Sin Ship (RKO, 1931) – Director: Louis
Wolheim. Writers: F. Hugh Herbert (s/p). Keene Thompson & Agnes
Brand Leahy (story). Stars: Louis Wolheim, Mary Astor, Ian Keith,
Hugh Herbert, Russ Powell & Alan Roscoe. B&W, 65 minutes.
cursory glance at the title might lead one to think the film is about
a floating bordello/casino/opium den loose on the waters. But it’s
nothing of the sort. It’s really about the redemption of two people
who have gone astray.
film opens in the captain’s cabin of the ship, where Captain Sam
McVey (Wolheim) is deep in conversation with First Mate Charlie
(Herbert). Charlie wants to settle down. McVey laughs him off, “I
don’t say no prayers, I don’t help no cripples and I don’t fall
on the dock they spot a comely women (Astor) walking alongside her
minister husband. McVey is immediately taken: “A woman’s woman,
ain’t she? And that’s the kind I like.” Charlie tries to splash
a little water on the fire, “A little pretty for the likes of us.”
at a seaside bar, the minister approaches McVey about giving them
passage to Mexico. Getting another look at his wife standing outside,
the captain quickly agrees.
party soon shoves off, and while the minister and his wife enjoy the
sun on the boat’s deck, McVey is figuring how to lure her down to
his cabin. He sends Charlie to invite her to tea. As she enters the
cabin McVey locks the door behind her. When she asks why he did that
he replies, “Just a little idea of mine.” When she demands he
open the door, he answers, “Do you think I was letting you and that
husband of yours ride free because I was getting holy?”
ideas of seduction, however, are quickly extinguished by his
prisoner, who goes on the attack. “I know what’s wrong with you,”
she says. “You’re soaked in liquor. Your mind is warped. You
could be fine if you wanted to be. You’re the captain, You’re
supposed to be better than your crew.”
she sees she has him on the ropes, she continues. “You’re being
the worst. The captain is the police, the judge and jury of his boat.
He should protect his passengers. He’s supposed to have honor. But
not you. You’re an animal. You have no fine feelings. Clean up your
mind, your body, your soul. Then you’ll think better, live better.”
she’s going down, it won’t be without a fight. However, she’s
made her point. McVey throws the key on the table and tells her to
leave. “Women are not all alike, Captain,” she says as she grabs
the key to leave.
she returns to her cabin she bursts out laughing. “McVey,” she
tells her husband, “our noble captain, just pulled the 'Hairy Ape'
gag on me. His man asked me if I’d like to have tea with him in his
cabin. New idea, no? So I pulled the outraged good woman gag on him.
Did I put on an act! Gosh, I almost believed it myself. And he fell
for it! I left him groggy.”
husband reverts to his real self as he tells her to go easy, lest
anyone discover they are really bank robbers Smiley Marsden and his
wife, Frisco Kitty. “Wouldn’t be so good if he found out that
you’re Frisco Kitty and these clothes are phony,” he says while
pulling on his holy garb. “You seem to forget that they’re
looking for Mr. Smiley Marsden, the man that cracked the Liberty
National Bank in Seattle, accompanied by his dear wife.”
next morning his crew sees a new Captain McVey one that has given up
the bottle and is wearing a clean white shirt. They are stunned, to
say the least. This isn’t the captain they know. One remarks,
“Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.”
in Mexico and ridden with guilt, McVey composes a note of apology to
Kitty and gives it to Charlie to deliver. Later, in their cabin,
Smiley reads the note. At the end McVey says he’s returning to San
Diego. This unnerves Smiley. He tells Kitty that McVey leaving port
so soon might lead the police to investigate and discover who his
tells Kitty that she must play up to McVey to stall him. For his
part, Smiley will sabotage the engine so they can’t leave. She
leave a drunken Marsden in his cabin that night to make her date with
McVey. The complacent captain tells her how she’s changed his life.
His apology is so effusive and sincere that she is clearly taken
aback. Later, when she returns to Smiley, she declares that she just
couldn’t go through with it.
sabotages the engined and McVey and crew are stuck. Things are
beginning to fall apart. McVey invites Smiley and Kitty to the boat
for dinner. She shows, he doesn’t. Kitty makes apologies. When she
returns, Smiley is jealous that she went to see the captain.
crew is beginning to blame their captain for the misfortune. At a
showdown the crew tells their captain they believe it was he who
sabotaged the engine so they would have to stay in Mexico. They also
hint to him that Kitty may come to a bad end.
plot climaxes when McVey saunters over to the hotel to warn Kitty and
Marsden. Smiley angrily reveals his and Kitty's true identities.
McVey, taken totally aback, denounces Kitty and knocks out Marsden
just as an undercover police detective conveniently bursts into the
room to arrest him for the bank robbery. While Kitty is being held in
the hotel, McVey sneaks back to her room. He accepts both her apology
and her declaration of love. Kitty and McVey vow to wait for each
other, but it’s unnecessary as the detective all too conveniently
shoots and kills an escaping Marsden and grants Kitty her release to
be with her captain.
was the only film directed by Wolheim before his untimely death from
stomach cancer at the age of 50 on February 18, 1931. The Sin
Ship marked his final appearance on screen and was released
after his death. Shortly after he finished the film he was quoted as
saying that this was his first and last film as a director and in the
future he would concentrate on acting. Had he lived, I think it would
be easy to say that he would have developed into one of the dominant
character actors of the ‘30s.
Sin Ship overall is an enjoyable movie, with much more
emphasis on character than plot. The cast is small, with the romantic
triangle between Wolheim, Astor and Keith dominating the movie.
Herbert provided a nice attempt at being comedy relief and it’s
nice to see him in his early days before he typecast himself with the
“Woo hoo hoo” nonsense. The best performance comes from Astor,
who made the film while still mourning the death of her husband,
director Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard) in an airplane crash
filming action scenes for the film Such Men Are Dangerous on
January 2, 1930. Her evolution during the course of the film from the
hard-edged Frisco Kitty is believable, though she could have
benefited from a few extra scenes to further develop her character.
Keith, as Smiley, has the juiciest role and he makes the most of it.
He began his career on the Broadway stage before making the jump to
moves in the Gloria Swanson vehicle Manhandled (Paramount,
1924). By the time he died in 1960 of a heart attack he had amassed
119 credits in film and television. His best-known role was that of
Joan Blender’s alcoholic husband in Nightmare Alley (20th
Century Fox, 1947). He also played John Wilkes Booth in D.W.
Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (U.A., 1930), Octavian
in DeMille’s version of Cleopatra (Paramount,
1934), and was one of the actor originally considered for
Universal’s Dracula after the death of Lon Chaney.
weakest portrayal in the film comes from Wolheim himself. As the film
progresses he frequently looks distracted, possibly the result of
wearing two hats – that of an actor and that of a director. His
direction is workmanlike and he was helped by the absence of action
scenes. The appearance of the undercover detective at the end was a
little too pat and the evolution of his captain from hard-drinking
lout into reformed delinquent also strains credulity. When Astor is
laughing as she tells Smiley about her encounter with McVey, she
mentions him pulling “the hairy ape gag” on her. This is an
inside nod to the fact that Wolheim became a star on Broadway playing
the character of Yank in the original stage production of
O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in 1922. There is more
than a little irony in the line muttered by one of the crew after
McVey cleans himself up: “Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.”
death seems to have sunk The Sin Ship, as its studio,
RKO, didn’t seem to have gotten behind it. Cliff Alperti, writing
on the movie for his site, Immortal Ephemera, notes the
film got mostly middling reviews, “which usually didn’t even
bother to mention the death of its star and director, while playing
across the country throughout half of 1931.”
her autobiography, A
Life on Film (Delacorte,
1971), Astor doesn’t have much good to say about the The
writing that due to money problems after the death of her husband she
had to sign a contract “for which I had little enthusiasm” with
Sin Ship was
one of eight films she made that year. I had the feeling reading
the book that this was a time Astor preferred to forget for personal
and professional reasons. She did manage to rebound in both areas: In
June 1931 she married second husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, just a
couple of months after the film’s release and she regained her
career momentum with a meaty role in Red
for MGM with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
quotes Film Daily as saying that RKO hired out
speedboats at $500 per day to keep other ships from interrupting
their work in the area of Catalina Island where they filmed.
some blogs say otherwise, screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert and actor
Hugh Herbert are not one and the same. The screenwriter's full name
is Frederick Hugh Herbert. He was born on May 29, 1897 in Vienna,
Austria-Hungary. Actor Hugh Herbert was born on August 10, 1884 in
Binghamton, New York.