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Monday, April 24, 2017

A Capra Back From Oblivion


The Matinee Idol (1928) Is A Happy Silent Save


Frank Capra with players Bessie Love and Johnnie Walker
An early Frank Capra that turned up after years lost, The Matinee Idol makes a nice pair with John Ford's also lately-rediscovered Upstage, both dealing with lives among small-time theatrical folk. This was pursuit any director knew well, for even if Capra or Ford never trod boards themselves, they were constantly in contact and association with those who had. Much affectionate humor came of treating a way of stage life that was fading even before talkers got hold, theatrical boarding houses and traveling stock companies soon to be but memories. Wherever old melodramas were recreated, as in The Matinee Idol, there'd be thick slicing of ham, as though movies had gotten us all past that, and who needed it now except to raise chuckles and maybe a nostalgic tear. Within mere handful of years, silent films would be treated a same way, quaint antiquity we had outgrown and so better off for it.


Capra makes his traveling troupe a likeable lot, oblivious to fact theirs is an obsolete art, and easily exploited by passing-through Broadway sharpies that would see them laughed at by city dwellers. The Capra team keeps humor visual, his teachings from Sennett and earlier Roach standing the young director in good stead. Capra was well fitted to gags laced with romance and heart tug, the three playing harmony in The Matinee Idol. Finding this long-lost one raises Capra stock beyond high place it already was. Would have been nice, in fact, for the silent era to last a few more seasons so he could do more modest but effective comedies like this. Bessie Love as actress on a sawdust stage was not unlike parts she'd take when talk came in. Maybe it was her being so utterly right for these that made The Broadway Melody, The Girl In The Show, and Chasing Rainbows come in quick succession for this actress during 1929. The Matinee Idol works also as combo to Buster Keaton's Spite Marriage, both ribbing Civil War mellers done at yokel level. There surely were oodles of such plays, considering how often movies spoofed them.

6 Comments:

Blogger Dave K said...

LOVE THIS MOVIE! First saw it a while back on TCM (quite a while back, now that I think about it.) Your observation on the parallels of the passing of local repertory companies followed by silent films is pretty sharp. You might also note the hero in the movie is a black-face star, obviously another entertainment tradition headed toward obsolescence, even if folks didn't realize it at the time.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Have not seen this. Years ago I had an 8mm print of Frank Capra's THE CERTAIN THING (1928). I loved programming it even though I had to project it in 8mm. Audiences loved it. I grabbed the dvd thinking it would be a legitimate and better copy but it was neither having been produced from that 8mm print. When Columbia Pictures announced it was releasing early Capra I hope THAT CERTAIN THING and his other silents would be forthcoming. They weren't. Too bad. Now I have to see this. Thanks.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

For me -- and I suspect many modern audiences -- the blackface angle is puzzling. The star is celebrated ladies' man out of makeup, and his supposedly black onstage character does things no actual black actor would have been allowed.

Maybe it's something related to image of white minstrel performers. I have a fun book, "Town Hall Tonight" by Harlowe R. Hoyt, that recounts the theatrical events that played in his family's small-town hall at the turn of the century. He reports that a minstrel troupe would stage a parade through town upon arrival, then splinter in notorious and usually successful pursuit of local girls. The ones unlucky with ladies would burn corks to be used for blacking up that night.

Unless there was a specific star (or stars) Capra used as a model, perhaps the old reputation lingered enough that "The Matinee Idol" could present an upscale blackface comedian with audiences recognizing something familiar.

4:39 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...


Gents, there were still a number of stars working in blackface in the late 1920's, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and George Jessel to name a few, and minstrel shows were still popular touring through the South and Midwest rural areas, Emmett Miller was at his peak of stardom in the late 1920's early 30's, and in the South, it continued into the 1950's and beyond, the people who appear in the 1951 Lippert musical YES SIR MR. BONES were not old relics, they were still working performers.
I've found Cotton Watts still playing supper clubs in the South in the 1960's, billing himself as "America's number one blackface comedian", though I think or hope he may have had the field to himself by then.

Remember, in Britain, the BBC's BLACK AND WHITE MINSTREL SHOW went off the air in 1978.

RICHARD M ROBERTS

11:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald, I just want to sat Thanks to you for steering me to this wonderful book, "Town Hall Tonight" by Harlowe R. Hoyt. I ordered a used copy from Amazon, and it arrived today. Looks wonderful, with many and pleasing illustrations. This will be some great reading, and I would have known nothing about it had you not made the intro. Much appreciated!

3:28 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Mr. McE: After all the great reading and screen saver images I've found here, not to mention the two books you wrote, glad I could incrementally return the favor.

12:25 AM  

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