For readers of the New York Times, the subtle, elegant and loving caricatures by Al Hirschfeld that have graced its entertainment pages for almost 70 years need no introduction. “The Line King” is a loving, uncritical document of the still-active 93-year-old snow-white-bearded Broadway fixture. Primarily, filmmaker Susan W. Dryfoos allows the work to speak for itself, with commentary from the artist and his admirers interspersed. It’s ideal television fare that has done reasonably well in early limited, specialized theatrical release.
Hirschfeld’s career scrolls back to the 1920s, when he was a struggling artist working first as a sculptor and later as a colorist and lithographer. During a sojourn in Paris, he sold to the Herald Tribune a drawing he’d made during a performance of the Comedie Francaise. Soon he was much in demand for his vibrant, evocative drawings and became a steady Times contributor upon his return to the States.
The film is more oral history than analysis, though Dryfoos attempts to inject some sense of Hirschfeld’s place in the history of newspaper caricature and to examine his influences. But mostly the filmmaker, understandably, has fallen in love with her subject — a man who idiosyncratically creates from a barber’s-chair perch. Hirschfeld proves to be an engaging and modest personality.
Following a rather strict chronology, the film also details the man’s personal life. Apparently made over a period of 10 years, docu spends considerable time with his second wife, the former German screen star Dolly Haas, and their daughter, Nina — whose name crops up in the drawings.
By implication, “The Line King” is really a history of 20th-century American theater and related dramatic arts. The sense of a living link between modern pop culture and its antecedents is the film’s greatest strength. Overall, it’s a rich portrait.