Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sinners in Paradise (Universal, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie we’d downloaded from archive.org and which I’d burned on the same disc as the 1947 Shoot to Kill (about which, incidentally, Charles said that the phony justice of the peace who married Lawrence Dale and Marian Langdon was actually Dixie Logan in disguise, something I missed even though I got that the “marriage” had been performed by a phony officiant so that Marian couldn’t be accused of bigamy): Sinners in Paradise, a 1938 Universal “B” movie of interest mainly because of its director, James Whale. Whale’s career began to unravel in 1936, when he signed on to do a big-budget musical version of Show Boat for Universal with a stellar cast (Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson!) — only the shoot was a troubled one and the already financially stressed studio was about to collapse due to the budget overruns on Whale’s Show Boat and another big-budget production, John Stahl’s Magnificent Obsession. As a result, Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Jr., the father-and-son team (Laemmle, Sr. had started the business in the teens and was now grooming his 20-something son for the succession) who owned Universal, had to take out a loan from a shady group of financiers — what today would be called a “hedge fund” — headed by J. Cheever Cowdin, and the terms of the loan provided that if the Laemmles fell behind on their payments, Cowdin could take over the studio in a forced sale. The Laemmles did indeed fall behind, largely because of the cost overruns on Show Boat, and Cowdin seized control of the studio, installed production head Charles Rogers and billed it as “The New Universal.”

The new Universal proved an unexpectedly hostile work environment for Whale, whose open homosexuality hadn’t bothered the Laemmles but did bother his new bosses. Whale’s next film, The Road Back (based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque about post-World War I Germany and ballyhooed as a follow-up to All Quiet on the Western Front), was taken away from him and badly butchered in the cutting room. Hoping to get away from Universal, Whale had his partner, David Lewis, set up a one-picture deal for him at Warners with the promise of a long-term contract if his film did well. Unfortunately, Whale made The Great Garrick, a splendid, sophisticated comedy that was too sophisticated for a mass audience, then or now — it was the sort of project destined to be a cult film no matter when it was made — and Warners decided they had no use for him. So Whale went back to Universal with three films left on his contract there, and Rogers decided to use up the three commitments by giving him three cheapies (his biographer James Curtiss estimated that Whale’s salary was the biggest item in these films’ budgets): this one, Wives Under Suspicion (an intriguing remake of Whale’s The Kiss Before the Mirror with one quirky change: instead of a defense attorney realizing that his own life with his wife is starting to parallel the case he’s trying, in the remake he’s a prosecutor, played by Warren William, who has one of the most macabre props ever seen in a non-horror film: an abacus with toy skulls as the counting beads, with which A.D.A. William keeps track of all the criminals on his target list he’s successfully convicted) and Port of Seven Seas. (Whale referred to them as his “punishment pictures.”)

Though saddled with an over-the-hill gang for a cast, Sinners in Paradise is actually quite a good movie, if a bit quirky — actually a lot quirky. It began life as a story called “Halfway to Shanghai” (which rather gives away the plot!) by Harold Buckley, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Louis Stevens and Lester Cole — and one can readily imagine future Hollywood 10 blacklistee Cole as the source of the surprisingly anti-capitalist social commentary in the script. It begins with the departure of the China Clipper — or, as it’s called in the film, the “Pacific Seabird” — to Shanghai (an uncredited but welcome Dwight Frye is one of the people at the seaport from which it takes off, linking this film to Whale’s glory days and the horror movies that made his reputation), with the usual oddly assorted set of passengers for a disaster movie: nurse Anne Wesson (Madge Evans), who’s fleeing her husband and plans to resume her career in Shanghai; gangster Robert “The Torpedo” Malone (Bruce Cabot), who’s carrying $150,000 he’s planning to smuggle out of the U.S.; his more-or-less girlfriend Iris Compton (Marion Martin, who actually delivers a quite good salty-blonde performance); heiress Doris Bailey, a.k.a. Thelma Chase (Charlotte Wynters), whose auto factory is beset by a sit-down strike; John T. Corey (Gene Lockhart), who’s variously referred to as a U.S. senator and a state senator and who’s being openly lobbied by rival arms dealers Harrison Brand (Morgan Conway, later RKO’s first Dick Tracy) and T. L. Honeyman (Milburn Stone); and Mrs. Franklin Sydney (Nana Bryant), who’s going to China to visit her adult son Thomas.

About a quarter of the way through the 63-minute running time, the plane flies into a storm and goes down; the crew are all killed (except for the flight attendant, Jessup, played by former Western star Don “Red” Barry as comic relief) but the passengers survive. From there the film turns into a combination of Robinson Crusoe and The Admirable Crichton, as the surviving principals find themselves on a desert island with only two inhabitants: Jim Taylor (John Boles) and his Asian version of Friday, Ping (Willie Fung). Taylor has settled in on the island after arriving there a year before, living on fish and coconuts he’s harvested himself in a cottage he’s built himself from the available materials. Taylor offers them dinner but then insists that if they’re going to stay on his island they’ll have to earn their keep, and not surprisingly (given Lester Cole’s presence on the writing committee) a lot of the situations come from the high mucky-mucks, the portly politician and the spoiled heiress, getting their just desserts and having to labor like proletarians.

There’s also a lot of by-play around Taylor’s boat, which is anchored off the island and which could sail the castaways to Shanghai, only Taylor refuses to take them himself. Later he relents — sort of — and authorizes Ping to take them, but insists that the boat holds only six people so some of them will have to stay behind on the island for the three months it will take for the boat to return. Taylor has also hidden the fuel supply and the ignition for the boat’s motor so the castaways can’t steal it, and he insists that he will pick the people who will get to leave immediately — only the corrupt arms dealers hijack the boat, accidentally kill Mrs. Sydney in the crossfire, and shoot Ping in the arm, then realize they have to keep him alive because he knows how to navigate and they don’t. The remaining passengers more or less make the best of it — there’s a great scene in which heiress Chase says she’s dissatisfied with her work assignments and if they’re not changed she’ll … and then she realizes that she’s threatening to do what all those workers in her factory she hates so much are doing because they’re dissatisfied with their working conditions. (This is one movie the House Un-American Activities Committee could have cited as evidence of an openly Communist writer sneaking Leftist content into a film.) Meanwhile, Anne has fallen in love with Jim, and we learn that the reason Jim has been hiding out on the island for a year is that he’s wanted for the murder of Mrs. Sydney’s son — a fact that comes out just as she’s dying on the beach; Jim sees the locket with her son’s picture and recognizes him, but remains silent, figuring it’s just as well that she die while believing her son is still alive. Eventually Anne persuades Jim that he should return to civilization and fight the murder charge against him, Ping returns with the boat — having recaptured it by wounding Honeyman and Brand with his kitchen knife and pushing them overboard — and, with the number of living characters down to the requisite six, they all set sail and leave the island together.

Sinners in Paradise is a pretty derivative movie, and its plot hinges on a lot of far-fetched coincidences, but it’s also a haunting one, well acted by Evans and Boles (both of whom had been perched on the edge of the “A”-list in the early 1930’s without quite making it onto it, and had since fallen definitely onto the “B”-list) and directed with a quiet strength and competence even though he didn’t have a chance to cast the film or work with the writers on its script, and it obviously didn’t hook his interest the way his earlier Laemmle-era projects had — not just the famous horror films (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein) on which his reputation rests but The Kiss Before the Mirror, Remember Last Night? (an off-take on The Thin Man with even more drinking than its model!) and Show Boat (which, like The Magnificent Obsession, turned out to be a blockbuster hit, albeit too late to save either the Laemmles’ control of Universal or its director’s career).