Monday September 02, 2019
Movie Review: Sinners' Holiday (1930)
See the sinners? See the holiday?
The reason we still care about this 60-minute “All-Talking Picture” from 1930, and why a print has been preserved at the Library of Congress, isn’t because of its director (John G. Adolfi), nor its lead (Grant Withers), and certainly not because it’s considered a classic (it’s a bit meh). No, it’s the fourth-billed talent: a Vaudevillian hoofer from New York making his film debut named James Cagney. He won’t be fourth-billed for long.
Do you know the story of how it and he came to be? The Broadway version, “Penny Arcade” by Marie Baumer, which included Cagney and Joan Blondell, premiered earlier in the year and closed after only three weeks. During that time, though, Al Jolson saw it, bought the rights, and recommended both Cagney and Blondell to Warners. (Jolson should’ve been a talent scout.) “I came out on a three-week guarantee,” Cagney remembers in his 1974 autobiography, “and I stayed, to my absolute amazement, for 31 years.”
Since the play/movie concerns Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) who runs the Coney Island penny arcade with her kids—the non-descript Joe (Ray Gallagher), the pretty Jenny (Evelyn Knapp), and the ne’er-do-well Harry (Cagney)—“Penny Arcade” isn’t a bad title. Why did they change it? Cagney again:
There was a great vogue then for pictures with “holiday” in the title, and “Sinners’ Holiday” was part of that trend. That title had as much to do with the picture as Winnie-the-Pooh.
It opens well. Over the credits, we hear the sounds and squeals of Coney Island; then we see several barkers working the crowds. I love the enthusiasm of the pitch versus the tawdry reality of the enterprise. They’re selling thrills and sex, but the sex in particular is already bored with it.
One guy says you can get your picture taken with a pretty girl, Myrtle (Blondell), but she’s off to the side, cracking gum, reading a movie magazine, and could care less. Joe Delano, at mom’s behest, extols the penny arcade, while Buck Rogers (Noel Madison), of all names, encourages men to take turns hitting a target, which will “tip the girls back in their chairs,” and you win a cigar. He’s also directing Prohibition-era traffic to bootlegger Mitch McKane (Warren Hymer). “Tell ’im Buck Rogers sent ya,” he says. It’s booze, cigars and upskirts: Doucheville 1930.
But my absolute favorite is a place called Palace of Joy, whose barker, Angel Harrigan (Withers), extols as a place where you can, drink and be merry all for a dime. “Just one thin dime, folks! And you get to see these gorgeous, beautiful women.” He motions to five not-very attractive women standing in coats next to him. “Give ’em a quick flash, girls,” he says. They do so, bored to death. I love that. Right away we know this is a movie about the con. Which makes it a perfect movie for Warners, con artists themselves, who had a tendency to celebrate the grifters of the world. Cf., “Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” “Picture Snatcher.”
The first time we see Cagney—in movie history—he’s playing cards, his back to us. Then he stands up:
Card player: Not going already, are you?
Harry: Already? I’ve been here since yesterday afternoon. There’s going to be an awful beef out of the old lady when she sees me.
His voice is higher-pitched than we’re used to, but still slippery and fast, and there’s already something alive about his face. In the biography, “Cagney,” by John McCabe, fellow actors often talked up how much Cagney listened to them during their scenes together. Shirley Jones:
He always gave to you. Totally unselfish. You never had any sense of your being alone in a scene, as you do with actors who are mainly concerned with themselves. Jim was always with you, listening to you carefully, truthfully...
You can see this quality right away when he’s talking to Mitch, who’s about to hijack some booze. You can see it when he’s talking to his mom, who berates him for “tom-catting” all night. But we quickly come to realize this isn’t the classic Cagney character. Yes, mama’s boy. Yes, hanging with hoods. But he’s not tough, and he’s not straightforward. He’s two-faced. In his autobiography, Cagney calls the character a “sniveling murderer.”
Storyline, such as it is: While Angel tries to romance Harry’s sister, Jenny, and while Myrtle tries to romance Harry, Mitch gets busted and asks Harry to look after things while he’s in jail. Harry does so but skims the dough for himself. When Mitch returns, he comes gunning for Harry; but Harry, panicky, shoots first, and hides the body in the closed “Hit the Bulls Eye, Up She Goes” booth. The next day the cops arrive, the body is found, and everyone’s questioned in a kind of working-class “the butler did it” tableau—even though we know who did it.
So does Jenny. She saw her brother kill Mitch from her upstairs window. Initially I’m like, “So what? She’s not going to turn in her brother for a lout like Mitch.” But then Angel becomes the prime suspect, and you go, “Ah, that’s the dilemma: beau or brother.” She eventually goes with her beau and the truth, Harry confesses and is taken into custody, and the world, and Coney Island, keep spinning.
You know what I wanted? More of a tour of the penny arcade. What amused people for a penny in the 1930? At one point, Angel—fired by Mitch, hired by Ma to fix the machines—is standing next to something called “The IT Girl,” with the tagline “She’s got IT.” 1¢. Next to that is “The Midnight Girl.” But I can’t tell what these machines are. Ur-pinball? Bagatelle? Slot machine? Amberolas? I want to walk around the joint and try things out. All of that background stuff is way more interesting to me than the foreground melodrama.
I could’ve used more Blondell, too. She’s great—forever eating hot dogs. Withers is broad, goofy and cynical; you get why he didn’t last as a leading man—though he had a nice career as a secondary player for John Ford, among others, before committing suicide in 1959. Evalyn Knapp would become so highly touted she was tapped for the lead in the feature-film remake of the 1914 serial “The Perils of Pauline”; but her career, like a lot of the early Warner Bros. blondes, didn’t last much past the 1930s. Director Adolfi would die three years later, age 52, but not before he directed eight more movies, including the prestige picture “Alexander Hamilton,” starring George Arliss, and based on his Broadway play of the 1910s.
As for that sniveling murderer? He’d get a few more secondary roles, usually as the pal to the lead, before being cast again as the pal to the lead in “The Public Enemy.” Then director William Wellman saw something in him and decided maybe he shouldn’t be secondary after all.