps Goulding was making up for the same year’s GRAND HOTEL, upon which nobody could possibly have imposed a unity of dramatic style.)  Davies herself is very fine in it. This had me in suspense as to how the movie would digest its Jimmy Durante cameo, since Durante underplaying was something I have trouble picturing. In the event, he explodes into the movie in full schnozz mode, and only the fact that he’s performing at a party prevents this explosion of vaudevillainy from tearing the film out of its sprockets.

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6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Marion of the Movies”

  1. I think SHOW PEOPLE is an incredible comedy, as is THE PATSY, Marion Davies’ other comedy with King Vidor. The main point of this film, as with Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, is a more expansive approach to comedy, where the idea that comedies can’t in their own manner and style approach gravity is attacked, and Vidor does it formally, since his films are still visually beautiful. The director of the comic gag, who chews his kerchief, is based on John Ford and Leo McCarey. Ford chewed out Vidor for that, they still teamed up to form the DGA though. Both films are among Vidor’s best.

    In these two films, Marion Davies has this natural approach to comedy and presence that really anticipates say, Carole Lombard, Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe. In that sense, she’s as innovative as the “Silent Clowns”. A complete freedom and confidence of self that allows her to be funny, moving and compelling. Not sure if I’m being expressive with my adjectives but there is a lot that’s new and different in these films than in most silent films or films that came after.

    Needless to say, these films are far greater silent comedies than THE ARTIST, which criminally ripped both of them(and Singin’ in the Rain).

  2. The Patsy is our favourite MD film. We took a look at Not So Dumb but it seemed crude by comparison. At any rate, the problems of recording early sound at a train station in a rainstorm defeated Vidor in scene 1. We’ll go back to it — I expect it improves.

    Davies’ naturalness is indeed a distinguishing trait: Goulding’s achievement in the minor Blondie of the Follies is to get the rest of the cast in sync with her in-the-moment, almost improvisatory behaviour. It’s easier for Vidor in a silent where the dialogue is obviously treated pretty loosely, but he does a fine job.

    I wonder where the agitated director’s habit of rapidly scratching the back of his ear like a cat came from. It’s a nice touch.

  3. La Faustin Says:

    “Show mild surprise, like this –“

  4. Try to dig up a copy of “The General Returns From One Place To Another,” Frank O’Hara’s marvelous play written for and starring the just-recently-late Taylor Mead. In it Taylor spoofs General Douglas MacArthur in the style of the general’s gay son Arthur MacArthur. In a climatic speech the General goes on about why Marion Davies (who he adores) didn’t have as big a career as Norma Shearer : “The HANDLING was wrong!”

  5. It certainly was — have you ever seen Operator 13, with Marion as an actress going undercover in blackface during the Civil War? And falling for Yankee officer Gary Cooper? Not actually a dreadful piece of filmmaking, but gobsmacking.

  6. Christopher Says:

    Interesting that they divide camps in Show People with the comics being low lifes and the drama folks being the ever worshipful..Seems a right place for Haines to go fully unbridled ,but he manages to stay calm thru most of the film…The Girl Said No-1930 is one of my favorite films to watch WM Haines mow down the proceedings…oh,we’re making a movie?-don’t be silly!..

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