Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sin Takes a Holiday (Pathé, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Sin Takes a Holiday, a 1930 production from the U.S. branch of Pathé just before it merged with RKO (though at first the Radio Corporation of America operated the two studios separately and it wasn’t until they hired David O. Selznick as production chief in 1932 that he arranged to merge the two, sensibly given what the Depression had done to the economics of the movie industry), and it contributed a lot of people who became major RKO hands over the years — including art director Carroll Clark, who gives us some stunning Art Deco interiors with those huge wood-paneled doors and would later design all but one of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films made at RKO. The cinematographer, John Mescall, would later team with director James Whale for The Bride of Frankenstein and the 1936 Show Boat at Universal, and the editor, Danny Mandell, would later work in that capacity for Samuel Goldwyn for years. The director of Sin Takes a Holiday was Paul L. Stein, a Vienna-born filmmaker who made his directorial debut in 1918 and made his first U.S. film, My Official Wife, a Russian-set drama taking place just before the Revolution, for Warner Bros. in 1926. He made this film right after The Lottery Bride, a United Artists disaster (artistic and commercial) for Jeanette MacDonald in 1930, and his next two films after Sin Takes a Holiday, Born to Love and The Common Law, were also vehicles for the star Constance Bennett, whose billing in Sin Takes a Holiday was not only over the title but actually larger than it! Written by Horace Jackson from a story by Robert Milton and Dorothy Cairns, Sin Takes a Holiday is a pretty predictable film, though clearly a product of the “pre-Code” glasnost in its easy acceptance of divorce and marital non-permanence. Bennett plays Sylvia Brenner, secretary to divorce attorney Gaylord Stanton (Kenneth MacKenna, dull as usual — he turned in a great performance in a small Howard Hughes-esque role in Charles Vidor’s excellent proto-noir Sensation Hunters but every other film I’ve seen him in he’s been stolid and unimpressive).

She’s got a decidedly unrequited crush on Gaylord, who’s in the middle of having an affair with one of his clients, Grace Lawrence (Rita LaRoy), only her husband (her third; Gaylord has already represented her in getting rid of the first two) is planning to name Gaylord as the co-respondent, and Gaylord is worried that this will kill his practice by embarrassing him publicly. He’s also worried that Rita wants to make him husband number four — and will extract from him as crippling a financial settlement as she got out of husbands one and two. To avoid all this, Gaylord accepts a suggestion from one of his wastrel friends, Richards (Louis John Bartels), that he make a marriage in name only with someone else. Richards boasts that he and his wife have an understanding that allows them to call themselves married but doesn’t require them to do anything about it: they can travel apart, they can lead largely separate lives, and they can have sex with anyone they want — which doesn’t seem to include each other. Gaylord offers precisely this sort of marriage to Sylvia, oblivious that she’s really in love with him and the sort of marriage she would want with him would be the more conventional kind in which the two people involved actually do live together, have sex only with each other, and ultimately have children. She accepts and he immediately gives her the money for a vacation in Paris, on which she’s followed by another of Gaylord’s friends, Reggie Durant (Basil Rathbone), who’s obviously after Sylvia. He puts her up in an expensive hotel (thereby giving Carroll Clark the opportunity to create another opulent set similar to the live-work space Gaylord inhabits back in New York — indeed, one practically expects the stars of Clark’s later films, Astaire and Rogers, to come swooping through it in the middle of a dance number) and encourages her to buy a lot of high-fashion clothes on Gaylord’s dime. She has her vacation, Grace does her level best to break up her marriage to Gaylord, but eventually what we knew from reel one was going to happen duly happens and Gaylord and Sylvia end up in a clinch, telling us that from then on they’re going to have a real marriage and not just a paper one.

The story is awfully pat but a director like Lubitsch might have made it genuinely interesting; Stein, who shared little with Lubitsch but his ancestry from a German-speaking country, does a few reasonably creative camera moves (including a surprising number of pan shots, a technique classic-era Hollywood almost never used in interiors) but proves unable to do much with his actors. It seems weird that in three consecutive films with Constance Bennett he got three completely different performances out of her: in Sin Takes a Holiday she underacts relentlessly — as if her idea of playing a homely woman is to speak all her lines in a monotone. She’s supposed to do a transformation from drab secretary in the opening reels to glamorous socialite wife in the later ones, but whereas Bette Davis would manage a similar transformation to perfection in Now, Voyager a decade later, Bennett just looks dull, drab and droopy on both ends of the “change” and the only visible difference is she’s dressed considerably better later on. In Born to Love Bennett and Stein seemed to overcompensate and have her overact relentlessly, and in The Common Law he finally got a balanced performance out of her; as I wrote about that film previously, “If Stein didn’t bring to The Common Law quite the same baroque visual style he had to parts of Born to Love, he didn’t let Constance Bennett chew the scenery and get away with the ultra-hammy gestures she’d used in the earlier film either — and the plot was stronger this time around, too.”

But none of these three films with Stein showcases Bennett anywhere nearly as effectively as What Price Hollywood?, the prototype for A Star Is Born she made in 1932 with Selznick producing and George Cukor directing (superbly; Cukor would turn down the 1937 A Star Is Born because he thought the story was too close, but he’d change his mind when the chance to make the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason came around). Sin Takes a Holiday is most notable for Basil Rathbone’s appearance; saddled with a “roo” moustache and appallingly ill-cast (he could do dastardly villainy and ringing heroism — well, you name me another actor, besides John Barrymore, who played both Sherlock Holmes and Richard III! — but he’s unbelievable as a lounge lizard threatening Our Heroine’s virtue), he’s still the most watchable person in the movie, and though some of Rathbone’s early talkies feature an annoyingly chipper voice, here he’s got the authoritative “Rathbone ring” that made both his Holmes movies and the best of his villain roles (notably Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood) so good and made him a star on spoken-word records for Columbia. Here he barrels ahead through the script and Stein’s indifferent direction, making an impression in spite of the thin material and Bennett’s numbingly impassive performance — as if her character thought the way to fend off his advances was to give a remarkably good impersonation of a rock. One other quirky thing about Sin Takes a Holiday: why are both the opening and closing credits printed against the backdrop of a picture of a yacht? No such boat appears in the film!