washing away the mask
by Douglas Messerli
Elmer Harris (screenplay, adapted from a work by Robert Lord and Ernest S. Pagano; with continuity by Peter Milne), Frank Capra (director) The Matinee Idol / 1928, restored 1997
Frank Capra’s silent film of 1928, The Matinee Idol, was long thought to be lost, and was only rediscovered by accident when Cinémathèque Française in the late 1990s was given a gift of old films kept in a weed-covered out-building. The was restored in 1997 and is now housed by the Cinémathèque Française and Cineteca di Bologna. A DVD of the restoration is now available from Columbia Pictures.
This film is interesting in how it reveals Capra’s early development, in particular his sense of the injustices against the “common man,” as he would describe it, even if his vision of everyday American life is perhaps based on a mythologized vision that parallels other such celebrations of common day life by sentimentalists such as Norman Rockwell and populist writers.
Ginger’s theatrical presentation is an immense hit in the provincial town in which she and her father, the writer of the play Jasper Bolivar (Lionel Belmore), reside, where the “lower class” hicks appear to take history—even punctuated as it is in the Bolivar company production with melodramatic flourishes and theatrical mishaps—far more seriously and treat the storytellers/actors with greater reverence than the New York audiences who simply laugh at and deride their art because of its honest primitiveness.
Cruelly, the visitors together determine to take the whole company to New York to perform in Wilson’s play as a comic routine—without revealing to the actors, of course, their true intentions. Although Wilson is fired after his performance, in part for contributing to the comic elements of the production by his seeming ineptitude and his repetition of the words “I love you” so that he might be kissed by the pretty local girl again and again, his cronies deviously demand that the entire cast be retained, forcing the actor to play two roles, the New York blackface artist and the happenstance actor who has given Ginger the name of Harry Mann.
Although we certainly recognize this
film’s use of blackface as yet another example of early 20th century US racism,
because this is a silent film we do not have to encounter the vocal imitation
of a white man pretending to intone the dialect and linguistic choices of a
black man nor listen to any racial comments made on the side to his audiences.
Basically, the blackface is used in this film
Nonetheless, his peers who describe him as a great actor do not even seem to notice any oddities about his behavior, and are stymied when Harry/Don disparagingly asks about him, “Who is that, Helen of Troy?”
As Richard Barrios has written about this fascinating figure in his book Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall:
“Whatever his personal life or theatrical gifts (his bows look more like curtsies), outsiders. ...Later, when he first sets foot in a Broadway theater, a burly stagehand immediately gets the message, suddenly mincing, batting his eyes, waving one hand flittingly, and calling out, ‘Whoops, dearie!’ Eric, who doesn’t understand this mockery, seems hurt and confused—Capra seems to imply that the man is still a stranger to his own sexuality, or at least to the stereotypes he seems to evoke.”
Reminding ourselves that this film was almost lost, we might well wonder, as Barrios suggests, how many other films of the period, lost or forgotten, took such far different attitudes toward queer behavior. Given the late date of its rediscovery, Vito Russo could not have known of this movie, and he makes no mention of either Chasing Rainbows or Myrt and Marge in his The Celluloid Closet; yet these films demonstrate that at least on a few occasions, but perhaps far more than we still recognize, LGBTQ figures were not simply derided, dismissed, or killed off in the movies in which they appeared, but were loved and embraced by the smaller societies in which they thrived. It is precisely this “other” view of homosexuality and simply the vast numbers of gay characters presented on film, negatively and positively portrayed, that led me to explore this terrain in such a maniacal manner. No matter what one thought of homosexuality and other disparate sexualities, they mattered enough to catch and present their images over and over on celluloid. And the very codes created to obliterate their existence only appeared to encourage directors and writers to find news ways of demonstrating their power in a society that generally did not wish to be reminded of their existence.
Los Angeles, November 26, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).