Saturday, April 4, 2015

Stubs – Sinners’ Holiday

Sinners’ Holiday (1930) Starring: Grant Withers, Evalyn Knapp, James Cagney, Lucille La Verne, Joan Blondell. Directed by John G. Adolfi. Screenplay by George Rosener, Harvey F. Thew. Based on the play Penny Arcade by Marie Baumer (New York, 10 Mar 1930). No Producer Credited.  Run Time: 59 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Melodrama, Crime, Romance.

On March 10, 1930, an original play opened on Broadway called Penny Arcade. Written by Marie Baumer and directed by William Keighley, the play ran for only 24 performances at the Fulton Theatre, closing on or about March 19th. Considered a flop by anyone’s terms, the play caught the eye of Al Jolson, a singer/actor perhaps best known for The Jazz Singer (1927), the film that ushered in the sound era in Hollywood.

Jolson paid $20,000 for the film rights, which he later sold to Warner Bros. studios. Jolson had one provision, two of the cast members, James Cagney and Joan Blondell, be given parts in the film version. While they apparently auditioned for the leads, they did end up playing the same parts they had on stage.

What probably attracted the brothers Warner to the story was the gangster element. After the success of The Lights of New York (1928), the studios’ first all-talking feature, the gangster genre was developing into their specialty.

The play’s director, William Keighley would later go onto a career as a film director, but for this film John G. Adolfi was chosen. Adolfi’s career dated back to silent films, but he was not known as a director of gangster films, usually working on the films of genteel actor George Arliss.

Shot in three weeks, the film would open by the end of September and go into general release on October 10th. Penny Arcade went through a few name changes, including Women in Love, before settling on Sinners’ Holiday. Cagney would recall in his autobiography that: “There was a great vogue for pictures with “holiday” in the title, and Sinners’ Holiday was a part of that trend. That title has as much to do with the picture as Winnie the Pooh!”

On an amusement park prier, Ma Delano (Lucille La Verne) owns and operates a penny arcade, along with other booths like the one next door run by Buck Rogers (Noel Madison) which is like a dunking booth with a twist. 

Rather than dumping the girl in the cage into water, hitting the bull’s-eye tips her back so that you can see up her skirt. If you hit the target hard enough and knock her so far back she falls off her perch, you win a cigar.

Harry (James Cagney) is Ma's (Lucille La Verne) favorite. Still, he's up to no good.

Ma Delano runs her arcade with the help of her children, Joe (Ray Gallagher), Jennie (Evalyn Knapp) and Harry (James Cagney). Joe does his best to keep the attractions running while Jennie is mostly sent on errands by Ma. Harry is Ma’s favorite and is a ne’er-do-well. Despite her ban on liquor, Harry spends most of his time at a nearby speakeasy run by Mitch (Warren Hymer). Mitch’s sideshow, which serves as a cover, features women in skimpy outfits. His barker for the sideshow is Angel Harrigan (Grant Withers), a drifter with a jail record.

Angel (Grant Withers) works as a barker for a sideshow run by Mitch.

Angel is in love with Jennie and, so apparently, is Mitch. When Mitch puts on the heavy pass on Jennie, Angel intercedes. Knowing that Jennie prefers Angel gets him fired, but Angel quits before Mitch can. Angel is about to leave town without saying good-bye, when Jennie sees him and talks him into staying, getting him a job with Ma at the penny arcade. She hires him to try to keep the machines running when Joe can’t.

Publicity shot re-enacting Angel stopping Mitch (Warren Hymer) from harassing Jennie (Evalyn Knapp).

Harry, unbeknownst to Ma, has been working with Mitch and actually takes over the operation of the speakeasy when Mitch is arrested by Detective Sykes (Purnell Pratt) on suspicion of murdering a cohort. Ma hates liquor, not because it’s illegal, but because what it had done to Harry’s father, her late husband. When she finds the Buck has been directing people to Mitch’s speakeasy, she fires him from his booth.

Mitch isn’t in jail for long, as the evidence wasn’t enough for an indictment. But as soon as he’s out of jail, he finds that Harry has been skimming profits from the speakeasy. He plans to get him and sends Buck to find Harry.

To celebrate his release, other barkers on the pier throw him a party. Harry doesn’t go and instead makes a date with Myrtle (Joan Blondell), who works as a model at another booth run by Happy (Hank Mann). Her job is to pose in a prop car with strange men. But Harry has to go see Ma first, leaving Myrtle to wait for him. But Ma doesn’t like Myrtle and doesn’t want Harry to leave the house, which is right next to the penny arcade.

Harry makes a date with Myrtle (Joan Blondell), but has to go see his Ma first.

Harry though, knowing that Mitch is looking for him, takes his brother’s gun, which is in with Angel’s things, and sneaks out of the house. Angel has previously been sent by Ma to look for Harry. Meanwhile, Mitch has commandeered Buck’s booth to wait for Harry to leave the house. Upstairs, Jennie is about to go to bed when she looks out her bedroom window which overlooks the pier. She sees Mitch confront Harry gun drawn. Harry, though, takes out his own gun and shoots and kills Mitch. Jennie watches while her brother pulls the dead body into the booth and locks it inside out of view.

Mitch confronts Harry about skimmy profits from the speakeasy.

A patrol cop hears the gunshots and comes running. Angel is returning back to Ma’s, where he has a room as part of his employment. The two talk, but Angel convinces him that it must have been a car backfire. Once the cop leaves, Harry sneaks back into the house.

The next morning, Detective Sykes returns to the pier looking for Mitch. Harry begs Myrtle to give him an alibi, which she agrees to do. When Angel tries to break into Buck’s old booth to retrieve a pair of pliers he had lent him and now needs, Jennie stops him.

Later, Buck returns to his booth and breaks in to retrieve some personal items he’d left there. When he finds the body, he tells Sykes, who is speaking to Ma at the penny arcade. Det. Sykes is suspicious of Harry at first, but Myrtle gives him an alibi, much to Happy’s dissatisfaction. (The relationship between Happy and Myrtle is never defined, but Happy, who has the most elaborate and still worst comb-over ever, at least, seems jealous of Myrtle being with other men.)

Happy (Hank Mann) has an elaborate but really obvious comb-over.

Sykes then suspects Angel, who not only had a public falling out with Mitch, but also has a criminal record. The police start to search the park and close it down to the public, much to Ma’s and the other proprietor’s dismay. While you would expect the police to start with Ma’s house, they don’t. While they’re waiting, Harry breaks down and confesses to Ma. Not happy about Jennie and Angel’s burgeoning romance and their plans to leave, Ma decides to kill two birds with one stone. She decides to hide the gun in plain sight, putting it back with Angel’s suitcase.

Eventually, the police find the murder weapon and arrest Angel for the murder. While they are taking him away, Jennie finally breaks down and tells Sykes that she saw her brother Harry shoot Mitch. Harry is then led away.
With the murder solved, the park is reopened. Ma has no time to worry about Harry; there are suckers to fleece. She even puts Angel back to work as barker out to bring in customers.

In order to save Angel from being taken away by Det. Sykes (Purnell Pratt),
Jennie finally admits her brother Harry shot Mitch.

There are no records available about how well the film did at the box-office; Time magazine did appreciate its length and concise story. However, for only 60 minutes there is still filler. There is a scene in the film with Jennie and Angel down at the beach. She seems to run hot and cold throughout the movie, openly flirting with Angel one minute and then here not wanting him to kiss her even when they are all alone under the pier. While I’m sure this might have played well on stage and their relationship is important to the plot, this still feels like wasted time.

Grant Withers, who is the lead, had his greatest success in early talkies. Young, handsome and able to show sensitivity, Withers would get top billing in two early Cagney films, this and Other Men’s Women (1931). But as the years went by, Withers' stature fell. While he did manage to get a 10 year contract at Republic Films, he did not have the splashy career Cagney was destined to have. In Sinners' Holiday, he seems to be good-natured with a dry sense of humor. He’s likable, which is about all his character is required to be.

Likewise, Evelyn Knapp was a star out of the gates with talking pictures. She was one of fourteen girls, along with the likes of Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart, selected as "WAMPAS Baby Stars" in 1932. She would star in Bachelor Mother (1932), a film that would be remade in 1939 with Ginger Rogers in the lead. Knapp would co-star with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931) and find success in serials, starring in the title role in the Perils of Pauline (1933). In Sinners' Holiday, she is mostly fickle eye candy. Her character can’t seem to make up her mind if she’s in love with Angel or not, but she finally rises up to do the right thing, even If it means her brother goes to jail.

Lucille La Verne had been acting since 1888, starting out on stage before moving to silent films in 1915 with Over Night. She may be best remembered for, but uncredited as, the voice of the Queen and the Witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which would turn out to be her last film. Here she plays a strong and somewhat devious woman. She manages to infuse a rather one-dimensional role with a little depth.

While Cagney is not the star, you get the feeling he’s being prepared by the studio for bigger things. However, I wouldn’t say Cagney hit it out of the ballpark on his first time at bat. His character may play a killer, but it is almost by accident. This is not the tough gangster character that Cagney will become famous for playing. Harry, like Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), is a momma’s boy. Cagney, to his credit, plays it well and you can see the beginnings of a movie persona that he would get to develop over time. The Warner Bros. obviously say something, because his original contract, which had only covered the three week shoot, was extended and he was added to The Doorway to Hell (1930), starring Lew Ayres, that was already in production.

James Cagney, whose career was just starting, was going places after Sinners' Holiday.

Joan Blondell had appeared in a few Warner Bros. shorts before Sinners' Holiday, including Broadway’s Like That (1930), which also starred Humphrey Bogart, and the feature The Office Wife (1930), which was shot at the same time as, but released before, Sinners' Holiday. Blondell is underused in this role, mostly limited to looking pretty, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of meat on Myrtle’s bones.

Joan Blondell isn't given much to do in Sinners' Holiday.

One other note about the actors in the film, Hank Mann, Myrtle’s boss Happy, got his start as one of cinema’s first film comedians, working with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, as an original Keystone Cop. Fellow ensemble actor, Edgar Kennedy, credits Mann with originating the idea for the Cops in the first place. Again, his part in the film doesn’t really stretch the actor or give him a chance to demonstrate any comedic capabilities.

This is one of those films that is almost over before you know it. Typical of Warner Bros. programmers of the time, no grass grows under the characters in this film. The plot keeps moving forward, taking only a slight break for the scene with Jennie and Angel on the beach. The story really isn’t that bad, complete with treachery and deceit and, of course, murder. While this definitely has the elements of the gangster genre, including prohibition and a speakeasy, Sinners' Holiday is not nearly as violent nor the characters as menacing as would become more typical of the genre.

Overall, Sinners' Holiday is a film that might have gone completely unnoticed if it hadn’t been the debut of James Cagney, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s and 40s. A decent film, but certainly not a great one, it is worth watching if you’re a fan of Cagney’s.

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