Gertie LaRue (Francine Everett) is a famed dancer from Harlem, forced to leave home along with her whole company after two-timing Al, the wealthy man who financed her Harlem show. Arriving on the island of Rinidad, Gertie takes up residence in a fancy suite at the Paradise Hotel, owned by Diamond Joe (Don Wilson).
Diamond Joe is enamored of Gertie, but true to her flirtatious reputation, the woman takes interest in several other men including a sailor (Hugh Watson) and a soldier (Shelly Ross).
Meanwhile, two missionaries are also visiting the island. Jonathan Christian (Alfred Hawkins) and Ezra Crumm (Boykin) traveled on the same boat as Gertie and have labeled her a Jezebel. Having come to the island to lecture the locals on the topic of sin, they set their sights on shutting down Gertie’s striptease act.
Spencer Williams directs 1946’s Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A. The film is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s “Miss Thompson,” which also served as the source material for Rain (1930) and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953).
Maugham’s story has always made for a fascinating watch when adapted to film. I’ve enjoyed both Rain and Miss Sadie Thompson. Dirty Gertie is notable for the fact that it’s a “race film,” but in my honest opinion, it’s also the most interesting adaptation of “Miss Thompson.”
Jonathan Christian proves to be an uncorruptable antithesis of Gertie, genuinely immune to her charms, unlike the fellows in Hollywood’s other adaptations of “Miss Thompson.” He’s completely devoted to his religious cause, adding a layer of complexity to the film by exploring the social implications of Gertie’s choices within her own community, and exploring (as Professor Jacqueline Stewart called it in TCM’s introduction to the film, when it last aired) “black religiosity.”
Francine Everett is an absolute revelation in the role of Gertie. She’s obviously a stunning woman, impossible to ignore on screen, but more importantly a very talented performer. She injects a glint of anguish and despair into Gertie’s character. For all of her flirting and high-energy performing, trouble seems to be brewing within her, manifesting itself outwardly in a few scenes (that bottle-throwing vision of Al), but present even in her lightest moments. Everett also proves herself multi-talented, carrying off laughs, more dramatic scenes, and dance numbers.
Everett’s talent and screen presence serve as such a heartbreaking reminder of all of the potential that was lost through the lack of opportunities given to minority actors and filmmakers in the early to mid-20th century. I was reminded of the same when I watched The Duke is Tops and was wowed by Ralph Cooper. Everett’s IMDb entry lists only ten films, four of which are short films and four of which are uncredited roles. Cooper, similarly, has only seven films listed on IMDb (one uncredited).
Since we can’t rewrite the past, I’m glad Kino Lorber and TCM have been drawing attention to almost-lost, near-forgotten films like Dirty Gertie. This film is now available (along with over twenty others) on DVD and Blu-ray in the Pioneers of African-American Cinema five-disc set.