By the time veteran character actor Louis Wolheim earned cinematic immortality as the wise old German soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front he was probably a dead man walking already. He succumbed to stomach cancer on February 18, 1931, two months before RKO released The Sin Ship, though some exhibitors brought back Danger Lights, an August 1930 release, and billed it as his last. We last saw Wolheim in a Lon Chaney reject, The Ship From Shanghai, from earlier in 1930, and he never quite escaped Chaney's shadow despite never aspiring to more than one ugly face. Reviewers of Danger Lights noted a similarity to Chaney's Thunder, his last silent picture. Both are train stories of a once-popular genre -- the publishers of Argosy also put out a monthly Railroad Stories for many years. Director George B. Seitz helps us understand the genre's popularity. Filming mostly on location in railyards and with extensive second-unit filming of trains racing across the country, Seitz made a high-tech spectacle that was exhibited in some markets in an early widescreen process. Danger Lights is a relic of a time when the equivalent of fighting robots was staging a "tug of war" between two locomotives, the engines going head to head in brute battles for supremacy, whistles blasting, steam billowing.
Wolheim's hero, the railyard boss Dan Thorn, is a kind of benevolent monster himself. Only such a creature could turn Robert "Carl Denham" Armstrong into a romantic hero by default. Thorn is courting Mary Ryan (Jean Arthur is twenty years Wolheims junior and seems younger still) who unsurprisingly finds herself drawn to the younger, relatively handsome Larry Doyle (Armstrong), who arrives as a hobo and proves to have been an ace engineer who'd been fired for insubordination. He proves his potential initially by putting up a fight when Thorn chases a gang of hoboes from a freight car; Thorn is the stronger man and Doyle is half-starved, but the younger man gets up from two Wolheim haymakers before finally going down for the count, impressing Thorn with his pluck.
Thorn soon arranges to have Doyle reinstated as an engineer, not realizing that the one thing really keeping Larry on the job is the nearness of Mary. Dan Thorn is a helpful busybody, invading a speakeasy to prevent a veteran engineer from starting on a bender after his wife dies. There's something selfless about him that makes the film's ending predictable, but Dan first must go through a fit of jealousy when he discovers Larry and Mary's betrayal on the night he announced his engagement. Dan is in a killing mood as he stalks up the track in a driving rain -- experienced pre-Code viewers will be reminded of another rail picture of the same year, William Wellman's Other Men's Women -- and fate hands him a neat package when Larry gets his foot caught in a suddenly shifted rail tie. But when the big train comes bearing down, big-hearted Dan can't just watch a man die. He wrenches Larry free and tosses him off the track, only to take a direct hit from the train in a brutal-looking special effect. Miraculously, he isn't instantly killed, but the doctor says he will die unless he can have a highly-specialized brain operation in the next five hours. Cue the climax as Larry takes an express train on a record run to Chicago to deliver dan to the specialist. Larry has redeemed himself, which means it's pathos-of-renunciation time for Dan, who realizes that his real love was the railroad all along. The film teases a full-pathos finish as Dan seems to expire despite everyone's efforts, but a random comment from outside that the old man had gone soft brings him back from beyond with a vengeance for a comic coda.
Even in 1930 reviewers found much of this hokey, but today Danger Lights remains a spectacular looking early talkie. John W. Boyle and Karl Struss team up for forceful black-and-white cinematography and the reality of most of the train action may be more impressive now than it was back then, when trains may have been taken for granted. The most obvious fake moments are the comic-relief bits featuring Hugh Herbert as a loquacious hobo who ends up stowing away for the record run to Chicago, hanging on for dear life all the way. Herbert was actually a co-director on this shoot, receiving credit as "dialogue director" and doing creditable work in that capacity. It's interesting to see him grubbier than the fey "woo-woo" persona he developed as a Warner Bros. contract player, and RKO must have liked the byplay of Herbert and Wolheim, since Herbert was promoted to full sidekick for Sin Ship, with Wolheim sharing in the direction this time, Lynn Shores assisting as "pictorial director." This later film contributes to the confusion between Herbert and his homonymous doppelganger F. Hugh Herbert, who co-wrote it as he would several of just plain Hugh's Warner Bros. pictures. But it's most interesting to see Wolheim as Sin Ship's ultimate auteur, taking charge of his career at the very end and giving himself a happy ending for once.
To some extent Sin Ship feels like a do-over of Ship From Shanghai, at least insofar as it revives the image of Wolheim as a brute on board a boat. This time he's the captain, Sam McVey, with Herbert as his first mate, but like the megalomaniacal steward of Shanghai, the Wolheim character longs for the sincere love of a woman, though mere sex would do, too. He tries to impose himself on his new female passenger (Mary Astor), despite her being the wife of a missionary (Ian Keith). She stands her ground and chews him out -- and he feels legitimately crestfallen and ashamed of himself. He resolves immediately to turn a new leaf, to the dismay of his oft-drunken mate, while Mrs. Missionary reports her encounter to hubby with a lot of laughter after lighting a cigarette. She remarks that the captain "pulled a Hairy Ape act" -- an in-joke for those who knew that Wolheim had created the title role of Eugene O'Neill's play of that name nearly a decade before. Keith and Astor are not what they pretend to be, but are a bank robber and his moll on the run from the law. As a contrite captain prepares for his return trip to the States, the crooks grow concerned that he'll be questioned about his passengers and lead investigators right to them. To prevent that, or delay it until they can make plans to move on, Keith sabotages the ship's engine and urges Astor, who has just received a painfully-drafted letter from McVey begging forgiveness ("You was right. I was an animal"), to seduce the broken-nosed sea dog.
According to Sin Ship's romantic dialectic, Astor's fake moralism has inspired Wolheim to reform sincerely, wearing a clean white uniform and enforcing stricter discipline on his crew, e.g. no card-playing on Sunday. In turn, his sincere effort to be a better person gradually melts Astor's hard heart. She begins to feel guilty about deceiving him and begins to respond in unexpected ways to his surprisingly naive appreciation of the higher things in life. Soon she wants to quit the imposture, while Keith, who feels invincible after passing the generic fake-preacher-must-give-a-sermon test ("I cracked a sermon like I'd crack a safe!") begins to grow jealous. He forces her to stay away from a dinner party the captain holds for them, while he sits at home drinking heavily. Inevitably the mask falls, and for a moment the movie teases that the captain in his vengeful rage might rape the Astor character. But the helpful appearance of a police detective resolves things more neatly than anyone might have expected and sets up the still-less expected happy ending.
As a director, Wolheim is at least a better director of himself than Charles Brabin was for him in Ship From Shanghai. His and Shores's combined effort is effective without being showy, and with cinematographer Nick Musaraca they often work out intersting framing for dialogue and stark contrasts of light and shadow. While the ending definitely seems too good to be true, Wolheim is made likable enough to deserve it-- though he becomes a moralist he never turns martinet. The Wolheim-Herbert comic team clicks as RKO hoped, the letter-drafting scene being a highlight of the picture as the two crude men struggle to produce a civilized epistle. As a posthumous picture some unintended pathos hangs over Sin Ship, but it works in the film's favor. It seems right that someone so typed as a thug should get the girl at the end of his career. It reinforces the feeling that after All Quiet, Wolheim went out a winner.