Long considered to be a lost film, a badly damaged print of Frank Capra's silent comedy THE MATINEE IDOL was discovered in a vault in the Cinematheque Francaise, and after extensive digital restoration at Sony's High Definition facility, was rereleased in 1997, proving to be a delightful
example of the great director's early work.
Broadway star Don Wilson (Johnnie Walker), known as the "King of the Blackface Comedians," goes to upstate New York to relax for the weekend with his producer Arnold Wingate (Ernest Hilliard). When their car breaks down, they attend a Civil War melodrama put on by an amateur theatrical troupe
called the Bolivar Players. As a gag, Don auditions with the show's star Ginger Bolivar (Bessie Love), who's the daughter of the writer-producer-director Col. Jasper Bolivar (Lionel Belmore), but he doesn't tell Ginger who he really is, and says that his name is "Harry Mann." When Wingate sees how
unintentionally funny the play is, he brings it to Broadway as a joke to be a part of Don's revue show. In New York, Don finds himself falling for Ginger and courts her while in blackface, but discovers that she prefers "Harry," so he also continues to pretend to be him, and never reveals his true
On the night that the Bolivar Players are to make their debut, Don begins to feel guilty about humiliating Ginger and her father, and he pretends that "Harry" has disappeared, but at Wingate's insistence, he plays his part in the show as the blackfaced Don. When the audience howls with laughter,
the crushed Ginger runs out of the theater into the pouring rain. Don follows her outside, where the rain washes away his blackface makeup. Ginger is livid after realizing he's deceived her, and she goes back upstate with the rest of the troupe. Shortly thereafter, Don follows her and auditions to
be in her new show; she forgives him and they embrace at the fade-out.
Made in just six weeks (two to write, two to shoot, and two to edit), THE MATINEE IDOL is yet further proof of Capra's early expertise in all forms of comedy, including straight farce and slapstick, as well as his developing technique of mixing humor and romance. The scene where Ginger mistakenly
believes that Don is auditioning to be in her show is a classic mistaken-identity meet-cute, as she goes down a line of men and has them all say the line "I love you ," only Don doesn't realize why she's asking him to say it. The two productions of the Civil War show are hysterically funny, filled
with hilariously melodramatic dialogue and wild overacting, but Capra sets up the emotional response to the second one superbly (when they're on Broadway) so that we feel sorry for Ginger and her father when the audience laughs at how bad they are.
Although politically correct modern audiences may wince at Don's frequent blackface scenes, his character is an accurate depiction of a vaudevillian theatrical tradition, and Johnnie Walker gives a fine performance. The rest of the cast is also very amusing, particularly the various members of the
Bolivar Players, including the cute and perky Bessie Love as Ginger, Lionel Belmore as the pompous Col. Bolivar, and David Mir as the blatantly gay Eric Barrymaine, (who, with his outrageous appearance and demeanor, could easily be the great-grandfather of Christopher Guest's character in the
thematically similar WAITING FOR GUFFMAN). Like many of Capra's early films, it's not nearly as sentimental as his later work would become, although the scene where Don's makeup washes off and a tearful Ginger discovers his identity, is a beautifully staged example of one of Capra's trademark
emotional scenes in the rain, which would occur over and over again in his films, most notably MEET JOHN DOE (1941) and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946).
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Long considered to be a lost film, a badly damaged print of Frank Capra's silent comedy THE MATINEE IDOL was discovered in a vault in the Cinematheque Francaise, and after extensive digital restoration at Sony's High Definition facility, was rereleased in… (more)