Restoration of Frank Capra’s The Matinee Idol

While at Sony, I worked on the Documentary Frank Capra’s American Dream as Video Engineer/Video Controller on the camera crew. Today this would be a Digital Imaging Technician. I also worked on the post production of the documentary which was done on Digital HDTV using Sony’s HDVS system. Below is the opening of the documentary hosted by Ron Howard and includes interviews with Allen Daviau ASC, John Milius, and Martin Scorsese.

I was both Finishing Editor and Engineer on the restoration of The Matinee Idol. The restoration was done digitally with output to film via electron beam recorder and was the first use digital technology for film restoration. This project was in conjunction with the Cinematheque Francaise and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I was very excited to meet and speak with then Academy President Arthur Hiller about the Academy’s plans for digital technology.

“The Matinee Idol” A Miracle of Digital Restoration

The following is a review of the 1-10-97 screening of “The Matinee Idol,” at the Academy Foundation in Los Angeles.

How many films from the silent era have we seen that are in desperate need of restoration? While the deterioration on some can be corrected, like a faded print or a re-tinting of a night scene, some destruction cannot be fixed, like nitrate erosion, missing film emulsion and a badly scratched print – until now!

Due the painstaking efforts of scores of dedicated preservationists and talented technicians, the new age of preservation through digital restoration is upon us. This process is an expensive one, like all film restoration projects, but the ramifications in the field of preservation are staggering with this advanced technology. Film, video and audio soundtracks have been digitally restored before.

What makes the restoration of “The Matinee Idol” (Columbia, 1928) so special is that it is the first live action film in cinema history to actually be repaired using the digital process. This is a very complex process that requires the matching of details in scenes to make up for the loss of picture quality and severe deterioration in other scenes. Through this process the prints are also cleaned up of deep scratches and visible wear lines along the sides of the film that were deeply ingrained for decades.

A brief history of the rediscovery of “The Matinee Idol”

This film was thought to be one of the four lost Capra silent films from 1928. It was discovered within the last few years in vaults of the Cinematheque Francaise. The first screening of this film in 70 years was presented in Italy, at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, where an unrestored version was screened. In October of 1996, it was screened again in its unrestored state at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York. On January 10, 1997, a complete, digital restoration was screened at the Academy Foundation, in Los Angeles, to an enthusiastic full house. The audience was treated to a “before and after” presentation of film footage before restoration, which was scarred, pitted and, worst of all, actual lost emulsion from the film itself (scattered missing images from each damaged frame where this occurred). The “after” results indicated a clarity of repair that was stunning.

We would like to think that this occurred by magic, but in reality this was the culmination and collaboration of many people and many hundreds of hours, including Cinematheque Francaise, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sony Pictures Entertainment; Immagine Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy and Cinetech in Burbank, CA (for motion picture laboratory services); with digital restoration work accomplished at the Sony Pictures High Definition Center in Culver City, CA – it is the priority and the promise of Sony Pictures Entertainment to restore the entire catalog of films in their studio archives – this is a noble goal and trend for any commercial film archive to adopt!

The special screening of “The Matinee Idol” is also the celebration and recognition of the dedicated service by director Frank Capra as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, from 1935 to 1941. He literally revived the fortunes and power of this organization to a status of productivity and strength of membership. It is also Mr. Capra’s centennial birthday in 1997. This will be the first of many world celebrations honoring this giant of the film industry.

Why “The Matinee Idol?”
Well, why not? “The Matinee Idol” is a valid, puzzle piece of cinema history. This film is another entry in the body of work of Frank Capra’s career, and it is also a rediscovered film thought to be lost forever. These are compelling enough reasons for this film to be selected as the first achievement for this new process. This Columbia Studios film stars Bessie Love, Johnnie Walker, Lionel Belmore, Ernest Hilliard, Sidney D’Albrook, David Mir and Sidney Bracey.

The 60 minute story revolves around a spunky leading lady, who happens to be the director and promoter of a second-rate acting troupe (Bessie Love), and a well known Vaudeville star (Johnnie Walker), who disguises the fact he is famous and joins the troupe to win her heart. This is a sweet little comedy with definite Capra touches (“Capracorn,” he liked to call it), like the serious emotions that are just beneath the surface of playful comedy. The performances were bright and amusing, especially that of Bessie Love as the seasoned director/trouper keeping her flailing flock of actors in line. She was also responsible, along with veteran character actor Lionel Belmore, who played her father, for providing touching pathos in the Capra style. Especially moving were their agonized reactions when the audience greeted their “serious” production with unrestrained laughter.

The dream of the 21st century for the film preservationist is for the technology of restoration to be so advanced that we could take a surviving fragment, a few stills and an existing script of a lost film and reconstruct it in its entirety. Magic? No. Technological progress and dedication – yes!

Copyright (c) 1997, Diane MacIntyre. All Rights Reserved.

This review was taken from the “Silents Majority” Preservation Cornerstone Page, at: