Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: SINNERS' HOLIDAY (1930)

Preceding Little Caesar into theaters by several weeks, John G. Adolfi's Sinners' Holiday arguably marks the beginning not only of the fabled Warner Bros. gangster genre but of "Warner Bros." itself as an archetype or style rather than a mere studio. It's the first film pairing of James Cagney, whose film debut this was, and Joan Blondell, making only her second feature film, and they instantly make it recognizable as a "Warner Bros." film in a way many studio releases of the same year aren't. Blondell and Cagney came to Hollywood to recreate the roles they played on Broadway, when the play was known as Penny Arcade and an appreciative Al Jolson, Warners' big musical star, was in the audience. They are not the primary characters, though Cagney plays a pivotal role. They seem immediately at home in a milieu of cynical, hard-boiled fast talk that soon would define the studio product. That milieu is a boardwalk full of carny attractions, including the once-titular arcade operated by Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne). Cagney's her youngest, Harry, and the role reminds me of Kirk Douglas in some of his earliest pictures when he might have been typed as a weasel. Keeping his voice at a high pitch, Cagney plays Harry as the sort of physical, mental and moral weakling moral experts then assumed gangsters to be; watching this, you understand why he was cast initially as the sidekick in The Public Enemy. While his Ma thinks him a good boy, Harry hangs out in pool halls, sucking up to Mitch (Warren Hymer), a bootlegger who runs some of the boardwalk concessions. The actual main character of the film is Angel (Grant Withers), an ex-con barker fired by Mitch and hired by Ma Delano to repair her arcade machines. She can use Angel but doesn't trust him, and she definitely doesn't want him hanging around her daughter Jennie (Evalyn Knapp). Harry has a crush on Myrtle (Blondell), a small-time gold digger, and an unlikely rival for her attentions in Happy (Hank Mann, Chaplin's opponent in the City Lights boxing match and quite adept in talkies.), another boardwalk carny.

The main plot kicks in when Mitch is pinched and has to serve time. Harry takes a chance and takes over the bootlegging operation, explaining his new wealth to his ma with vague remarks. When Mitch gets out he's out to get Harry, who shoots his erstwhile mentor in panic during a threatening confrontation. Jennie has seen the shooting but keeps silent as the cops start investigating. Suspicion swirls circumstantially around Angel, while Harry bribes Myrtle into providing an alibi for him. Ma starts to notice the holes in the stories Harry's telling, and doesn't like the way Myrtle is flaunting an apparent new power over her boy. Under pressure, Harry cracks in Cagney's big scene on both stage and screen. Blubbering like a baby, Harry begs Ma to cover for him. Still hostile to Angel, Ma agrees to help frame him for the killing, not realizing how easily Jennie can destroy their plan....

The stage is set for a tragic family showdown, but at the supreme moment Sinner's Holiday simply runs out of gas. The trap is almost shut around Angel when Jennie turns on her mother and brother. When she spills, we'd expect, after seeing Cagney's abject antics earlier, to see Harry have another breakdown, or attempt a breakout and go out like Cody Jarrett, a role for whom in some ways Harry Delano seems like a rough draft. But no, none of the above: once Jennie rats him out he surrenders instantly and dispassionately, like a good loser, consoling Ma by telling her, "You tried." This scene practically defines "anticlimax." The ultimate disappointment probably explains why Sinners' Holiday isn't as well remembered or regarded as its place in history might lead you to expect. Nevertheless, it's an indisputable milestone in the evolution of Warner Bros., with Cagney and Blondell -- aided admirably by the underrated Withers -- virtually creating a cinematic world before our eyes, or at least beginning the process.

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