This article was written as part of The Mary Astor Blogathon being hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings. Be sure to click the Blogathon banner to find your way to dozens of articles by other bloggers about Mary Astor and her movies, most better recalled than this one! My selection ties in with continuing coverage of the actor Louis Wolheim. The Sin Ship was the first film Wolheim directed and the final title he would star in prior to his death on February 18, 1931.
Anyone who has ever seen Louis Wolheim’s face understands that you don’t mess with him. Not on screen where it’s impossible not to cast him as the tough guy. His Captain Sam McVeigh of The Sin Ship is no exception.
“I don’t say no prayers, I don’t hit no cripples, and I don’t fall in love,” he tells first mate, Charlie (Hugh Herbert), shortly before falling for a woman who sets him straight in mind, body and soul.
When he first spots Mary Astor, dressed in white alongside her minister husband (Ian Keith), McVeigh tells Charlie, as though he were shopping from a catalogue, “That’s the kind I like.” Charlie soon adds, “A little pretty for the likes of us.”
The minister catches up to McVeigh inside a seedy bar and begs passage on his boat. McVeigh, with the beauty still on his mind and now visible just outside of the bar, agrees. Once on board he sends Charlie up to hustle the pretty woman down to his cabin, presumably for tea.
When Charlie leaves McVeigh locks the door behind him. “Why did you do that?” she asks him, already knowing the answer.
“Oh, just a little idea of mine,” he says, offering a drink quite a bit harder than tea, suggesting it might “put some red blood in them white veins of yours.” She calmly demands that he open the door.
“Oh, don’t be so innocent. Say, I’ve been dealing with women all of my life, all over the world. And I ain’t never found one different from another.” She once more requests to be let go. “Say, you must think I’m a big chump,” he tells her. “Did you think that I was letting you and that husband of yours ride free cause I’m getting holy?”
After a bit more banter fails to change McVeigh’s mind, she says, “I know what’s wrong with you. You’re soaked in liquor. Your mind is warped.” The good preacher’s wife finally escapes the situation by shaming the hardboiled captain: “You’re an animal, you have no fine feelings. Clean up your mind, your body, your soul. Then you’ll think better. You’ll live better.”
His head drops. He places the key to his cabin on the table and tells her to get out. “Women are not all like, Captain,” she says as she takes the key.
With that, the beast is tamed. But as Astor returns to Keith we immediately learn that the Captain was worshipping a false idol.
She shuts the door behind herself and begins to giggle. Our minister seems a bit too nasty when he greets her. She lights a cigarette and tells him what happened. “McVeigh, our noble captain, just pulled the Hairy Ape gag—on me!” She thinks it’s a riot, and surely so does anyone else in the audience who realizes that Astor just named the Eugene O’Neill play that brought fame to Wolheim on Broadway nearly a decade earlier.
“So I pulled the outraged, good woman gag on him,” she tells her husband. “Did I put on an act. Gosh, I almost believed it myself. And he fell for it!”
Keith, reverting to his more normal character, scolds her. “Wouldn’t be so good if he found out that you’re Frisco Kitty and these clothes are phony,” he says, tugging at 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 a new Captain McVeigh unleashes himself on his crew. His clean white shirt inspires one of his men to remark, “Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.” That must have brought some groans from Wolheim fans attending what was his final, posthumous, performance in 1931.
The remainder of The Sin Ship is about McVeigh’s reformation and Frisco Kitty’s slow acceptance of him and her desire to retain the “fine and good” feeling that this reformed McVeigh has in turn brought to her. Ian Keith’s Smiley is the obstacle for each of them.
The new McVeigh treats Preacher Smiley with as much respect as he does his wife, accepting that he cannot have the woman that he loves. And the real Smiley keeps his wife, Frisco Kitty, from completely turning over that new leaf for herself for as long as he possibly can.
The Sin Ship features Wolheim as directed by Wolheim. It was the only film he was able to direct before his death, early in 1931, two months before the movie was released. The cast is small, with the odd triangle between Wolheim, Astor and Keith filling most of the movie and Hugh Herbert, slightly pre-Woo woo antics, attempting to provide comedy relief in a more straight-laced manner than we soon become accustomed to. Besides McVeigh’s half dozen or so crew members, there is really only one additional character of any consequence in The Sin Ship.
About half of the film takes place on board McVeigh’s ship and, according to Film Daily, 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.
Louis Wolheim had worked with Mary Astor previously in Lewis Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights, a successful silent film from 1927, but The Sin Ship came during a period of Astor’s career of which she held little recollection.
Astor’s first husband, Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard Hawks), had died at work on a film early in 1930. Astor wrote that at that time she “had to dispose of money anxieties and accept a contract for which I had little enthusiasm” (Astor 88). That was the RKO deal that led to The Sin Ship, one of eight “B” films she made that year—”all of them pretty bad”—six at RKO and two on loan. Happier days were on the immediate horizon for Astor, who married second husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, in June 1931, just a couple of months after The Sin Ship’s release. The former silent star with the tough start in talkies caught back on once and for all with the 1932 MGM release Red Dust, starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
The Sin Ship came and went. Despite Miss Astor including it amongst the “pretty bad” it has its moments. Wolheim, likely concentrating more on his directorial duties, gives the weakest of the three main performances, though anyone would have been hard-pressed to believably carry off the quick shift in his character’s outlook. Keith, the former stage actor perhaps best recalled today for playing Joan Blondell’s alcoholic husband in film noir classic Nightmare Alley (1947), has the juiciest role as Astor’s villainous husband. Astor would have benefitted from a few extra scenes in full Frisco Kitty mode, but her character manages to be a bit more believable in her evolution than Wolheim’s does.
Film Daily called The Sin Ship “mild entertainment” that got by on the “action stuff.” Photoplay concluded that it “doesn’t stand up” and remarked that Wolheim once more proved the difficulty in splitting yourself between acting and directing. The Sin Ship fared better in Motion Picture, who remarked, “a lively time is had by all,” but warned, “it would grieve us to see Louis go down the chute which has swallowed so many other players with a yen to direct.”
While there can be little doubt that had he survived Louis Wolheim would have become one of the great character actors of the 1930s, The Sin Ship leaves us to wonder if he would have directed more movies. Just prior to his death Picture Play said no, reporting that Wolheim “had made up his mind to stick to acting.” It’s an enjoyable movie, a good enough story with colorful characters, but Wolheim’s touch doesn’t distinguish itself in any way beyond perhaps wondering if it may have turned out better in someone else’s hands.
The death of Wolheim seems to have doomed The Sin Ship. RKO does not appear to have thrown much, if any, force behind promoting it. It accumulated 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. Once it was gone, so was Wolheim. For a time.
The Sin Ship has never had a video release. Screen captures on this page were taken from a previous airing on Turner Classic Movies. Please check the top area of TCM's page for The Sin Ship for any scheduled future air dates (none as of this writing).
- Astor, Mary. A Life on Film. First British Edition. London: W.H. Allen, 1973.
- Schallert, Edwin and Elza. "Hollywood High Lights." Picture Play March 1931: 31.