The Bruno Walter Auditorium is home to the Silent Clowns Film Series, which boasts itself as “New York’s longest-running regularly scheduled silent film showcase.” For twenty years now, the series has provided the public with year-round free showings of silent classics both obscure and famous. And this past Saturday they featured one of their most delightful screenings yet: a 16mm print of King Vidor’s comedy classic Show People (1928) preceded by Hal Roach’s criminally unseen one-reeler Sure-Mike! (1925).
From the outside, the Bruno Walter Auditorium doesn’t look like much. With its stark concrete entrance lacking the pomp, splendor, or magisterial empty spaces of the nearby Alice Tully Hall or the Metropolitan Opera House, Bruno Walter is one of the more unassuming facilities in the sprawling Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But once inside, one discovers it to be one of the more charming theaters in the city. Its low roof, rounded wooden stage, and 202-person seating capacity creates a dry space both warm and intimate, inviting and comforting. When one visits it, one can’t help but feel that they’ve come home. What better place for fans of old Hollywood to congregate and pay homage to a cinema long-gone but fiercely loved and jealously protected?
After a brief introduction by the MoMA’s resident film accompanist Ben Model and historian Steve Massa—“It’s a beautiful day outside! Why are you all here to watch an old silent movie?”—we settled in for an afternoon of classic silent comedy. And what an afternoon it was.
In a better, kinder, more just universe, Martha Sleeper would never have languished in supporting roles before largely disappearing into Hollywood obscurity: Sure-Mike! would’ve been her break-through role and the first in an illustrious career as a physical comedian to match the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Even at a young age, this dancing girl from New York demonstrated a bona fide talent, breaking into the film industry at only 13 years old and starring in the Our Gang film series. Despite her youth, she looked to be in her early twenties, something producers greedily capitalized on by pairing her up with lead actors many years her senior. But here in Roach’s Sure-Mike! she reveals an uncanny knack for solo comedy.
The plot is pure fluff: lazy department store saleswoman Vermuda (Sleeper) falls in and out of love with her manager, a dashing young man with a terrible secret. As with many one-reelers, the plot is merely a framework on which to hang a series of gags. A mannequin is disguised as a customer to throw off an anal-retentive floorwalker. A bag on a balloon knocks off toupées. All standard silent comedy stuff. But in the scenes where Sleeper is allowed to show off her physical dexterity and endurance, she displays a Keaton-esque invulnerability to harm. She falls from the roof of a building, hangs off the back of a speeding trolley, gets dragged down the street on roller-blades by a particularly enthusiastic leashed mutt. In a bit that somehow outdoes Harold Lloyd’s trademark car chases, she gets trapped on the top of a cart careening down a crowded highway, barely missing massive vehicles that would’ve crushed her to a bloody pulp if the stunts hadn’t gone just right.
But even more than the stunts, one can’t help but notice Vermuda the Saleswoman’s strength as a character. Plucky, clumsy, and determined, one could easily imagine her reappearing in film after film, becoming not just a character, but a brand much like The Tramp. But as we all know, Hollywood happy endings are much less common outside Hollywood.
Not that you’d know that from Show People. This film follows a stuffy young woman from Savannah, Georgie named Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of becoming a movie star and serious actress of languid dramas and romances. Much to her indignant surprise, the only way she can break into the business is by starring in low-brow slapstick comedies, demeaning herself by getting sprayed with seltzer bottles and riding giant pigs away from bumbling cops. An unexpected popular success, Pepper seizes upon her new fame as leverage to enter the glitzy world of “high art.” She changes her name to “Patricia Pepoire,” swaps banana-cream pies for caviar, dumps fellow slapstick comedian Billy Boone (William Haines) for fake European count Andre Telfair (Paul Ralli), and proceeds to bore audiences across America to tears. On her wedding day to the pompous Andre, Billy bursts into her chambers, sprays her with a seltzer bottle, pies her fiancé, and brings her to her senses.
Show People is a remarkable film for several reasons. First and foremost, the film represents the apogee of Davies’ acting career. Despite being a Brooklyn showgirl with a stutter, Davies rocketed to superstardom after becoming the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Pouring the full weight of his wealth and influence behind her, Hearst pressured Hollywood studios to cast her in prestige costume dramas, many of which he financed himself. (Notably, during the opening credits of Show People, Vidor’s own directorial credit is dwarfed by the phrase “Marion Davies Productions.”) But if Hearst made Davies a star, it was Orson Welles who both immortalized and ruined her with his masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941). In the film, loosely based on Hearst’s life, Welles’ Kane forces his gratingly untalented mistress Susan Alexander into the spotlight as an opera star with horrific, humiliating results. Despite being a vocal fan of her work, Welles cemented Davies in the minds of the public as a kept woman unfairly given acting opportunities far outside her talents.
But in Show People we learn the truth: not only could Davies act, she was a stunning comedic actress. Consider one of her very first scenes. When she first arrives at the casting agency in Hollywood, she pantomimes a number of emotions for the agent, dropping a handkerchief over her face like a curtain between each one. In this moment we understand why Lucille Ball considered her a key influence. Hearst refused to allow Davies to get pied in the face—he considered it beneath her dignity—or perform the more dangerous stunts, but in the few scenes where she gets sprayed in the face, jostled around, and dragged through the dirt, she shows herself to be an enthusiastic sport. She also wasn’t afraid to mock her own real-life image as an actress of high-brow costume dramas. One of the best sequences in the film involves a director desperately trying to get her to cry during a screen test. Despite musicians playing tragic songs, a stagehand cutting onions beneath her, and being told to imagine the Armenian Genocide, she can’t convincingly cry. Instead she twists and morphs her face like a petulant fourth grader sucking a lemon. Even during the less compelling third act where her character loses herself to the proprieties of high art, Davies is delightful to watch. One can’t help but wonder how her career may have gone if she hadn’t been under Heart’s thumb. It’s conceivable that American cinema was cheated of a great comedienne.
But Show People is more than just a starring vehicle for Davies; it’s also a love letter to a Hollywood that was rapidly disappearing thanks to the advent of sound technology. The film is jam-packed with cameos from silent stars. After the premiere of her first movie, Charlie Chaplin asks Davies for her autograph. During a rambunctious studio lunch break, a retired William S. Hart defends Davies from the advances of a particularly bronzed Douglas Fairbanks. Lew Cody pops up, and so does John Gilbert, Norma Talmadge, Karl Dane…the list goes on and on. Vidor himself also has a cameo as the director of a war film—three years earlier his World War One epic The Big Parade had smashed box office records—as does a scene from his 1926 film Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). And in a moment that seems boldly post-modern even by today’s standards, during one sequence Peggy Pepper runs across—gasp!—none other than Marion Davies herself!
The few stars they couldn’t get in front of the camera are broadly parodied. When Davies first visits a Hollywood studio lot, she stumbles through a number of sets, one containing a pool full of Bathing Beauties, another featuring an exasperated woman threatening herself in front of a bored lover who looks suspiciously like Rudolph Valentino. And I may have been hallucinating, but for the life of me, during the scenes where Davies first learns the ropes as a silent comedian, I could swear I saw Harold Lloyd’s bespectacled doppelgänger standing around and getting in everyone’s way.
For the rest of the summer, the Silent Clowns Film Series will be on hiatus as the Bruno Walter Auditorium gets renovated. One can’t help but hope that the renovations will maintain the theater’s unique, comfy charm. But regardless, when they open their doors back up, it will be to a small, devoted legion of fans eager for more great silent comedy. And with Sure-Mike! and Show People, they certainly left us on a high note.