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Getting Dirty with Gertie at SMU
by Anne Bothwell 25 Oct 2011

Race films are in the spotlight in this SMU series of screenings and discussions. Last night was “Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.” Up next week: “Juke Joint”


Haven’t seen many “race movies” but last night at SMU I dove in with Dirty Gertie, a 1946 film directed by Spencer Williams and featuring an all-black cast.  The movie’s low budget and the acting ranges from fantastic (Francine Everett) to wooden to hysterical. But the cast seems to be having a ball, despite the random visible boom mic and and equally random sound issues.

The movie tells the story of a Harlem striptease artist who gets into a fight with her boyfriend and leaves town to lay low with her dancers on the island of “Rinidad.” Gertie mercilessly toys with the affections of  her promoter, Diamond Joe, and a couple of servicemen on the island,  including the aptly named Tight Pants. She also attracts unwanted attention from a local minister waging war against depravity. And there’s that old boyfriend to contend with too.  The movie’s a conventional potboiler, but its plot is still intriguing, what one audience member called a “slow striptease followed by a bait-and-switch.”

The screening last night at SMU Hughes-Trigg Student Center was sponsored by the school’s art history department, the Embry Human Rights program and the Tyler Texas Black Film Collection. It’s part of a series of screenings and discussions of director Spencer Williams’ work, race movies in general, and film restoration – last week, Blood of Jesus. Next week: Juke Joint.

After the film, KERA’s Jeff Whittington led a discussion with Amy Turner, curator of the William Jones Film & Video Collection and David Sedman, associate professor of film and media studies.  Among many other things, we learned that all of these films were shot around Dallas, thanks to a collaboration between director Spencer Williams (Andy, from Amos ‘n Andy) and Alfred N. Sack, who ran theaters and distributed films.  (Audience member Angus Wynne reminisced about going to Sacks’ theater on Fitzhugh.) So it’s fun to watch and try to pick out street scenes, familiar buildings.

Looking forward to learning more about Dallas’ role in black film history next Monday at Juke Joint and on Nov. 3 when Northwestern Professor Jacqueline Stewart presents a lecture to cap the series. Details here.