Monday, October 06, 2014

Synthetic Sin

Pieni syntinen (L’albergo delle sorprese) (First National Pictures – US 1929) D: William A. Seiter; pres: John McCormick; SC: continuity by Tom J. Geraghty, based on the play by Frederick & Fanny Hatton (1927); titles: Tom Reed; DP: Sidney Hickox, Alvin Knechtel; ED: Terry Morse, Al Hall; AD: Max Parker; cost: Max Rée; song: “Betty”, by Nathaniel Shilkret (mus.) & Harold Christy (lyrics); C: Colleen Moore (Betty), Antonio Moreno (Donald), Edythe Chapman (Mrs. Fairfax), Kathryn McGuire (Margery), Gertrude Howard (Cassie), Gertrude Astor (Sheila), Raymond Turner (Sam), Montague Love (Brandy), Ben Hendricks, Jr. (Frank), Phil Sleeman (Tony), Jack Byron (Tony’s henchman), Fred Warren, Jay Eaton, Stanley Blystone, Art Rowlands, Dick Gordon, Julanne Johnston, Hazel Howell (members of Frank’s gang); orig. l: 7035 ft; DCP (from 35 mm), 70' (24 fps), sd. (Vitaphone; last reel only); titles: ENG (subt. ITA); print source: Cineteca Italiana, Milano / Warner Bros., Burbank, CA. Restored by Warner Bros. at L’Immagine Ritrovata di Bologna. Musical advice for this performance: Ron Hutchinson, Rodney Sauer. Special thanks to Ned Price, Warner Bros., & Ron Hutchinson, The Vitaphone Project.
    With subtitles in Italian on the DCP, grand piano: Donald Sosin with his band, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 6 Oct 2014

David Robinson (GCM catalogue and website): "The name and former fame of Colleen Moore have been all but eclipsed in film history by those of her successors and rivals – Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford. Yet it was Colleen who popularized bobbed hair before Brooks; and definitively styled the flapper of the Roaring Twenties. True, the name and concept had figured on the screen since 1920, when Olive Thomas starred in Frances Marion’s The Flapper. Yet it was Colleen’s Flaming Youth (1923) that was conclusively to define the era and the generation: Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”"

"This historic injustice is all the result of archival mishap. Flaming Youth has vanished, except for a frustrating fragment, along with most of the films of her artistic maturity: only four of her First National silents survive, in varying states – among them the enchanting Orchids and Ermine, rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow, and screened by the Giornate in 2002. A survivor of her sound films is William K. Howard’s The Power and the Glory, a proto-Citizen Kane which Kevin Brownlow regards as amazing."

"She herself valued her work, guarded the nitrate reels, and in 1944 deposited them with the Museum of Modern Art Film Department, trusting that they would safeguard them in the way that they had conserved the work of Griffith and Fairbanks. In the 1950s she went back, only to discover that the First National films had gone. What had happened in between has produced a complex web of evasive myth and individual blame, too late and still too contentious to exhume. So Colleen has remained unseen and forgotten, demonstrating that film history is shaped by archives and what they have succeeded in preserving. History can be reshaped, however, and Warner Bros., in quest of their own heritage, have happily discovered two Colleen titles in the Cineteca Italiana of Milan: the first of these, her last silent, Why Be Good?, was premiered in July 2014 by the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. Ned Price, Chief Preservation Officer at Warner Brothers, explains:"

"“For decades, Why be Good? and Synthetic Sin were thought to be lost films. They were rediscovered through the perseverance of film historian Joseph Yranski and Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project. The search began many years ago when Joseph interviewed Colleen Moore, who told him that a copy of the film survived in an Italian film archive. Ron Hutchinson was able to find the 16" Vitaphone discs containing the soundtrack of Why Be Good?, and the task of locating the missing picture began. Gian Luca Farinelli of the Cineteca di Bologna contacted Matteo Pavesi of Cineteca Italiana di Milano, who graciously allowed access to the 35mm nitrate dupe negatives for the restoration of both pictures at L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna, in conjunction with Warner Bros.”"

"So a little of Colleen Moore returns to the screen and to history. She was born Kathleen Morrison in 1899 (though she preferred 1902) in Port Huron, Michigan. She claimed to have worked as an extra at the Essanay Studios in Chicago, near her then home, before her uncle Walter Howey, managing editor of Hearst’s Chicago Examiner and the supposed original of Walter Burns in The Front Page, arranged a screen test with D.W. Griffith, who owed him a favour. Given a contract with Triangle-Fine Arts, she made her first film, The Bad Boy, starring Robert Harron, in 1917. By the time of her third film she was already getting enthusiastic attention from the press, and was in wide demand. In the next five years she worked for Universal, Selig, Fox (where she acted with Tom Mix), Famous-Players-Lasky (with John Gilbert), and Cosmopolitan. Seeking to develop her gift for comedy, she signed with the Christie Comedy Studios, from which Marshall Neilan next wooed her away. Neilan also introduced her to the publicist John McCormick, whom she married and who thereafter managed her career with outstanding skill and success, establishing her as a major star at First National, for whom her first release was Flaming Youth. The rivals came up fast behind – the most formidable of them Clara Bow, whom Colleen failed to top with The Perfect Flapper. But Colleen had many more strings to her bow: she was a personality, not a type, and was equal to dramatic roles in So Big or Lilac Time as well as sophisticated comedy. Between 1923 and 1929 she made twenty films, without a failure."

"In 1929 she withdrew from pictures, after two experiments with talkies. Four subsequent films with dialogue in 1933-34 (the last one saw her as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter) were unsuccessful. Thereafter she devoted herself to three further marriages, to establishing a television company with King Vidor, and becoming a successful real-estate broker and partner in Merrill Lynch. The titles of her two books reflect her ranging enthusiasms: Silent Star: Colleen Moore Talks About Her Hollywood (1968) and How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market (1969)."

"Synthetic Sin was adapted from the 1927 stage success by Frederic (1879-1946) and Fanny (c.1870-1939) Hatton – Chicago drama critics who became prolific writers both for stage and film. Initially there were plans to change the title to the more discreet Baby Face, but fortunately the original was maintained, appropriate as it is to Colleen’s screen persona and unique attraction for her 20s audience. Yes, she was the perfect flapper – dancing, drinking (“Never thinking, Of tomorrow”). She rolled her stockings, made up her face, bobbed her hair, wore short skirts, petted and flirted, and gave as good as she got. She was post-war. She took risks. But Colleen never fell. However wild and reckless things may have appeared, her virtue remained unassailable. She wanted to be bad, but was constitutionally incapable of it: as Film Spectator said of Synthetic Sin, “Colleen is a girl who tries to sin but doesn’t know how”."

"The story of Synthetic Sin fits the pattern. Donald Anthony, a successful playwright, returns to his home small-town, Magnolia Gap, Virginia. There he proposes to the talented Betty Fairfax, and gives her the lead in his forthcoming play. When the play flops, Donald tells Betty that she is too unsophisticated for the role, so she decides to stay in New York and learn to be wicked. Her neighbours conveniently are four gangsters, who throw Donald out when he comes to visit. Subsequently there is a gunfight: a gangster is killed and Donald rescues Betty, but all are arrested in a police raid. The chastened Betty decides to retire from the stage and devote herself to Donald."

"As for every Moore film, the best supporting talent was recruited. William Seiter was to remain one of the most adept and prolific comedy directors until the 1950s, when he became a successful television pioneer. Though past 40, Antonio Moreno was still one of Hollywood’s most glamorous leading men. The star title writer Tom Reed was borrowed from Universal. There is no specific script credit for the adaptation: “continuity” is attributed to Tom Geraghty, who had written for Sidney Drew and Douglas Fairbanks. Although Vitaphone was well established and talkies familiar, the sound came in for special critical praise: “There is a beautiful musical accompaniment by a famous orchestra and exciting sound effects” (Photoplay). It was still worthy of particular notice that the film was advertised by “an audible trailer”. (Only the final Vitaphone disc now survives: Warner Classics plan to recreate the missing sound from the original cue sheets.)"

"In the event, the film did not get great notices, though Colleen did, unanimously. Film Spectator reflected the general view: “Synthetic Sin contains a remarkable performance by Colleen Moore and some rather good little touches by William Seiter, but they don’t keep it from being inane and silly. The whole thing is based on the faulty premise that a motion picture can be good even if it has a fool for a heroine.” Photoplay acknowledged “some mystery and much keen comedy”, but added, “After such a beautiful production as Lilac Time and such an amusing yarn as O.K. Colleen Moore’s latest effort falls flat”. Exhibitors’ Herald concluded, “Colleen Moore is the only actress in pictures that could make a satisfactory entertainment out of this story”."

"She did; and Synthetic Sin found its audience, even though it was playing against A Woman of Affairs, Queen Kelly, The Broadway Melody, The Canary Murder Case, The Case of Lena Smith, My Man, and a minor flu epidemic. The manager of the First National Theatre in Albany “played up the fact that the picture carried an appeal to the flappers of Albany and vicinity and as a result his audiences, which were of capacity, were made up largely of young girls”."

"The film made sufficient mark to be recalled four years later by Film Daily (20 December 1933) – though only to reassure filmgoers of the Production Code era that the days of flappers and flaming youth, the Roaring Twenties, were ended forever: “Above all clean stories with wholesome humor will find favor with the public. The cynical, sophisticated screenplay whose characters are unreal, Synthetic Sinners is passé. The public’s taste turns to the real problems and actual struggles of regular people who live clean lives.” Times change."

"If her screen creation has been largely destroyed and forgotten, Colleen Moore has left her own distinctive heritage. Her famed doll’s house (the eighth she furnished), an elaborate fairy castle, is seen by one and a half million visitors a year at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. In 1965 she befriended a 22-year-old graphic designer,"

"Michael Kutza, who had the quixotic dream of creating a film festival. By now the queen of Chicago society, Colleen with King Vidor took him to the major European festivals and introduced him to everyone who mattered, thus enabling him to launch his festival to immediate success. This year the Chicago International Film Festival, still directed by Kutza, and held concurrently with the Giornate, dedicates its 50th edition to Colleen Moore, celebrating the festival as her final, enduring gift to cinema." – David Robinson

AA: Colleen Moore is being rediscovered this year. Last summer in Bologna we saw Why Be Good?, and now in Pordenone we have Synthetic Sin, both thanks to Cineteca Italiana (Milan) working with Warner Bros. Of Why Be Good? I saw only the beginning because of an overlap with what was for me the most important film of the festival, Croix de bois.

Colleen Moore is a brilliant comedienne here in the direction of William A. Seiter. Synthetic Sin is a marvellous meta-film, a big heartfelt laughter at the entire "sin" business of the Jazz Age.

Having failed spectacularly in her debut role as a woman of experience in a theatre performance in a little town Betty (Colleen Moore) goes to New York with her black maid. "I want to suffer and sin right now", Betty declares. "I'm making sin a household word". The main source of the comedy is Betty's implausible attempt to experience sin as "a slave of desire and a puppet of passion".

Synthetic Sin is a satire and a parody of the Roaring Twenties. The project turns complicated in the latter part of the story when real gangsters are involved. At first Betty thinks it's all a play, and her attitude makes them look ridiculous. Real blood starts being shed during the final ten minutes. The film-makers have a hard time coming to terms with this turn, and the final development seems slightly slick and callous. And although Betty has proved a brilliant actress, she finally declares that the only part she is now going to play is that of Mrs. Donald Anthony. The film thus pulls the rug under the entire modern, more independent jazz girl phenomenon.

David Robinson's programme note (copied above) is my favourite of this festival.

Donald Sosin and his band provided the perfect jazz age live score to the film. It should be recorded and made available on a soundtrack. The final minutes include footage from the original lost soundtrack, complete with the theme song "Betty".

A beautiful job of restoration.

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