Dirty Shirt McNasty
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.
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.
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…