I haven't yet viewed a print of Thomas Meighan's 1919 film 'The Miracle Man' (and I fear that none still exist), but that was reportedly one of his best performances. Here, in 'The Confidence Man', Meighan plays a role nearly identical to the one he apparently played in that earlier film -- a confidence trickster who gains a conscience and gets reformed -- but his performance here is so stolid and leaden that I've difficulty believing he was much better in the earlier film. If he was, it must have been down to the director's skill. 'The Confidence Man' is directed by Victor Heerman, a mere workman who remains semi-famous merely because he directed the Marx Brothers in their great 'Animal Crackers'.
'The Confidence Man' also somewhat resembles the 1950s film 'The Music Man' ... and, again, suffers by comparison. Here we have virginal Virginia Valli as the small-town gal involved in charity work. She and Meighan "meet cute" when she tries to sell him a necktie for some charity cause. She's got a whole wicker creel full of cravats. In this scene, Meighan is wearing a polka-dot bow-tie and he doesn't much seem interested in neckties, while Valli is wearing some weird sort of Windsor tie.
As the title tipped us off, Meighan has come to town to unload some worthless oil stock. (Is he planning to water the stock, or water the oil?) In 'The Miracle Man' his con involved a local patriarch; this time round it involves a local matriarch. Margaret Seddon is a resident of the local old-ladies' home, and she seems to see virtues in Meighan that nobody else can spot. Of course, it's not long before Meighan's confidence trickster starts feeling guilty about what he's planning to do. Actress Seddon is deeply impressive in her character's death scene.
In his big scene, Meighan squares off against himself in a looking-glass. "You hypocrite! You cur!" he snarls into the intertitles, and then he punches his reflection in the face, shattering the mirror. (His reflection has a glass jaw.) It shows what a weak actor Meighan is, that he's out-acted by his own reflection. Now that he's done some moral reflecting, the rest of this movie is purely Script-o-Matic. The similarities between this film and 'The Miracle Man' (judging from its 1930s remake, which I HAVE seen) are so similar, I shouldn't wonder if Meighan made 'The Confidence Man' as a deliberate attempt to recapture the success of his earlier film.
Charles Dow Clark is splendid as local miser Godfrey, the target of Meighan's scam ... although Clark's role is badly written and implausible. (How many naive misers actually exist in real life?) Laurence Wheat, as Meighan's comical henchman, is even more impressive than Clark: wearing some very un-subtle outfits, Wheat gets laughs (from me, at least) with extremely subtle facial business. I'll rate this film 6 out of 10, although during much of the plot I knew exactly what was going to happen ... and then it did, bang on schedule.
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