Silent Satire and Social Commentary: Must Watch Warner Archive Instant

Show People

We love Warner Archive Instant and so should you! Where else can you find Marion Davies skewering the Hollywood star machine with a cavalcade of silent film cameos and William Wellman declaring war on the American justice system? Nowhere but here.

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Wade’s Pick: Show People (1928)

For an actress remembered more for her “companionship” with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst than for her successful acting career, Show People is a great introduction to, and meta-comment on, Marion Davies herself. One of many “behind the scenes” Hollywood tales, Show People parodies the industry in subtle and not so subtle forms of misadventures for the actress playing oblivious Peggy Pepper, a pampered Southern-belle who travels across the country, chauffeured by her blow-hard colonel of a father. She has no idea what it means to “get into pictures,” and is a hammy, over the top (read: “Horrendous”) thespian. But her lame skills suit her perfectly for slapstick, so she unwittingly ends up getting sprayed with seltzer in the face and “a star is born.”

Of course, once Peggy’s star begins to ascend she gets more “serious” roles which she’s still not very good at, and becomes a pretentious boor, with the help of her leading man (a gigolo named “Andy” who used to sling hash) who now goes by the name “Andre Telefair” and claims to be a “Count.”  She alienates her old friends and her audience, including the sweet Billy Boone (William Haines) who got her into films in the first place.

Davies’ career mirrors her character’s in Show People; in fact, a gifted comedienne, it was her benefactor Hearst who believed she should be performing in sophisticated fare, using his influence to have her cast in costume epics and dry, serious films, much like Peggy. The character’s career also takes a cue from leading lady Gloria Swanson, herself married to “royalty.”

Davies was loved by everyone, and so her friends fill the screen with cameos, from Douglas Fairbanks, and William S. Hart to John Gilbert and even Charlie Chaplin (playing themselves), all the while dimwitted Penny never knows how good she has it. (The greatest “in joke” may be when Peggy stumbles across Marion Davies herself.) Directed by the legendary King Vidor, (who also appears) this comment on Hollywood still seems fresh and alive almost 90 years later. For those who think silent films are corny, check out Show People and realize that filmmakers in the 1920s were just as aware of the clichés of their form, as we are today.

heroes for sale

Carley’s Pick: Heroes for Sale (1933)

The frustration, anger, and infinite complexities of the early years of the Great Depression found expression, not only in the heated vitriol of soapbox orators, but– thankfully for us–with a much more powerful, far-reaching medium: the movies. As the Depression wore on, a string of socially conscious films challenged American idealism with unrelenting ferocity.  The most celebrated of these films (I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Our Daily Bread, Wild Boys of the Road, etc.) blasted such hot-button topics as the American justice system, political corruption, labor turmoil, drug addiction, poverty, Forgotten Men, and of course, the ever-increasing Red threat.  But of these films, only one tackles all of them.

William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale is an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary man living in extraordinary times. Richard Barthelmess  is a WWI vet whose life is condemned to misery by the very institutions he nearly died to defend. Left for dead in the trenches after single-handedly saving his company, the fruits of his valor are bestowed upon his friend–a man too cowardly to confess the lie. Suffering from a spinal injury, Barthelmess is introduced to morphine … the addiction comes swiftly and impairs his ability to hold down a job when introduced back into the workforce. But after a stint in rehab, fate takes him into a dime-a-dozen boarding house where he meets Aline McMahon. As the straight-talking but sweet-hearted mistress of the house, McMahon runs a clean and charitable operation that is also to some colorful characters: a fiery Communist/inventor who takes every opportunity to remind Barthelmess of how the democratic system has betrayed him, and … one  Loretta Young. It’s love at first sight, don’t you know. (And who can blame him? Loretta Young is a supernatural beauty, at the height of her spritely, youthful vigor.)

Things are looking up: Barthelmess gets a respectable job as a laundry deliveryman, is quickly promoted to an assistant, and marries his sweetheart.  But labor woes spell the end of Barthelmess’ halcyon days, and his attempts to quell a union revolt have him, again, at the hands of the authorities. Only this time, it costs him the life of his wife when Young is killed in the uprising.  Barthelmess’ great personal loss is waved aside by the law, who fear him a troublesome communist. After 5 years hard labor, Barthelmess is at last reunited with his son who has been loving looked after by McMahon, to find that he’s become a rich man. His friend the communist, whom Barthelmess had helped work out an invention, has eagerly aligned himself with Capitalist ideologies after tasting the spoils of success, and has invested Barthelmess’ share of the profits into a high-interest savings account.  (“You used to hate the Capitalists,” says Barthelmess. “Naturally! That was before I had money.”) The reunion does not last. The “Red Squad” runs him out of town, citing his role as the ‘ringleader of a mob’ as sufficient evidence of his political leanings. Barthelmess refuses to take his considerable money with him (much to the consternation of the Communist-turned-Capitalist inventor), and urges McMahon to turn her soup kitchen into a 24/7 operation, spared no expense. With that, he trudges, hundreds of miles on foot, in hopes of a job. Along with his fellow forgotten men of the first World War, he is denied work, humiliated, and herded along like cattle.

Whew. If all of this sounds like over socialist propaganda that’s because, well, it is. But it’s also overt capitalist propaganda.  Fact is, Wellman’s taut, ballsy 70 minute (!!) drama is a truly egalitarian epic that spares nothing in its path. Aside from the wonder of witnessing Wellman’s exceptional deftness at crafting such a bloated (some would call it schizophrenic) story line into a thoroughly believable, deeply human experience, there is another reason to watch this film. Richard Barthelmess. Criminally underrated today, Barthelmess is a natural, fluid actor. A man of roiling internal pain never expressed fully, this writer is comfortable in stating that Barthelmess is the precursor of everyone from John Garfield to Monty Clift to Daniel Day-Lews:  actors powerful enough to say everything by saying nothing.

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