Friday 1 January 2010

The Matinee Idol (1928)

Director: Frank R Capra
Stars: Bessie Love and Johnnie Walker
Here's another early Frank Capra picture, his seventh and the earliest I've seen thus far as I haven't found any of his Harry Langdon pictures yet. It was made in 1928 and it stars Bessie Love, one of the most adorable and expressive actresses of the silent and early sound eras, who was Oscar nominated in The Broadway Melody and who stole the show in Chasing Rainbows. I plan to rewatch the original 1925 version of The Lost World to get a better impression of her now that I know who she is. At this point in time I'd eagerly watch her in anything and this short comedy of errors is a decent vehicle for her. She demonstrates wild hackery and outrageous slapstick, along with quiet humour and subtle emotion, all within a wild ride of less than an hour. This is a restoration of a film previously believed lost and about five minutes are still missing, leaving it 57 minutes short.

She's Ginger Bolivar and she runs a travelling theatrical troupe called the Bolivar Players, even though her dad Jasper thinks he does. He merely owns it and makes something of an effort to produce its productions, while she does everything important, from pasting up posters to playing the leading lady and everything in between. She even does the hiring and firing, often at the last minute out behind the show tent, and that's how she comes to pick up Don Wilson by accident. He's one of the biggest Broadway stars of the day, though she doesn't recognise him outside of his customary blackface, and he only gets caught up in her net because he's broken down out in the sticks and is trying to find his garage man to fix his car.

Wilson is played by Johnnie Walker, Columbia's answer to Al Jolson but who appears more like a silent cross between Michael Keaton and Nick Cave. We have no idea how well he sings given that this is an example of the most bizarre film genre ever, the silent musical, but apparently he's pretty good at it. Certainly he didn't last once sound arrived, only managing two uncredited appearances later than 1931 after an important silent career. Here there's no sound so Don Wilson is talented enough to have become the matinee idol of the title, receiving five hundred letters a day, all from women. To Ginger, of course, he's merely some local hack called Harry Mann who almost ruins her show, so she promptly fires him. As he's already fallen for her, he conjures up a scheme by which he can pursue her, persuading his producer Arnold Wingate to sign up the Bolivar Players for his theatre, just so long as she keeps the cast intact.

Of course we have two utterly incompatible approaches here. Wingate only picks up this troupe for the comedy value, effectively putting on the 1928 Broadway stage the theatrical equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space but without letting the Bolivars in on the joke. Meanwhile Wilson, whose idea it was to begin with, realises on opening night that 'breaking her heart to get a few laughs isn't funny'. It comes close to that too, the results being hilariously funny and heartwrenchingly sad all at once. Bessie Love is amazing here, as both a dramatic actress and a comedienne, even if we can't hear her voice. What are you fools laughing at?' she cries at the end of her troupe's disastrous Broadway appearance. 'This isn't comedy.'

Actually it's that and much more but mostly because of her. Johnnie Walker is decent but nothing special and other supporting actors are likewise, very much hamming up their stereotypes for the camera. As a Frank Capra film it really doesn't suggest much, as indeed the next few films of his that I've seen don't suggest much either. After The Matinee Idol came six other films that I haven't seen from 1928, then the disappointing The Younger Generation. With one more gap for a 1929 film I haven't seen, it's on to the dire Flight, the average Ladies of Leisure (with Walker in a smaller role) and the not much better Rain or Shine, which is presaged here by the Bolivar Players putting up posters for their version of it. Only by 1931 does Capra seem to have picked up the pace with Dirigible, The Miracle Woman and Platinum Blonde pointing the way to a seriously bright future to come.

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