Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: THEY CALL IT SIN (1932)

Loretta Young faces a terrible dilemma in this Warner Bros. production directed by Thornton Freeland: her character must choose romantically between David Manners and George Brent, two of the real stiffs among leading men of the era. Manners, who lives in infamy as Jonathan Harker in the Tod Browning Dracula, plays the archetypal traveling salesman, albeit in a higher social circle. Despite his engagement to the boss's daughter (Helen Vinson), Jimmy Decker falls for the lovely young church organist in the small town he's stuck in one weekend. "I'm just the farmer's daughter," Loretta Young says prophetically, but everything Marion Cullen knows about her life is wrong. Why does she rebel against her rustic parents, and why does her rebellion take musical form? Because they're not her parents; they adopted her after the death of her birth mother, a single woman and an entertainer. Her ability to improvise on the organ after services proves that blood will tell and, resentful of the folks' opposition to her dalliance with Decker, she runs away to the big city, where she hopes to look him up if not hook up with him. When Jimmy finally fesses up to his engagement, Marion cuts him dead, resolving to make it on her own.

A few weeks later, Marion has applied for work everywhere and gotten nowhere. She hopes to audition for the new show put on by producer Ford Humphries (Louis Calhern) but his secretary sends everyone home after one applicant slinks out of his office with what might be described as a sort of arrogant shame. Fortunately, Marion's sitting next to Dixie Dare (Una Merkel), who never takes "go home" for an answer. Dixie is an eccentric dancer who's at once aggressive and lazy, somehow inflicting herself on Humphries's attention yet unwilling to demonstrate her specialty cartwheels as she auditions. No matter; Humphries is more interested in Dixie's new sidekick, who fills in on the rehearsal-room piano after the regular man has gone home. Humphries hires Marion as a rehearsal pianist for his new show and promises to "find something" for Dixie, who in gratitude takes the almost-homeless Marion in as her roomie.

They Call It Sin is like a backstage musical without the musical numbers as Dixie annoys the director with her refusal to cartwheel during rehearsals while Marion makes more of an impression with her music. Meanwhile, Marion starts a relationship with one of Jimmy Decker's cronies, Dr. Tony Travers (Brent), who got her out of Jimmy's apartment earlier to avoid an embarrassing encounter with Jimmy's fiancee. Even after the fiancee becomes his wife, Jimmy still carries a torch for Marion and tells her so in front of Humphries, who's starting to feel left out. He fires Marion, then fires Dixie after she stands up for Marion. Then he commits plagiarism, taking a songwriting credit for a tune Marion wrote. Jimmy steps in to press Marion's intellectual-property claims upon Humphries, confronting the drunken producer in his high-rise apartment. Once we have a drunk and a balcony, I think you can guess the rest.

Marion knew Jimmy was going to see Humphries, assumes the worst and tries to take the blame for it the way people do in movies. However, she hasn't reckoned with the medical powers of Dr. Travers. Told that Humphries can live but a few minutes longer with his fractures skull -- he didn't fall all the way down but landed on a lower balcony -- the good doctor takes heroic measures to restore the doomed man to consciousness long enough for an ante-mortem interview. Humphries hangs on long enough to get both Marion and Jimmy off the hook, confessing to his own clumsiness before taking his final bow. Now comes that dreadful choice I mentioned earlier. Jimmy is willing to break up with his wife if Marion wants him, but then again there's Dr. Travers, who kept her out of jail. I'd say Manners is slightly the better looker than Brent but the latter may have the slight edge in charisma. In the end, the script decides....

It says something about the Pre-Code era that some reviewers, and presumably more spectators, didn't find this picture very sinful at all.

What's missing is any real sensuality, what with Brent and Manners hovering heavily over the proceedings, though Una Merkel provides the almost-mandatory lingerie shots to keep things slightly spicy. She provides nearly all the comedy amid all the near-tragedies of the story. Ironically, she closes the show with a quasi-orgasmic private dance, complete with cartwheels, to celebrate the heroine's ultimate romantic choice. Merkel steals the picture from Loretta Young whenever she's on screen, but to be fair to Young hers was a relatively thankless starring role, given her suitors. In any event, small town girl makes good, and if there was any sin involved -- the Spokane reviewer clipped above seems doubtful -- she doesn't suffer much for it. It'd be hard no matter what for a picture to live up to that perfect Pre-Code title, but even with all its handicaps They Call it Sin could've been much worse, and the mild praise from Spokane seems just about right.

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