Turner Classic Movies (TCM) celebrates Frank Capra's birth date today with a run of eight of his early films, dated 1929-1931, airing between 6:30 am and 8 pm.
Many younger viewers and surely many new ones to come find themselves lured into the world of classic movies by one or another of Capra's more famous titles such as "It Happened One Night" (1934), "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), "Meet John Doe" (1941), and especially Christmas time classic "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).
TCM airs none of the above titles today.
Instead the run-down is filled with little seen Capra pictures pre-dating all of those better known classics. The run begins at 6:30 am with "Flight" (1929) and continues with: "Ladies of Leisure" (1930), "Rain of Shine" (1930), "Dirigible" (1931), "Platinum Blonde" (1931), "The Miracle Woman" (1931), "American Madness" (1932), and "Forbidden" (1931).
A more detailed run-down of the entire Capra schedule, as well as the Myrna Loy movies airing on TCM later tonight, can be found on the Carole & Co. site.
And while "It's a Wonderful Life" may be out of season both "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and Best Picture winner "You Can't Take It With You" (1920) air this Wednesday on Jimmy Stewart's birthday.
To celebrate Capra's birthday in this column I went back even a little further than TCM does today and viewed one of his silent films, "The Matinee Idol" (1928) featuring Johnnie Walker and Bessie Love.
Formerly a lost film, rediscovered in a vault at the Cinémathèque Française and restored in 1997, "The Matinee Idol" runs 56 minutes and to my pleasant surprise was a funny little story which builds into a tearjerker for a few moments before stretching the ending a little in order to end on an up note.
While Capra doesn't go as far in uniting the little guy against a common wealthy oppressor as he does in many of those better known pictures, he does set the classes against each other in "The Matinee Idol" by exposing a little local acting troupe to the Broadway stage and it's well-heeled crowd.
Where in those later Capra films the common man would unite to overcome his, or their, or very often our, foes, "The Matinee Idol" only goes only so far as to crush their spirit in the sake of laughs on the Great White Way.
Don Wilson (Johnnie Walker) is the most successful black face actor around, but coerced into a break by pal Arnold Wingate (Ernest Hilliard) and some other theatre folk. They head out to the country to get Don some rest, but their car breaks down just outside where the "Bolivar Players" are performing.
Patriarch Jasper Bolivar (Lionel Belmore) still talks of having played with Booth in the old days, but now he directs a ragtag group of actors headed by his spunky daughter, Ginger (Bessie Love). When Ginger fires an actor just prior to a performance she's forced to recruit a replacement out behind the tent. Down the line she goes rejecting a stutterer, a card sharp, and a prankster before Wilson happens by and is mistaken as one the hopefuls.
He recites his line most enthusiastically ("I love you") and lands the part. Giving his name as Harry Mann, Wilson rehearses his scene with Ginger just before they go on. All he's to do is collapse dying in her arms, say "I love you," then there's a kiss and he dies. Wilson/Mann immediately falls for the girl.
The Bolivars play out a grand Civil War melodrama which the packed house receives as though it were a D.W. Griffith picture. But Wingate and his cronies are seated front and center and overcome by the hilarity of the performance--a gate swings open to reveal Wilson moving props backstage, there's dysfunctional snow, Ginger's skirts flying up at awkward moments, and silliest of all to them, the general "acting" of the Bolivar Players.
We all have our cult favorites today; those films intended to be completely serious but are so unintentionally hilarious that we still gather friends around to take mutual joy in watching the train wreck. That's what Broadway thinks it's found with the Bolivar Players.
The Bolivars hit Broadway but come the night of their premier Harry Mann is nowhere to be found. As Don Wilson he's just completed his headlining black face act and volunteers to be "Mann's" replacement. The Bolivars have no choice but to accept.
As the scene of the Bolivars Broadway performance nears and plays out Don Wilson begins to realize the same thing that's slowly been creeping up on the viewing audience, what a terrible trick he and his cronies are really playing on the innocent amateur performers.
As this emotion builds Capra flushes it fully out by planting Jasper Bolivar amongst the crowd where he proudly proclaims authorship to those sitting around him. As the show begins and plays for laughs we watch Jasper humiliated, breaking into tears before slinking away.
The black face actually plays a critical role in the story keeping Wilson and Mann two separate characters to Ginger and the rest of the Bolivars and later ratcheting up the intensity as Capra leads to reveal Wilson/Mann as one and the same when he comforts humiliated Ginger in a rain storm.
Bessie Love really impressed me as Ginger, full of so much bluster and emotion off-stage but then turning it all up a few more notches when overacting her lead role with the Bolivars. Broadway's poor treatment eventually breaks her down, but we see her do her best to pull herself together for the benefit of her father.
Walker had his own charm as the cocky star fallen in love with the common girl. The script may have forced him to carry a mean-spirited joke too far, but when his character began to see that he did a fine job in portraying first his reluctance and then regret.
"The Matinee Idol" quickly ties a happy ending together before fading out, but it's not abrupt enough to ruin an otherwise enjoyable experience. The comedy in "The Matinee Idol" is escalated until the previously boorish Jasper is seated to watch his show. Capra turns our sympathies over completely to the Bolivars by the time they become the theatergoers punchline. By this point you're left to wonder if you're not as bad as the Broadway bigwigs for having laughed at them in the first place.
Featured collectibles: I couldn't come up with any cards or collectibles featuring Capra himself, but the image of him at the top is a circa 1943 public domain photo of him cutting film while a Signal Corps Reserve major in World War II. Bessie Love is shown in color on an unattributed British tobacco card issued about 1922. Johnnie Walker is shown on card #74 in the classic 1922 set of cards from American Caramel. Love is likely still a teen-ager on the black & white card featuring her, a card from one of the Kromo Gravure boxed sets issued out of Detroit in the late 1910's.