November 18, 2014
Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good? (1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.
William A. Seiter was born in New York City in 1890, the oldest son of a prominent family who were co-owners of Higgins & Seiter, purveyors of fine china and rich cut glass. He ran away from a steady paycheck to Hollywood in 1912. He made ends meet as one of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops and as a Western stuntman. He got his first featured part in the 1931 biblical short The Three Wise Men (1913). According to his daughter Jessica Seiter Niblo’s memoir Movietown Baby Grows Up, her father thought he was “so bad I just quit acting.” So instead he would crash movie sets with his friend (and future director) Sidney Franklin, pretending to be assistant directors. They faked it until they made it, and Seiter started directing comedy shorts in 1915. His first great success came with a series of comedies he directed for star Reginald Denny between 1924 and 1928. Dave Kehr described Seiter’s style in the Denny films as “a kind of domestic naturalism, with lightly comic sketches of middle-class young marrieds that anticipate the situation comedies of the Fifties.” Having learned every side of the business, he was an actor’s director. One of his actors Neil Hamilton would give Seiter the most practical of praise in Photoplay: “I cannot forget the treatment accorded me by Mr. Seiter. He is that rare personality in the business who does not believe in working after four thirty. Having been an actor himself once, he realizes that a day spent in front of the cameras, with one’s vitality being slowly consumed by the terrific heat of the lights, is no easy task.”
The Family Secret (1924) is an odd amalgam of Victorian melodrama and sitcom slapstick. It was a vehicle for Baby Peggy (real name Diana Serra Cary), who had become a superstar at age five after making over 150 shorts for Century Studios between 1921 and 1923. Universal signed her to make features, and they chose to adapt the Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Little Princess, The Secret Garden) novel Editha’s Burglar, a Story for Children. Margaret Selfridge (Gladys Hulette) secretly marries Garry Holmes (Edward Earle) against the wishes of her father Sim (Frank Currier). Sim bans Garry from his home, and then has him arrested for burglary when Garry tries to see his wife and newborn baby (Cary). All of the creaky melodramatics halt when the story shifts from the parents to the child, and you can almost sense the entire cast relaxing. The movie then settles into a string of comic set pieces as Baby Peggy undermines any attempt at a functional household. She skips a reading lesson from her nanny and hides in the flour bin; brings home a stray dog whose fleas infest the spinsters at a tea party; wanders onto the streets and bonds with the lower classes, learning how to steal fruit from street urchins and rib the cops. It is that last section that is especially affecting. Peggy has no conception of money’s use value since she lives with it as a given. So on the outside she trades her dress for a banana. Seiter builds scenarios around Peggy’s natural mischievous innocence, and shapes a rickety melodrama into something improbably affecting.
Colleen Moore also exudes a mischievous innocence, but one that perpetually bumps up against the double standards that confront women. Moore’s freedom from restraint is alluring, but it is always in danger of becoming too alluring, in which case the movies pull back and reveal her to be a good girl after all. Moore had long dreamed of becoming a movie star, and kept a scrapbook of her favorite performers – aspirationally leaving the last page blank for herself. She lived a few blocks away from Essanay studios in Chicago, and she appeared for them as a background extra. Her uncle Walter Howey, the managing editor for the Chicago Examiner, got her a screen test with D.W. Griffith, since Howey had helped Griffith get Birth of a Nation and Intolerance past the censorship board. The Colleen Moore persona is synonymous with that of the “flapper”, post-WWI women who flouted conventional gender roles by smoking, drinking and sleeping with whomever they wanted. This image was popularized in the 1923 Colleen Moore film Flaming Youth, in which Moore dallies with her mother’s ex-lover. Of that movie, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked, “I was the spark that lit up flaming youth, and Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” With her razor-sharp bob, bamboo-thin body and bowtie lips, she became the physical embodiment of the flapper ethos. Seemingly all elbows and knees, she was the ideal angular construction to dance the Charleston, and had the impish personality to give all that movement an air of subversiveness. Moore married producer John McCormick during the production of Flaming Youth, and together they would define what flappers looked and acted like to the majority of Americans.
By 1929 the flapper character was business as usual, but Moore was still packing them into theaters. Synthetic Sin is based on a 1927 play by Frederick and Fanny Hatton, produced by McCormick, and concerns a small town girl from “Magnolia Gap” who has dreams of becoming a legendary stage tragedienne. Though the feature looks fantastic (it was projected on DCP), it is missing most of the Vitaphone “soundtrack”, which added sound effects and popular songs of the period over the silent feature. Only the last reel of this audio remains.
When hometown hero playwright Donald Anthony (Antonio Moreno) returns home to premiere a new work, every high school drama queen clamors to play the lead. Betty (Colleen Moore) and her sister Margery (Kathryn McGuire) are the most insistent. Betty is spazzy and unsophisticated, her audition more akin to a Saturday Night Live cast hopeful. It involves a “mad Ophelia” scene of flailing limbs and swinging wig pigtails that nearly choke her out. The showstopper, for me anyway, is Moore’s impression of classical pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. She dons an Einstein fright wig, applies a bushy moustache, and slams the keys like a proto-headbanger. Seiter is always interested in the clash between high and low – as in Peggy’s trip around the working class in The Family Secret. One of his 1930s comedies, If You Could Only Cook, has an out-of work Jean Arthur convince car company president Hubert Marshall to pretend to be his husband so she can get a job as a maid.
Betty continues to travesty the high arts in Synthetic Sin by interrupting her sister’s flouncy “Grecian dance” with a gruesome blackface shuck and jive routine that might keep this movie from ever getting released on home video. Donald is convinced just enough to give Betty the part in the play – but she flops, getting laughs instead of tears. Thinking she has not suffered enough in life to become a true tragic actor, Betty travels to NYC to get a taste of the fast life. Betty is something like the first method actor. So she checks into a fleabag motel and invites every hard-looking, gun-toting gangster into her apartment for carousing. In one impressive dolly shot, Moore walks down a busy street towards a retreating camera while trying on different expressions and poses, from haughty to flirtatious, hand implanted on hip. Her attempts at vamping are hilarious – she runs her hand through her mark’s hair, staring exaggeratedly into his eyes, before getting hair gel all over her fingers and disgustedly wiping them on his lapel. Betty doesn’t belong as a criminal or a super serious artiste. She was built to be funny, though instead of getting a farce all of her own, the movie ends depressingly with Betty declaring that the only career she wants is to be Donald’s wife.
Why Be Good? proposes a different kind of conundrum. In this one Colleen Moore is well versed in the games of seduction, though deep down, the film promises us, what she really wants is marriage. Though the studio and screenwriters are still a little too wary of having a truly independent woman who can sleep with whom she wants, one look at Colleen Moore’s Charleston tells a completely different story. Moore plays the aptly named Pert Kelly, “an effervescent American girl” who is introduced winning a dance competition and then shutting everyone down with, “I’m naturally too hot for this old folks’ home.” Luckily all of the Vitaphone audio is present here to accompany her hot steppin’, and the track also has some pretty clever inventions, including a drunken rendition of “Sweet Adeline” interpreted by two muted, whining trumpets.
Though Pert is a queen by night at elaborate nightclubs like “The Boiler”, which blows steam over its already hot dancers, by day she’s a department store clerk who pines for the personnel manager Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton). In an inspired bit of pantomime, she rests her head on his shadow behind an office window, and then draws his face on in lipstick. He is literally a marked man, and she will get him one way or another. The conventional ending of Why Be Good? is earned — she follows her desires and ends up with what she wants, and escapes the drudgery of department store work in the process. Of course her family just can’t understand her partying ways and interest in Peabody Jr. , but in an inspiring moment of flapper cinema, she explains to her father the whole point of this proto-feminist movement:
Pop, listen to me! This is 1929 — not 1899 — I contribute as much money to this house as you do — and as long as I think it is harmless, I’m going to wear what I like, and do what I like! …I want to go out, and dance, and have fun, as long as I can, as much as I can!
The fun ended for Moore with the coming of talkies. She divorced McCormick, her first sound films flopped, and she made her last film in 1934.