Silent Reflections – Days of Youth (1929) and Matinee Idol (1928)
by HELEN GEIB
Days of Youth is a Japanese silent directed by Yasujiro Ozu. It’s the first film I’ve written about in this series that’s not available on DVD, video, or the occasional TCM screening. It’s surprising none of Ozu’s silents are available when he’s such a widely admired and loved filmmaker. It’s certainly not because the films aren’t worth watching. I’ve seen three of Ozu’s silents in repertory screenings and I wish I could see them all again, and the rest of his extant silent films as well.
The story follows two young men, students at Tokyo University, who are friends and roommates. One of the boys is earnest and rather hapless. The other is carefree and a bit roguish. They procrastinate about studying. They have exams. They fall for the same girl, who turns out to be a flirt. They go on a skiing trip with classmates over term break.
The plot is deliberately simple and low-key, grounded in the incidents of ordinary daily life. The title is apt. Days of Youth is a gentle comedy that is mostly just about being young. There’s no particular aspect or scene that stands out. Its considerable charm lies in the accumulation of small details and consistent sympathetic interest in the boys. It’s a thoroughly nice film. That seems an inadequate descriptor for such a good movie, but as I tried out different adjectives that’s the one I kept returning to. Out of all the good things about the film, the dominant characteristic is likability.
A light comedy directed by Frank Capra, Matinee Idol is worlds removed from the carefully observed naturalism of Days of Youth. It offers instead the pleasures of a superior studio comedy: amusing set-up; brisk pacing; attractive and lively performances; and deft direction. The plot is highly contrived, but the contrivance is all part of the fun.
The heroine (Bessie Love) is the lead actress and general manager of a fourth-rate touring theater company, and daughter of the company’s owner, playwright, and leading character actor. As the film opens they are preparing to put on a show in a small town where they’ve struck their tent (literally – resemblance to a small traveling circus is entirely intentional). The play is a story of the Civil War complete with tearful parting, gallant hero, villainous enemy officer, poignant death scene, and a battle in the snow. The company and the small town audience take this material very seriously indeed, and it is all just as funny as it sounds. And that’s just the opening.
The story mixes romantic comedy, comedy of mistaken identity, comedy of big city versus small town, and comedy of theatrical stereotypes. Aside from the play, which is really very funny, the material is uneven and occasionally ludicrous and in other hands, could easily have fallen flat. As directed by Capra and carried along by Love’s performance it is always enjoyable and at times simultaneously funny and touching in a way that presages Capra’s great films of the ‘thirties.
Edited Dec., 2010 to add: Three Ozu silents are now available from Criterion in a DVD box set called “Silent Ozu-Three Family Comedies.” The set includes Tokyo Chorus, I Was Born, But…, and Passing Fancy, released between 1931 and 1933.