Friday, June 28, 2013

Show People (1928)

WHO: King Vidor directed this and Marion Davies starred in it.

WHAT: The release of Seth Rogen's This Is The End earlier this month sent many websites back to previous examples of Hollywood celebrities playing versions of themselves in fictional scenarios on film. These articles dutifully listed some of the most memorable examples of this device: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!, John Malkovich and Charlie Sheen in Being John Malkovich, half the credit list in The Player, Cecil B. DeMille in Sunset Blvd. etc. But they could have reached back much further for examples. In 1923, for instance, James Cruze made a film called Hollywood in which an aspiring actress played by Hope Drown tries to break into the movies; he enlisted practically every big name in Tinseltown to portray themselves; a very partial list includes Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle", Baby Peggy, Charlie Chaplin, DeMille and his director brother William C. de Mille, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Nita Naldi, Pola Negri, Jack and Mary Pickford, Zasu Pitts, Will Rogers, and Gloria Swanson.  Unfortunately Hollywood is considered a "lost film" - Kevin Brownlow has called it his most-sought missing title - so there's little record of just how large, or how funny, each of these cameo performances might have been.

The next best thing, perhaps, is Show People, prints of which fortunately do exist. Said to be based on Swanson's career trajectory, this is another aspiring actress comedy; it follows Peggy Pepper, played by Marion Davies, as she attempts to launch herself as a serious motion picture actress, but finding she has more of a gift for comedy. Again movie studio verisimilitude is lent by star cameos: Chaplin, Fairbanks and Hart once more, and joined by John Gilbert, Louella Parsons, Norma Talmadge, the film's own director King Vidor, and others. Even Davies gets to tweak her own star image, appearing as herself and having her talent disparaged via intertitle by Pepper!

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight on a bill starting at 8:00 at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

WHY: Show People screens as part of the opening night of the 16th annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, a weekend showcase of silent-era filmmaking in the district of Niles (now a part of Fremont, California) where, a hundred years ago, the festival namesake Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson made a slew of one- and two-reel Westerns taking advantage of the small-town streets and rolling-hill landscapes. He wasn't the only star making films for the Essanay Film Company in those days, however; now-obscure performers like John Steppling and Arthur and Julia Mackley were among the others making films like Billy McGraph on Broadway and The Sheriff's Wife in 1913, and soon enough Charlie Chaplin would also be lured to Niles to make a half-dozen films including The Champion and The Tramp. Both Billy McGraph on Broadway and The Sheriff's Wife will screen with Show People this evening, and so will a brand-new film made in Niles using the technologies of 1913.

The Mercury News has just published an article on the festival that discusses this new film, originally to be called The Canyon, but now apparently titled Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret. It will screen again on Sunday to close the festival alongside Buster Keaton's meta masterpiece Sherlock Jr.  Between now and then about a dozen more films with screen throughout the weekend; Lotte Reiniger's feat of cut-out animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a five-film program of original 1913 "Broncho Billy" films, and a Colleen Moore vehicle directed by Gregory La Cava called His Nibs are among the notable highlights. I plan to attend this festival for the first time this year.

I first saw Show People at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which is also where I saw Davies and Vidor's follow-up film The Patsy, another underrated comedy gem from 1928. Niles researcher, programmer and projectionist David Kiehn wrote an excellent essay on the latter film for the festival program book when it played in 2008. Next month The Patsy reprises at the 2013 SFSFF, the only repeat-performance feature in a program of nearly two-dozen films made all over the world. All silent programs at both the Niles and the San Francisco festivals will be accompanied by live music. If you've never been exposed to the comic genius of Marion Davies you should at least attend Show People tonight and The Patsy July 19th. But it's hard to sample one silent program presented this way and not get the urge to stay for many more!

HOW: 16mm print, along with three short films screened in 35mm, all accompanied by Bruce Loeb on piano.

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