Archive for Synthetic Sin

The Sunday Intertitle: An Extract of Aromas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 12, 2015 by dcairns

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Colleen Moore’s reaction to a city slicker’s perfume — which he has just blasted himself with from a dispenser in the men’s room — is one of the highlights of WHY BE GOOD? (1929), the recently rediscovered and restored soundie star vehicle. Unfortunately, the snappy intertitles, along with Moore’s irrepressible style, have to carry the show, as what we have here is MGM Plot #1, which served Joan Crawford well for a number of pictures but doesn’t seem to work so well at Warner Bros and with Colleen as star.

MGM Plot #1 goes as follows: counter-hopper falls for boss’s son, is tempted to sleep with the rich millionaire but doesn’t, and thus eventually nabs her man. In the Joan Crawford vehicles this could be padded out with variants, by giving Joan a friend who DOES sleep with a rich man, and ends tragically, and so on. Maybe this worked better in the MGM flicks because Louis B. Mayer really believed what he was peddling, and maybe because with Joan Crawford there was always the distinct possibility that she might fall and, having fallen, tumble. The hope of that keeps you watching. Whereas we all know Colleen Moore’s a good girl. Lots of fun for a good girl, but still, inescapably virtuous.

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This one has really protracted scenes of Colleen with her mum and leading man Neil Hamilton (not the disgraced former MP) with his dad, scenes devoid of drama because flowing with sympathy. “Beware of sympathy, it is the death of drama,” noted Alexander Mackendrick, and he was right. Characters must fail to understand each other at the very least or you don’t have a scene. This isn’t a call for a world of nastiness of the kind David Mamet always writes — scene after scene of bullies bullying — it’s just an accurate observation that characters being sympathetic to one another tamps down the emotion of a scene and must be used as a very sparing ingredient. It’s perhaps a good idea to suggest there’s far more sympathy in the world of your film than you’re allowing the audience to see, but they definitely won’t thank you for ladling on too much of it.

Of course I’m still overjoyed that the movie has been rescued from oblivion, and it certainly showcases Moore’s effervescent appeal, but she can’t shine as brightly as she does in SYNTHETIC SIN because there isn’t the dark backing to bring her glow out. Fortunately there are other Moore’s out there — we hope to soon view IRENE and ELLA CINDERS. We won’t be likely to see FLAMING YOUTH as that one’s tragically still lost. This is the only surviving footage ~

Another extract of aromas.

My earliest memories of Colleen are from Brownlow & Gill’s TV show Hollywood where the star, still spry and elfin at eighty-odd, reminisced about her frabjous career on the screen. And THIS clip from ELLA CINDERS lodged in my mind ~

Special effects were used, you’ll be reassured to know. This looks enticing, though, since Colleen as a stage-struck youth is also the premise of SYNTHETIC SIN.

Dirty Shirt McNasty

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2015 by dcairns

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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…

I Was Hippodrome’s First Victim

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by dcairns

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I got an early heads-up on the programme for this year’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film, unspooling in scenic Bo’ness in March (18th-22nd), and it’s exciting stuff. I think the choices have been getting bolder each year as the films play to packed houses. It’s one thing to run Chaplin films with live music, it’s another to add Ozu to the mix. This year we have forgotten movie stars and filmmakers known to silent buffs but unfamiliar to the general public, but the loyal audiences of Bo’ness can be trusted to trust the Fest in turn and show up, knowing it’ll be worthwhile, even as a devoted crowd of silent movie buffs descends on the sleepy town for whing-ding, I believe it’s called.

Very excited about William S. Hart’s HELL’S HINGES, to be accompanied by Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers. They performed along to BEGGARS OF LIFE last year and it was unbelievably entertaining. There’s still a lot of love for westerns among the older generation in Scotland so I think this chance to discover one of the earliest important cowboy stars will only create an appetite for more. This could be addressed further down the line with Tom Mix, Borzage’s early self-starring oaters, or THE COVERED WAGON and THE IRON HORSE.

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The screening of ANNIE LAURIE pleases me greatly because it was something I suggested a couple of years ago — I have no idea if my hint found its way to the right ears, or if it’s just a coincidence. The Scottish connection makes it a natural choice, and Lillian Gish is overdue for an appearance. It’ll be great to finally see a good print, especially with the Technicolor sequence.

Also Scottish-themed, in a way, is Oscar-winner Kevin MacDonald’s documentary CHAPLIN’S GOLIATH, telling the story Eric Campbell (he of the eyebrows), who liked to claim he was from Dunoon (due west of Bo’ness on the opposite coast). Fresh information, as they call it, has since come to light, but I’m glad MacDonald got his Scottish-funded doc made before research cut the legs from under it… It’ll also be great to see the man-mountain E.C. on the big screen, menacing Charlie as usual.

Surprise choices CHILDREN OF NO IMPORTANCE and SALT FOR SVANETIA continue to broaden the fest’s scope in bold new directions. I’m excited about the rarely-seen SYNTHETIC SIN with Colleen Moore, and favourites PICCADILLY, THE NAVIGATOR and the Barrymore DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE all make appearances with exciting new music.

A shame there’s no Jane Gardner this year, but addicts can check out her trio at The Wash House, Portobello this weekend, with screenings of THE BLACK PIRATE on Friday and SEVEN CHANCES (with ONE WEEK) on Saturday. Yay!