Thursday, 22 October 2015

Crafted Capra with a cringe… The Matinee Idol (1928) Cyrus Gabrysch, John Sweeney, Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

Of all the changed attitudes over the last century, the issue of race is probably one of the hardest to contextualise. Here Johnnie Walker plays a successful black-face entertainer in the manner of Al Jolson and it’s undeniably awkward for the modern viewer... I mean; why?!

We can't just ignore it but for audiences in 1928 minstrels were common-place and symptomatic of an unequal society were racial stereotyping was seen as legitimate entertainment… The fact that British TV still had the Black and White Minstrel Show in the seventies is even more shocking. We’ve moved on and culturally the cringes of the past must remind us of the need to keep moving further and to be mindful…

Ginger meets the face-paint in front of the man...
This film was lost until the nineties and gives an opportunity to see sweet Bessie Love in proper action. Miss Love never quite hit the top tier in Hollywood even though she featured in Intolerance and numerous features through to the talkies and was acting even in the eighties with appearances in Reds and The Hunger. She moved to Britain were she encouraged a young film fan name of Kevin Brownlow, whom she was later able to introduce to so many of her contemporaries for the interviews that became The Parade’s Gone By and, the renaissance is history…

So, not just a very pretty face… and what’s more on this evidence she was a fine comic actor.

It’s an early Frank Capra film and whilst it would be a stretch to identify any kind of “touch” of the Capra kind from the future director of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, It’s a Wonderful Life et al, it is a focused effort telling a slight story very well.

Johnnie Walker (last seen in Bare Knees) play Don Wilson the Jolson-type who sings comic songs made up as a minstrel. He’s a big hit on Broadway and so he and the boys decide to hit the backroads for a few days. Their car breaks down and spotting a pop-up theatre advertising the Bolivar Players, they boys head off for a laugh at the locals’ expense leaving Don to find a mechanic…

Don passes the audition...
It just so happens that the company’s lead, Ginger Bolivar (Bessie Love) has just fired one of the performers and is auditioning for a replacement with the same relish a witness surveys an identity parade… She asks the men to say “I love you” and is greeted by a line-up of the inept until, that is, the last man, the one who was really only looking for a garage.

Don is duly hired under the name Harry Mann and proceeds to add humorous spice the company, turning the words of Jasper Bolivar (Lionel Belmore) from Civil War tragedy into comedy.

Out in the audience sits Don’s manager Arnold Wingate (Ernest Hilliard) who find’s Don’s interjection as hilarious as the audience. He invites the Bolivar’s to play on their revue and Don plays along. Already attracted to the feisty, loyal and lovely Ginger, he begins to have his doubts and as he hides his identity in black face he wonders if breaking her heart is the best way of getting a laugh.

They say the tights are always bright on Broadway...
The Matinee Idol was thought lost until the 1990s, shows Capra developing away from his background as gag man for Harry Langdon and forging his own style. It’s a very symmetrical film albeit with the cultural cringe of comedy homosexuals and those awful faces in black paint.

Cyrus played along and moved seamlessly from Dixieland to Yankee Doodles: comedy and romance in balance.

On the undercard were three films new to me: I do love these Bioscope surprises!

Charles not being peaceful!
First up was a quite startlingly-brutal British film from 1905, The Life of Charles Peace which told the quite extraordinary tale of a notorious felon who blagged and murdered his way to ill-gotten riches until finally stopped by the Police. The sets were painted canvas but the stunts and fights were all too real… the scarcely-serene Mr Peace was like the Krays and the Richardsons combined exercising a pull on the contemporary imagination – the man who takes what he wants and doesn’t follow decency or the law – myth amongst the mayhem.

Truth was even more extraordinary than fiction and it’s worth perusing Mr Peace’s wiki…

Walter Forde
This was followed by Walter the Sleuth (1926) a film from Walter Forde, Britain’s premier silent comic who ended up a director in the thirties and forties, producing both versions of The Ghost Train including, of course the one with Stinker Murdoch and  Big Hearted Arthur Askey – “I thank you!” (bingo!!)

Lillian Henley provided accompaniment to this meandering romp through South West London – Richmond anyone? Forde played a clownish fisherman who has to act as the fiancée of a Surrey IT-Girl (Pauline Peters) who, supported by a very distracting group of Bright Young Flappers, is trying to avoid the intentions of an older man who, it turns out, is after the family jewels. Ford has to act as a detective and, as it turns out, well… you know the rest.

Gypsies in the city
The third film was the most startling and was Grossstadt-Zigeuner a 1932 documentary directed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy on Hungarian gypsies in Berlin which saw John Sweeney really take flight on the piano pounding out spirited gypsy patterns that would have had Brahms dancing by the fireside in his beloved Zum Roten Igel*!

This is the closest I’ve personally been to cutting a rug at the Bioscope!

*The ‘Red Hedgehog Tavern’ – where Brahms went to hear gypsy musicians play in Vienna. If you want more "gypsy" I would recommend a very talented group called ZRI who play an unique mix of classical and Romany... they will move you!

Now a couple of days break before the Cinema Museum is officially confirmed as the funniest building in South London with the Bioscope Silent Laughter Saturday. A few tickets are still left if you hurry! I can't imagine any of us will want to miss this!

No comments:

Post a Comment