Monday, June 19, 2017

The Sin Ship

Film In Focus

By Ed Garea

The 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.

A 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.

The 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 in love.”

Once 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.”

Later, 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.

The 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?”

His 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.”

As 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.”

If 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.

When 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.”

Her 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.”

The 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.”

Once 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 passengers were.

He 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.

Smiley 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.

The 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.

The 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.


This 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. 

The 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.

Ian 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.

The 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.”

Wolheim’s 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.”

In her autobiography, A Life on Film (Delacorte, 1971), Astor doesn’t have much good to say about the The Sin Ship, 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 RKO. The 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 Dust (1932) for MGM with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.   


Alperti 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.

Although 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.

1 comment:

  1. It looks good movie, story looks good, I believe worth giving a look. Thank you for sharing information about it with us