by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie Charles and I finally watched last night turned out to be surprisingly good, a 1933 indie from Majestic called Sing, Sinner, Sing that appears to be the first movie inspired by the brief marriage of tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds and torch singer Libby Holman. They were wed on November 26, 1931 just days after his divorce from his previous wife, heiress Anne Cannon, became final. Holman, a major star on Broadway and in New York nightclubs, gave up her career to become hostess at Reynolds’ North Carolina estate, Reynolda, where he was found shot to death on July 6, 1932 after a 21st birthday party for his friend Charles Gideon Hill, Jr. At first the death was ruled a suicide — Reynolds’ friend and assistant Ab Walker testified that he had heard a gunshot and then momentarily afterwards heard Holman say, “Smith’s shot himself!” — but a later coroner’s inquiry decided it was murder and Holman and Walker were both threatened with prosecution, though neither was ever brought to trial due to lack of evidence after the Reynolds family lobbied the prosecutor to drop the charges. Reynolds’ family also pulled strings to get most of their dead relative’s fortune back from Holman — though she had enough left that she was able to bankroll some later avant-garde productions featuring herself, including the 1947 film Dreams That Money Can Buy — and she returned to her stage career.
This sordid real-life tale inspired several subsequent movies, including Brief Moment (made at Columbia later in 1933 and starring Carol Lombard as the singer and Gene Raymond as the heir), Reckless (a 1935 MGM musical originally intended for Joan Crawford but recast with Jean Harlow at the last moment, possibly after one of the “suits” at MGM noticed the similarity of the plot to Harlow’s own brief, ill-fated marriage to producer Paul Bern), Crisis (1949) and Written on the Wind (1956), but Sing, Sinner, Sing was the first of them all and is quite good on its own merits. Based on a play called Clip Joint by Wilson Collison — a credit we’ve seen on several other quite good movies, including Three Wise Girls and the Gable-Harlow classic Red Dust — it casts actors with major-studio connections, Paul Lukas and Leila Hyams, in the lead roles.
It opens on the Queen of Joy, one of the infamous gambling ships that were anchored off the coasts of New York and Los Angeles during Prohibition on the theory that if they were kept just outside the U.S.’s territorial waters the American laws against drinking and gambling wouldn’t apply. Lela Larson (Leila Hyams — singing with an obviously dubbed voice, though neither the American Film Institute Catalog nor imdb.com lists her voice double) is the star entertainer aboard the Queen of Joy and she’s also involved in a relationship with the ship’s owner, Phil Carida (Paul Lukas). A young, rather nerdy rich guy, Ted Rendon (Donald Dillaway), comes to the Queen of Joy often to cruise Lela — but she gives him the cold shoulder until she catches Phil in flagrante delicto with one of the chorus girls (they’re fully clothed on a couch but it’s obvious what they’re doing, in that refreshing honesty about human sexuality that marked the films of the so-called “pre-Code” era), whereupon she takes the advice of her friend Margaret Flannigan (Ruth Donnelly), the comedienne in the Queen of Joy’s floor show, and marries Rendon on the rebound and quits the Queen of Joy. Since there’s also a subplot about a scheme to rob the Queen of Joy and the robbery attempt — which ends with Phil shooting the leader of the gang — this isn’t really Phil’s night.
Lela soon finds out that life as Mrs. Ted Rendon isn’t any more fulfilling than her previous existence as the star and girlfriend of Phil Carida; for one thing, Ted is cheating on her, too (we find this out when she calls a bar where he drinks and he’s canoodling with a floosie and tells the bartender to tell the missus he’s not there); and when he is home he’s bringing a retinue of friends, girlfriends and drinking buddies who laugh her off when she tries to throw them out. This happens while Ted has passed out in his bedroom, and when he comes to he gets out a gun and apparently shoots himself — writer Edward T. Lowe and director Howard Christy deliberately and powerfully keep it ambiguous how he actually does die — only his family, which have already ensured that Lela won’t inherit any of Ted’s money, seek her prosecution for murder. She’s put on trial and actually convicted, but the trial is disrupted by Phil Carida, waving a gun and claiming that he shot Ted, so the verdict against her is set aside. She tries to talk Phil out of his confession — she’s sure Ted committed suicide — but eventually Phil is convicted and sentenced to death for the crime, and his last request is that the prison authorities play Lela’s record of “He’s Mine” (one of the two songs she sang on the Queen of Joy, actually written by George Waggner and Howard Jackson) as he walks the last mile. (The record is on the Brunswick label — a rare appearance of a real label, or for that matter a real brand name of anything, in a 1930’s movie.)
Sing, Sinner, Sing is a marvelous film, ranking alongside The Phantom Broadcast, Sensation Hunters and Safe in Hell among the important early-1930’s proto-noirs both visually (Majestic used their usual cinematographer, Ira Morgan, and he and director Christy created some quite beautiful and atmospheric chiaroscuro images) and thematically, with morally ambiguous characters and emotions evocative of real life instead of movie clichés. Phil’s finding his conscience at the end stretches credibility more than a little bit, but up until then it’s been an intense and uncompromising film that used the relative freedom of the “pre-Code” era to illuminate human behavior, including its sordid sides, instead of just to titillate. It also goes on that surprisingly long list of movies that dealt with alcoholism (more or less) seriously well before The Lost Weekend — though the celebrated comic drunk Arthur Housman is also in the cast — and it’s an excellent film with a major-studio “look” (Majestic was known for their resourcefulness in getting access to major-studio facilities and shooting on sets built for bigger-budgeted films, as well as getting access at least to A-minus actors) and an honesty and thematic richness rare in movies even today.