Film Score: Robert Israel (1999) Cinematography: Philip Tannura
Starring: Bessie Love, Johnnie Walker, Lionel Belmore and Ernest Hilliard
The Matinee Idol is an absolutely tremendous silent comedy by Frank Capra. Though not commonly known, the director had solid comedy credentials directing Harry Langdon in several of his best features. Langdon, jealous of auteurs like Keaton and Chaplin, took credit for Capra’s work and fired the director, but where Langdon’s career floundered, Capra’s continued to rise. In fact, this was Capra’s first film under contract where he was given creative control by Colombia to work with his own independent unit. What distinguishes this film from the kind of slapstick that the silent comics produced is that the humor comes out of the situation and is very effective because of it. Though it does have its broad moments, it is a much more cerebral comedy and that is probably why I like it so much. In fact, this is one of my all time favorite comedies from the silent era. The film is based on the story “Come Back to Aaron,” by Robert Lord and Ernest S. Pagano, and is a classic romantic tale of hidden identity of the kind that goes back to Shakespeare and probably even further.
The film begins with a blackface performance, and one wonders if that isn’t due to the influence of The Jazz Singer from the year before. The star of the Broadway show is Johnnie Walker. He’s getting hundreds of letters from women and his producer, Ernest Hilliard, thinks he needs a break so they take a trip to the country. Meanwhile, a road company of players, headed by patriarch Lionel Belmore, is preparing for a local production. Bessie Love is his daughter and when she’s had enough of one of their temperamental actors she fires him. Naturally, the car that Hilliard and Walker are in breaks down in the town where Love and her father are putting on their show. Of course love doesn’t recognize him and Walker winds up accidentally winning the audition to be in the show. Love is very matter of fact in training him and yet he is enchanted by her, especially because she doesn’t know who he is. The show, a Civil War drama, is a mess, but as Hilliard points out from the audience, it’s of the so bad it’s good variety. As a result, Walker’s entourage is laughing hysterically while those around them get annoyed because it’s supposed to be a serious drama. And that includes Love. She says Walker’s a bad actor and fires him.
But Hilliard wants the entire troupe for his Broadway review--as a comedy act--on the condition that Walker stay with them. The blackface, then, becomes an important part of keeping Walker’s true identity from Love. As the star of the show he tries to kiss her and she rebuffs him, but he’s delighted because that means she’s in love with the man he really is, not the star. That is, until the real purpose of bringing the show to Broadway is revealed. The vast majority of Johnnie Walker’s career was spent in silent films, though he did appear in a dozen or so sound films. His work here for Capra is quite good and he is effective both as a leading man and a comic actor. Bessie Love’s career had a very different trajectory. While she did dozens of sound films as well, her career lasted long into the sound era and then made the transition into television working well into her eighties. Lionel Belmore is the other star here, a familiar face to silent film lovers, and an actor who worked extensively in the thirties and forties. David Mir, as the effeminate leading man in the show, has one of the great lines made at his expense when Walker says, “Who is he, Helen of Troy?” Later, at Walker’s costume party he even dresses as a woman. It’s a wonderful role and a fearless acknowledgement of homosexuality that was much more prevalent in the early days of Hollywood than it would be in the golden age.
Because the film had been considered lost for decades there has been very little written about it until recently. In looking back at reviews from the day, however, it was very well received and was given mostly positive notices. A print of the film was discovered at the Cinématheque Francaise in 1996, and there are some obvious missing elements, especially in the two performances by Bessie Love’s troupe both at the beginning and end. The restored film is only slightly over fifty minutes but the copyright length has it a good fifteen minutes longer. Still, what remains is an absolute classic. Frank Capra, unfairly labeled as a purveyor of Americana schmaltz, definitely needs to be considered in his entirety as a director, not only of his silent comedy masterpieces but the early thirties films that tend to be ignored. When looked at as a whole, his oeuvre takes on an entirely new dimension of a director capable of a vast range of works and of supremely confident artistic vision. The Matinee Idol is a revelation, not only about Capra but what silent comedy could be other than slapstick, and it comes with my highest recommendation.