Dirty Shirt McNasty

Synthetic Sin_06

From the Bo’ness Hippodrome ~

Dirty Shirt McNasty is a deceased gangster mentioned in the Colleen Moore vehicle SYNTHETIC SIN, and the mere mention of his name in an intertitle reduced Fiona to minutes of pulsating hysteria. Based on this evidence, I should say that Mr. McNasty is the greatest offstage character ever, shoving Godot back with the shipping news.

SYNTHETIC SIN was a soundie I think, released in 1929. 30-year-old Colleen plays a stage-struck teenager quite convincingly — and hilariously. I’d seen her in less typical fair, as cockney waifs and WWI French maidens, so to finally catch her in jazz age flapperdom was a revelation. It’s a very intertitle-heavy silent, as if Warners were already ulcerating to be making all-talking, snappy, spicy pre-codes. The gangster content that comes roaring in at the midway point is another pointer to things to come. Director William Seiter would helm numerous minor comedies of this kind in the thirties.

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The tone roves ambitiously about, with bloody slayings intruding on the jollity, but I think we’re meant to pretty much yock it up throughout — what’s a little gangland bloodbath to a Warners/First National comedy? The haemoglobin oozing from under the closet door was a pretty macabre touch, though.

Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London presented the film with a fluent, funny and informative intro. Outstanding jazz age accompaniment from maestro Neil Brand melted spacetime to lull and waft the audience back to 1929, and apart from some eyebrow-raising moments of political incorrectness, any sense of quaintness dissipated like dew. But the awkward moments are worthy of address ~

Lots of not-so-comfortable racial humour. Early on, Moore, playing a Southern belle-in-waiting, blacks up to upstage her sister Kathryn McGuire’s Grecian dance with a bit of minstrel-show capering. Neil Brand had described this to me as “very nearly a film-killing scene. You want it to stop after about ten seconds and it goes on for a minute and a half.” Throughout the Hippodrome, teeth and buttocks clenched in horror. Nothing can be said in defence of minstrelsy in general: this particular example of it had a couple of mitigating factors. Nothing could share the stage more incongruously with a high-art interpretive dance than a grotesque “pickaninny” impersonation; and the fact that the leading man declares his intention of marrying Colleen at this point is so downright bizarre I can’t wholly regret the scene’s inclusion.

And then Colleen has a maid, played by Gertrude Howard, who was Beaulah, of “peel me a grape” fame, opposite Mae West in I’M NO ANGEL. (I thought I spotted her also in Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR, which also features Kathryn McGuire, one of several pleasing synchronicities at the Hippodrome Festival.) I really enjoyed her performance, which covers material varying from the purely uncomfortable to the slightly refreshing. An actor’s skill can sometimes turn a stereotypical role around, and the script very occasionally gave her some assistance. Ray Turner, as the bellhop at the mobbed-up hotel, likewise did his best to break out from lazy/trembling darkie comic relief business to give a more rounded portrayal. The antagonism between the two led to an interesting, distressing, strange intertitle when it looks like Turner is going to leave Howard to carry the heavy luggage. “Tie yosef onto dem bags, Midnight,” she admonishes him. As a lady’s maid, she obviously considers him her social and thus ethnic inferior.

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One reason I want to see this again is to identify all the silent stars Colleen spoofs while practicing acting in the mirror here. Gloria Swanson is obvious —*everyone* did HER — see also Marion Davies in THE PATSY — but I missed a few I think.

The final insult is to sexual equality rather than race, as Colleen abandons her dreams of stardom to settle for wifely duties, in an intertitle which produced a good-humoured groan from the Hippodrome audience. They’d had far too good a time to let this bum note, or any of the others, spoil their evening’s entertainment, but it seemed unfortunate. Of course, many films feature a hero doggedly pursuing a dream that proves to be the Wrong Dream, with an 11th-hr Damascene conversion spinning things around in the last act — there’s no place like home — but the chauvinism here was disappointing after the rampant if misapplied girl power enjoyed throughout. But I thought I saw a doubtful look flit across Moore’s face — I have to see the film again to watch out for this — as if she herself wanted to throw into question the sexist tidiness of the conclusion and leave the path clear for a sequel to play out in our respective imaginations, even if it had to wait eighty-six years to happen…

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15 Responses to “Dirty Shirt McNasty”

  1. Jeff Gee Says:

    My eye turned “Synthetic Sin” into “Synthetic Skin” and “Neil Brand” into “Neville Brand.” “Dirty Shirt McNasty” resisted morphing into “Froggy McIntyre,” though.

  2. Pamela Hutchinson helpfully told us that the title is derived from “synthetic gin,” a bootleggers’ speciality. And one of the other bods introducing the film DID stutter and say Synthetic Skin, conjuring visions of Dr X…

  3. It sounds like this movie presented more challenges than usual to Colleen Moore’s terrificness.

    Re: Moore spoofing silent stars: A few years ago the SF Silent Film Festival showed “Her Wild Oat” (yes — just one wild oat), in which Colleen Moore is a spunky food-truck operator who goes to a resort usually reserved for swells. There’s a scene of her practicing a sort of purse-lipped pout — an expression characteristic of Hollywood silent stars and only of Hollywood silent stars. Later in the same festival, one of the intro short programs was (actually early sound period) screen-test footage of Mary Pickford, and what does she do but that very purse-lipped pout to the camera, because isn’t that what one does? It made her look like an instant antique, although I suppose she may also have intended it as parody.

  4. Hard to know with Pickford, whose mix of sophistication and naivete is often surprising.

    The Moore film is HUGE fun, though — and even the dubious material isn’t 100% dubious. Gertrude H plays the film’s voice of sanity, and the jokes never make her purely ridiculous or suggest that she’s dumb. The blackface routine is troublesome, though.

  5. Dirty Dingus looks like his shirt isn’t too clean either. I shudder to think of the state of his dingus.

  6. revelator60 Says:

    I have to concur with Katya–Colleen Moore in flapper mode is indeed terrific, and “Her Wild Oat” remains one of my favorite films seen at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (the audience loved it too). Incidentally, this year the festival is showing another Moore comedy, “Why Be Good?” which was until recently thought lost and has now been reunited with its Vitaphone discs. Those who can’t make it to SF should know that a DVD is available from the Warner Archive.
    Aside from Mabel Normand, Colleen Moore was perhaps the greatest female comedian of the silent era, so I’m disappointed that her profile is still rather low. There should more books on her and more of her comedies on DVD.

  7. She’s suffered from quite a few of her films being lost, but the high-profile rediscovery of Why Be Good? can only help. I missed that one at Bologna, where it was a hot ticket, so I’m hoping to catch up with it soon.

    Tragically, after Moore looked after her prints carefully, she donated them and then they were all allowed to deteriorate and several perished.

  8. Greenbriar Picture Shows recently reviewed “Why Be Good”. I got the DVD and enjoyed it. The finale is Moore chewing out the hero for assuming playful “bad girls” really ARE bad. They play the flirt because boys demand it, period. She’s neither chastened nor repentant (and has no need to be either, even by standards of the time).

    Quite different from those Joan Crawford silents, where deviating from the demure virginal path had Terrible But Richly Deserved Consequences.

  9. Reason to rail against David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film: the entire substance of his entry on Colleen Moore is an unfavorable comparison between her and Louise Brooks. What do they have in common? Oh, the flapper thing. Same hairdo, so Moore she was “a less interesting version of Louise Brooks.” Less interesting because she was a clown and Louise Brooks was Serious Art, and Moore’s hair was less interesting too. Feh. Feh!

  10. The difference between Moore and Crawford vehicles says a lot about the differences between Warners and MGM.

    Moore, of course, appeared on the screen in bobbed hair before Brooks was discovered by the movies, although Louise had her trademark style for years before she ever went in front of the camera.

  11. Lawrence Chadbourne Says:

    David: I was amused that the neighborhood in New York City where Colleen goes to learn about crime, prostitution, etc.is the now posh upper West Side (Lincoln Center) area. Granted it was where West Side Story was set 3 decades later, but was it really a hotbed for gangsters and loose living?

  12. Ha! I didn’t even register that. It’s where we just screened Natan on my last visit to NYC!

  13. Fiona here – I’m right with you on this one Katya. You can’t compare Louise and Colleen. They’re COMPLETELY different. Brooks (who freely admitted she wasn’t an actress, but a dancer who got lucky) went to Europe on a whim and became an icon, but that took decades. At least her rediscovery happened while she was still alive. It’s about bloody time the Colleen Moore Rediscovery was underway because she’s amazing. She had “funny bones” as I said to D after the screening. She was a natural comedian who just happened to be cute as a button and fitted in with the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties. I’m absolutely delighted that more of her ‘lost’ films are finally coming to light. What happened at MOMA was what buried her public profile; an absolute tragedy that would have destroyed a weaker person. I’ll be right up front with you and anyone else who cares to join us, doing the cheer-leading for Colleen!

  14. Colleen Moore was the best thing in Kevin Brownlow’s silent cinema documentaries. Her recollections and the lively style in which she delivered them were a total delight.

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