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The famous matinee idol and blackface comedian, Don Wilson, heads out of town to escape adulation. There, calling himself Harry Mann, he accidentally joins a traveling acting troupe, and falls in love with Ginger Bolivar, who runs the troupe and stars in their Civil War melodrama. Don's producer sees the play, and thinks it's a comic masterpiece, and just what Don's Broadway show needs. But when Ginger finds out she's been played for a fool, will she forgive Don? Written by
Broadway "black-face" star Johnnie Walker (as Don Wilson) leaves the hustle-bustle of the "Great White Way" for a vacation in the country. On a lark, he decides to join a local acting troupe (calling himself "Harry Mann"), and have some fun with the players - especially beautiful Bessie Love (as Ginger Bolivar). Ms. Love is the repertory company's leading lady, and daughter of producer/director Colonel Lionel Belmore (as Jasper Bolivar). Love also handles human resources, and hires Walker to perform with the group.
Walker's first part is in a Civil War drama, which plays so badly the audience erupts in hoots of laughter. Although they looked to be fully capable of bombing on their own, Love blames Walker for the flop, and fires him. But, Walker's erstwhile producer, Ernest Hilliard (as Arnold Wingate), thought the play was a hilarious comedy, and wants to hire the players for a Broadway show - with Walker, of course. Love, still believing in her dramatic hit potential, hires Walker back. And so, the stage is set for romance and deception
That this long lost Frank Capra-directed film was found, and restored, is a cause for celebration - but, don't expect anything remotely approaching "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). It's about as good as a television sitcom (and, many used this plot). The "black-face" routine (which would have helped this film remain unseen during the time it was lost) is of the inoffensive Al Jolson sort. Admittedly, this is an arguable point - but, you can see the difference in this film - it's caricature (compare Walker's with David Mir's portrayal).
Walker (fresh from Capra's "So This Is Love?") and Love (on her way to "The Broadway Melody") are a charming couple. Capra directs with a flair exceeding what was expected at the time. The restoration of "The Matinée Idol" was extraordinary, and the movie looks great. Reportedly, some of the film deterioration was so bad, the restorers used original production stills to digitally restore background detail. The results are amazing, and bode well for the future of film preservation. Hopefully, there will be many more discoveries.
***** The Matinée Idol (3/14/28) Frank Capra ~ Johnnie Walker, Bessie Love, Lionel Belmore, Ernest Hilliard
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