Matinee idols: a role for men – but is it worth it?

CARRYING ON WITH the Hollywood theme from last week (‘Sir’ Douglas Fairbanks Jr), in case you didn’t know, the term ‘matinee idol’ is always connected with male actors. Quite conceivably the term could also apply to an actress – but it does not. This may (and probably does) upset feminists, but in saying that, it’s not really a term used to describe movie stars today.  But why does (did) it only relate to men?


Douglas Fairbanks Jr – matinee idol

Well, back in the good old ‘hey-days’ of Hollywood of the 1920s-50s, the majority of ‘middle class’ women  were homemakers who had more time on their hands than men to go out during the day to the cinema (I know that’s not the case today so don’t shout at me, I’m just reporting on the origin!).   Accordingly, midweek matinee audiences tended to be 90% female – simply because men were at work and children at school.  As a result, movie producers and theatre owners used them to measure an actor’s popularity.  The actors, in this case, were obviously men. When an actor proved that he could draw a large crowd of women he was considered a matinee idol.  This was because – and I say, rightly or wrongly – in those days, the practice was based on the assumption that women were interested in only one thing – men.


Don’t ‘shoot the messenger’ – this information is taken from a book I read by Warren G. Harris.  However, what I have read about matinee idols, the assumption works both ways.

I can tell you from experience that matinee idols do not exist today. A few years ago I was up at Oxford when the film Troy was first released. This will be popular I thought, so the day before my viewing I went into the cinema and bought a  ticket for the following afternoon – being a student I had an afternoon free. Well, when I went along the next afternoon the cinema was completely empty – I had it entirely to myself!  Sorry Brad Pitt, you are not a matinee idol.

Anyway, I digress.  So ‘matinee idol’ came to signify an actor with exceptional sex appeal.  For that he had to be handsome, romantic and, as Harris added, “not a boy, but not too blemished by age either.”

man 4

“Hi, I’m a film star”

Now, as a 1920s-50s matinee idol you might think you had it made in Hollywood.  Yes and no. A number of such idols did not make old age. This was usually due to alcohol or drug abuse, or overdoing in other ways leading to heart failure of some sort.  For example, Gig Young (64 -alcohol/suicide (64 ain’t old!)), William Holden (63 – alcohol/accident ), Douglas Fairbanks Sr (56 – heart attack), Gene Lyons (53 – alcohol),  Alan Ladd (50 – drugs and alcohol), Errol Flynn (50 – heart attack/alcohol), Montgomery Clift (45 – drugs), Tyrone Power (44 – heart attack), John Gilbert (38 – heart attack/alcohol),  Robert Walker (32 – drugs), Wallace Reid (31  – drugs).

montgomery-clift2      Tyrone_Power_-_still

Montgomery Clift                                                     Tyrone Power 

It’s a bit pointless having all that fame and money only to die prematurely (although Errol Flynn was practically penniless when he died).  Mind you, I suppose you are remembered for your good looks.


Errol Flynn died penniless just as he was forced to negotiate the lease to another of his beloved yacht Zaca in 1959

Gary Cooper made it to 60 before dying of cancer 1961, but in 1931/32 and again in 1951, handsome, rich and famous,  he  suffered a nervous breakdown.


Gary Cooper – nervous breakdown at High Noon

Cary Grant fortunately did not die young (he was 82 when he died in 1986) but in commenting on a question about stardom in 1938 he said, “Does it bring you happiness? Yeah, for a couple of days. And then what happens? You begin to find out that your life is not your own any more, and you’re on show every time you step out on the street.”  He suffered depression on-and-off for several years (particularly badly in 1933/4).   Stewart Granger said to Betsy Drake, Grant’s third wife  (he had five), “Cary Grant is exactly not what he appears to be. He isn’t carefree, debonair and relaxed at all; In fact he’s the opposite” [1]. To the average cinema-goer, the knowledge that Grant was a bad-tempered depressive, and by 1957, experimenting with LSD for psychotherapy purposes, would have come as rather a shock.  In his book on Grant, ‘Haunted Idol’, Geoffrey Wansell observed that Grant’s fourth wife, the 25 yr old Dyan Cannon (Grant was then 60), “… discovered what perhaps she should have guessed before, that her husband’s only too famous public charm was left at the parties or the dinners they sometimes went to; it seldom accompanied him home.”  But that’s showbiz.


Cary Grant  – bad-tempered depressive …..

And many of these ‘popular’ stars struggled with their marriages. Between top matinee idols Douglas Fairbanks Sr & Jr, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Powell, Clarke Gable, Cary Grant, Gig Young and Tony Curtis, they had 33 wives.

On the subject of Tony Curtis, he was one of the more lucky ones. He managed to live until the age of 85 despite having been a  cocaine addict and suffering advanced cirrhosis due to alcohol abuse, and he also survived a heart attack.


Tony ‘Lucky’ Curtis

Needless to say in the 1930s Clark Gable was a matinee idol and, apparently, his female fans were the most demonstrative since Rudolph Valentino’s in the 1920s. However,  in 1935 he was running neck-and-neck with  Shirley Temple for the No 1 spot in the box-office popularity stakes.  But Shirley Temple was not a matinee idol …….


Shirley Temple – matinee idol?

Despite this popularity,  Gable only won one  Oscar for best actor – not for Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (he was nominated but lost out to Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr Chips) – but for his portrayal of Peter Warne in It Happened One Night in  the 1935 Academy Awards.  Depressed and drunk after the tragic death of his actress wife, Carole Lombard, he gave the Oscar away to his godchild, Richard Lang.  Several years later, shortly after Gable’s death, Lang returned the Oscar to Gable’s last wife, Kay Williams, with a note addressed to John Gable (the then newborn son of Clark and Kay, born 5 months after Clark’s death) saying, “It is only in your possession. The real Oscar is your Father’s alone forever from all those people who gave it to him with supreme thanks for giving us a part of himself.”   Nice touch Rick.

gable oscar

Clark Gable with his Oscar for It Happened One Night

And the postscript to this Oscar: In adulthood John Gable experienced financial problems (he had inherited a fortune but it was tied up in bonds and annuities).  So in December 1996 he put his father’s Oscar up for auction at Christie’s much to the great dismay of the Hollywood establishment and the Academy of Motion Pictures.  This was not the ‘done-thing’ as Oscars were earned by merit not purchased.  Fortunately it was bought by Steven Spielberg at the auction for $607,500 and he presented it to the Academy for display in its museum in Beverly Hills.  Good old Steve!


Nice one Steve!

That’s enough Hollywood trivia …. and doom and despondency (sorry about that) for one week.



[1] What is it with these ‘perfect’ Hollywood stars?  Robert Lacey in his biography of Grace Kelly says, “But the truth about Grace Kelly was that she was, in some very important respects, quite the opposite of what she seemed.”  (She was a very naughty girl).

kelly grnt2

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly – both quite opposite from what they appeared to be ….

Whilst on the subject of Grace Kelly, let’s move from ‘doom and despondency’ and finish on a lighter note which also comes from Lacey’s book.  At  a pre-wedding party Prince Rainier was perhaps feeling over-exuberant  with the love of his wife-to-be. He said to his priest, Father Tucker, “Isn’t it amazing how fluently Grace speaks French?”  Tucker replied, “My Lord Prince, I knew love was blind, but I didn’t know it was deaf as well.”


I told you last week I had come to the end of vol 2 of Artemus Smith’s notebooks …….


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