Synthetic Sin (1929) is an artefact from a time long gone. That is to say that this film is delightful, glamorous, witty … And they really don’t make them like this any more. It’s typical of this movie that the title is a roaring twenties in-joke, a bit of jazz-age wordplay on “Synthetic Gin”. That’s not a phrase you hear too often these days, but this prohibition-era film sloshes with bathtub hooch. In fact, this is the kind of wisecracking romp where a gal can say to a fella: “Let’s you and I make hey-hey while there’s moonshine!”
When the twenties roared, there was mischief to be made. In the inner cities, in real life, gangsters took advantage of the prohibition laws to make plenty of illicit cash hawking illegitimate booze. But in the movies, and in the anxious imagination of Middle Americans, the flappers, a new breed of confident young women with bobbed hair and short hemlines, were wreaking just as much havoc.
Synthetic Sin has all the hallmarks of a classic flapper film, even though its heroine, aspiring actress Betty Fairfax, is really quite an innocent. Betty is played by Colleen Moore, an impish natural comedienne who was the first of Hollywood’s bright young starlets to bob her hair and embody the newest, freshest way to negotiate the path between girlhood and womanhood. If any writer encapsulated the spirit of the Jazz Age, it was F Scott Fitzgerald, and he doffed his fedora to our star. “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth,” he said. “Colleen Moore was the torch.” And if you love Louise Brooks, Clara Bow or Jean Harlow, then you need to know Moore.
Preternaturally youthful and vivacious, Moore defined the flapper, the modern, sexually liberated young woman, in terms that high-school girls could love and emulate. After Moore’s mother cut her hair into her trademark fringed bob (“whack, off came the long curls. I felt as I’d been emancipated”), teenage girls across the US rushed to the salon. She was unthreateningly friendly and funny, but a beauty too. Moore has a cute charisma that works instantly on the audience, like a fast-acting drug. She is both irresistible and unforgettable – and she was a huge star in the 1920s. But the sad fact is that many of her films have now been lost, which means that most people don’t know her work at all. Synthetic Sin itself was only recently rediscovered and restored. So this film is a very precious chance to see Hollywood’s foremost flapper in action.
“Moore created comic heroines who are as engaging in their failures to be glamorous as they are in their often accidental triumphs in love and career,” wrote Molly Haskell. That’s Synthetic Sin in a nutshell.
Here Moore plays a young girl desperate to grow old too quickly, to become a “woman of the world” with the necessary life experience to be a serious dramatic actress. All flappers want to push the boundaries imposed by their old-fashioned parents, so Betty runs away from her comfortable home to a fleapit hotel in the big city, in the name of art, and of love. The audience is in on the joke from the beginning: Betty is wonderful just as she is. Her improvised show at the family piano early in the film is Grade A comedy, and the steps she takes to widen her horizons bring her into dangerous territory: grubby, sleazy, violent. A place where this flapper might just encounter a gangster or two.
We sympathise with Betty though, as the chap she wants to impress with her newfound worldliness is playwright Donald Anthony, played by the dashing Antonio Moreno. They are a handsome couple on screen and had played opposite each other before in Look Your Best (1923). The film is directed by William Seiter, an expert at comedy who had been working behind the camera for a decade, after cutting his teeth as a member of the Keystone troupe. Moore is not just playing for laughs in this role though: she was a Betty once, a film fan who aspired to act from an early age, practising the art of “spontaneous” tears on the walk to school. The film’s original audience would have known Moore as just this type: the star plucked from obscurity; the comedienne who forces her hand at serious drama.
So the story went, in 1917, Colleen Moore was visiting her uncle in Chicago when his friend the big-shot film director DW Griffith came to tea. For a lark, Colleen dressed up as the maid and began to serve the drinks. Overcome by her charm and vivacity, Griffith exclaimed to the uncle: “You have lost a maid, and I have gained an actress!” Then, of course, he whisked her away to California.
That is absolute bunkum, concocted by the uncle himself, who was a newspaper editor. In truth, said uncle had helped persuade the local censors to pass Griffith’s latest movies, and Colleen’s Hollywood contract was a “pay-off”, a way of returning the favour.
We can call it a happy accident, however – eventually. In Hollywood, Moore spent several years suffering in melodramatic roles in melodramatic movies, weighed down by Victorian ringlets. But in 1923, she bobbed her hair and won a role in a daring film called Flaming Youth. Six years after arriving in Tinseltown, she became … an overnight sensation, epitomising everything that was fresh and modern and girlish.
There is a sour note in Synthetic Sin, whose sexual and racial politics are woefully outdated. It’s deplorable that this film includes a scene where Moore dances in blackface, and African American actress Gertrude Howard is saddled with a character that is little more than a stereotype. In silent films of this time, you do see white performers wearing blackface occasionally – Buster Keaton did it, for example. Here Colleen Moore does it too, and it may, quite rightly, come as a bit of a shock. I am sure we can all agree that some things can be left back in the past, with the greasy homemade booze, while we still treasure the best that the silent era had to offer.
When we talk about Synthetic Sin as a twenties film, we must remember that the date is 1929. The clock is ticking on the Jazz Age, the Depression is looming, and Hollywood’s silent era is on its very last legs. In fact Synthetic Sin, while shot as a silent, was released with a Vitaphone soundtrack on disc – music and sound effects, to play alongside the movie in the cinema. Nathaniel Shilkret, who had composed a hit for a previous Moore success, Lilac Time (1928) wrote a theme song called ‘Betty‘ for Synthetic Sin. It is tantalising just one disc of the soundtrack for this film survives – a fragment of the joyful noise made when the movies were young and the flapper epitomised their mood of youthful experimentation.
This piece is based on the screening notes and introduction I wrote for a screening of Synthetic Sin at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness in 2015.