Laughing Sinners (1931)

Toronto Film Society presented Laughing Sinners (1931) on Sunday, June 3, 2018 in a double bill with Fast Workers as part of the Season 71 Sunday Afternoon Special Screening.

Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Director: Harry Beaumont.  Assistant Director: William Ryan.  Based on the play “Torch Song” by Kenyon Nicholson.  Screen Play: Bess Meredyth, Edith Fitzgerald, Martin Flavin.  Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons.  Cinematography: Charles Rosher, George Gordon Nogle.  Camera & Electrical: George Hommel, Harry Marble, Roy Noble.  Film Editing: George Hively.  Recording Director: Douglas Shearer.  Sound: Charles E. Wallace.  Costume Design: Adrian (gowns).  Dance Arranger: Mosconi.  Release Date: May 30, 1931.

Cast: Joan Crawford (Ivy “Bunny” Stevens), Neil Hamilton (Howard “Howdy” Palmer), Clark Gable (Carl Loomis), Marjorie Rambeau (Ruby), Guy Kibbee (Cass Wheeler), Cliff Edwards (Mike), Roscoe Karns (Fred Geer), Gertrude Short (Edna), George Cooper (Joe), George F. Marion (Humpty), Bert Woodruff (Tink), Henry Armetta (Tony), Jack Baxley (Waiter), Clara Blandick (Salvation Army Woman), Sherry Hall (Poker-Playing Salesman), Tenen Holtz (Poker-Playing Salesman), Mary Ann Jackson (Betty), Karen Morley (Estelle Seldon—photograph in newspaper), Lee Phelps (Poker-Playing Salesman), Henry Roquemore (Man Boarding Train), Suzanne Wood (Dowager).

So now you know the connection between the two films.  And it’s interesting to surmise how the studio and the writers would have come up with the idea of using that clip from that particular film for the background scene between Mae Clarke and Robert Armstrong.  Mae Clarke’s character was already pretty hardened and manipulative before the story we saw began so we can only be reflective as to what her life was like up until then.  She most certainly had more experience to be craftier and used her smarts when it came to dealing with men like Gunner than Crawford’s character Ivy, as you will see, has when dealing with Neil Hamilton’s character.  This may just be for the simple reason that Fast Workers was made two years after Laughing Sinners when the women got tougher and the times got crazier.

Robert Armstrong’s character, Bucker, was a weak oaf, looking for a woman he could settle down with, but is totally influenced by and jealous of Gunner.  He couldn’t make up his own mind about a woman, and his judgement was way off when he verbalized his thoughts.  Gunner was always able to shoot him down with sarcastic remarks which went way over his head.  So, when Bucker and Mary go to the movies, their comments on Ivy and Neil Hamilton’s character, Howard, are based on what has come prior to the scene we see.  He’s comparing Howard to Gunner, who is also a smooth operator when it comes to women, and Mary sees herself, and most women, in Ivy.

But Ivy’s innate character is more trusting and far from the gold-digger that Mary was.  If anyone is “promiscuous”, it’s the caddish men.  And here’s where Gable is surprisingly cast during this early time in his career.  Prior to today’s film, he was a gangster in Dance, Fools, Dance, the film that first paired him with Crawford and had the public clamouring for more.  That followed with him playing another gangster in A Free Soul which has the heroine, played by Norma Shearer, thinking of him as more of a boy-toy than anyone to be serious about.  And then following this, he plays his most villainous, violent and brutish role in Night Nurse, a truly repugnant character.   Most interesting of course is that this is what his audience wanted to see, Gable’s sexual appeal smouldering through his nastiness, which I image would especially leave his female viewers feeling rather unsettled.

Laughing Sinners is somewhat of an odd pre-Code.  It’s sexually explicit with a religious morality theme.    The speech that Clark Gable’s character Carl gives to Ivy near the end of the film would never be found in any dialogue in any film after the Code came into being.  And yet on the other hand, it also seems rather odd for the era, that Carl and Ivy stay platonic friends for all the time they are practically living together.

On a couple of other notes, notice the rather nice haircut for a poor kid, the one that Carl and Ivy talk to during their picnic.  In retrospect to what we learned about Crawford as a mother, it’s interesting to observe her interaction with the child in the film.

Johnny Mack Brown was originally cast in the Clark Gable role and all his scenes had to be reshot.  The reason for this, if I remember correctly, was because Gable was on his way up while Mack Brown was on his way down.  And due to all the fan mail asking for Crawford and Gable to be paired again in a film, the studio thought the cost to reshoot the required sequences was worth the money.

Neil Hamilton was a leading man in silent films, and a distant cousin of Margaret Hamilton who will forever be famous for playing the Wicked Witch of the West.  His later, best known role would probably be Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV series in the 60s.  Despite playing a womanizer in this film, he was married to Elsa Whitmer for 62 years until his death at the age of 85 in September 1984.

And lastly, enjoy actor Guy Kibbee in his Oscar-worthy inebriated scene.

Introduction by Caren Feldman

More literal was the figurativeness in Laughing Sinners (1931). On a windswept, rainy night, Joan Crawford drives up to a train station to meet her traveling salesman boyfriend. Her face is ecstatic, ravenous with sexual passion; only the most naked lust could compel a woman out on a night like this. She leaps on the train, embraces him, and runs down the train corridor arm in arm with her lover. According to MPPDA (The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) secretary Carl Milliken, the need for suggestive inventiveness spurred creative ingenuity. “The Code provides the laws of art for motion pictures and every art must have its laws,” Milliken declared approvingly in 1931. “The Code is making dramatists out of writers.” In other words, as long as the immoral intimations were subtle, tasteful, and mainly offscreen, they were cleared for release. After the imposition of the 1934 Code, “figurative literalness”—though now more figurative than literal—would be [the] preferred, often the only, way to smuggle impure thoughts and deeds onto the Hollywood screen.

Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, & Insurrection in the American Cinema by Thomas P. Doherty (1999)

Crawford with Gable on left; Crawford with Johnny Mack Brown on right

Gable’s star was moving fast, though it was difficult to chart the rise in the crowded MGM heavens. But when a star fell, it happened so quickly that no one had time to even make a wish on it. John Mack Brown, who had played Gable’s sidekick in The Secret Six, had just finished Laughing Sinners with Joan Crawford. The audience had liked the Gable-Crawford combination in Dance, Fools, Dance and the studio thought nothing of discarding all the Mack Brown footage and replacing him with Gable. It must have given Gable a clue that his fortunes were rising, but it was a hollow victory. He was cast as a Salvation Army worker who redeemed Crawford from becoming the mistress of a rogue, played by Neil Hamilton. The two men could have exchanged roles to each other’s advantage. In today’s hit-or-miss star market, Laughing Sinners could have scuttled Gable, but in his year of the decisive dozen, the tempo was hit and run. His big break came directly afterwards, when Norma Shearer, Thalberg’s wife, requested Gable for A Free Soul. Acting with the boss’s wife was the equivalent of marrying the boss’s daughter and A Free Soul was a landmark in Gable’s progress.

Clark Gable by René Jordan (1974)

As soon as Secret Six ended, Miss Crawford requested Clark for another film, a penny dreadful called Laughing Sinners…. When somebody up there didn’t like Brown, his footage was clipped and then reshot with Gable. They shouldn’t have bothered. There were enough Crawford fans around to support the film, but not enough scenes between the potential lovers to ignite their relationship. The film did nothing for Clark, and if romance was what she had in mind, less for Joan.

Long Live the King, a Biography of Clark Gable by Lyn Tornabene (1976)

Dance, Fools, Dance is most noteworthy for providing Clark Gable’s first appearance in a Crawford vehicle…. More than anything else, audiences noted the potent magnetism between Gable and Crawford, and clamoured for more of the same. The opportunity came sooner than anyone had anticipated. Crawford’s next effort, Complete Surrender, was having serious problems during production as the chemistry between Crawford and her frequent co-star, Johnny Mack Brown, refused to jell, this time. The studio then decided to replace Brown with Gable and reshoot the necessary footage under the new title of Laughing Sinners (1931). Crawford once again is found living a disillusioned and sordid existence as a tank-town night-club performer involved with a faithless traveling salesman, played by Neil Hamilton. The rest of the picture centers on the struggle between Hamilton and Gable, as a Salvation Army captain, for Crawford’s capricious soul. As the wayward Ivy, she looked well and performed vibrantly, and the new Gable-Crawford combination caught on, as expected. This was [a] remarkable feat, considering that Gable was oddly cast as a blandly sanctimonious moralizer, and seemed as uneasy in the role as did Cary Grant opposite Mae West in She Done Him Wrong, two years later.

Joan Crawford by Stephen Harvey (1974)

Laughing Sinners was originally titled Complete Surrender and co-starred Johnny Mack Brown with Joan. Midway during production, Brown was replaced by Clark Gable. Much of the film was reshot, and the title was changed. Talking about the film, Joan said, “I’m not ashamed. I think it was a step forward in career-building; not exactly a giant step, more of a baby step, but in high heels. One of the great things about this film for me, professionally and personally, was Clark Gable. He wasn’t the really famous Gable then, but he had it; “it” being what makes a star on the screen, and in life, too.”

Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, a Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (2008)

Despite their mutual terror (of what each thought of the other’s professional past), the Crawford-Gable combination clicked. Their rough, proletarian manners—so contrasted to the Broadway and British actors imported for talkies—fit perfectly into the tempo of America in 1931. Louis B. Mayer, with his uncanny sense of public taste, recognized the electricity of the pair. Crawford had, meanwhile, starred in Complete Surrender as a cabaret dancer who is saved from suicide by a Salvation Army man, Johnny Mack Brown. After a preview audience failed to respond, Mayer ordered a complete remake with Gable in the Salvation Army role. Retitled Laughing Sinners, the movie proved a success.

Joan Crawford, a Biography by Bob Thomas (1978)

Adapted from the stage play “The Torch Song” and not so good, but if you’re a Joan Crawford fan you may like it. Clark Gable, as a Salvation Army worker, causes Joan to go straight after Neil Hamilton, the cad, does her wrong. Hamilton’s work is splendid in a dirty-dog role. The title came out of a grab-bag.

Photoplay (July-December, 1931)

After Laughing Sinners, we have decided that Joan Crawford is a beauty and a vibrant personality, but when it comes to acting she’s certainly no Garbo.  Leona Andrews and Her Gang, LaFayette, Ind.

Joan Crawford in Laughing Sinners was great. But what I can’t understand is why her hair was dark at the beginning and blonde at the end. Tell Joan to stick to her own red hair. That’s the way we like her. Anne Ovesky, Minneapolis, Minn.

Clark Gable is marvellous. I’ve just seen him in Laughing Sinners. When I saw him in Dance, Fools, Dance, I knew he would be wonderful if he had half a chance. I hope he won’t be cast again as the tough, heartless gangster, for he can be so kind and—yes—loving!  Alberta Finch, Zionsville, Ind.

Photoplay Letters (July-December, 1931)

There’s a goodly measure of drama in M-G-M’s Laughing Sinners, adapted by Bess Meredith and Edith Fitzgerald from Kenyon Nicholson’s play of “Torch Song” and directed by Harry Beaumont. …So when at midnight or earlier an unmarried Salvation Army girl of a year’s training, as well as abstention from former pleasures, finds in her room in a small hotel the old lover who had deserted her to marry a woman of wealth, what more to be expected than that the scene should fade out and be followed by a fade in with the clock pointing to 6 and the now utterly dejected girl still in the same room with the debonair former lover?

The action is not without the possibilities; more than that it is in line with the expected reaction from everyday human impulses. But why pick on the Salvation Army in the building of a dramatic effect that could as well have been secured in choosing for the part of Ivy a garb worn by a woman from one of the Protestant or Catholic or Jewish churches? If right in the case of a Salvation Army girl, it would have been right in the case of one wearing a flowing black robe. The latter, of course, is unthinkable—not only ethically but also from the standpoint of ordinary business practice—which, of course, would have meant business suicide. No screen producer in any land outside of Russia for a moment would have considered the implied smearing of any woman under the protection of a powerful church. No longer does he even take a chance in showing male clerics in any other than a benevolent role. Too many times in the past has his house been brought down around his ears. And the average producer is gifted with a keen memory.

So in seeking a short which sometimes is a lazy cut to a sure-fire dramatic climax, it would be interesting to know the excuse for taking a smack at the Salvation Army girl—who, because of her record of large public service and through her long hours and hard work with meagre physical comforts and even more meagre financial remuneration, is entitled to a degree of respect at least equal to that accorded her more fortunate and tenderly shielded sisters of older ecclesiastical backgrounds.

The International Photographer (July, 1932)

About the time Joan Crawford and Clark Gable started walking hand in hand through the park to the soft music of “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” it seemed pretty clear to an impartial observer at the Capitol that evangelism had scored decisively over that little thing called love. But the spectacle of Miss Crawford not getting her man meant something else again to a feverish Joan Crawford delegation which had found Laughing Sinners for three-quarters of its length a typical high, wide, and handsome Crawford spectacle. It meant that the M.-G.-M. cinema-smiths had blundered in transferring Kenyon Nicholson’s “Torch Song” to the screen; that they had ended their story on a sentimental but undeniably false note; that they had permitted it, in its final twenty-five minutes, to wabble as dangerously as Guy Kibbee when that vastly amusing player wandered into Miss Crawford’s room under the impression that it was his own.

But if the narrative carries Ivy Stevens a little preposterously from the floor of a Middle Western cabaret to street-corner evangelism—for no more pressing reason than a broken heart—there is enough in Laughing Sinners to distract the not too critical entertainment hunter. Miss Crawford has seldom looked so radiantly alive and beautiful; she has tempered the intense and not a little self-conscious quality of her acting without hurting her vibrant and breath-catching spirit. In the cabaret, she gets through her dancing scenes in excellent fashion and even manages a torch song called “What Can I Do?—I Love That Man” very commendably.

Mr. Gable gives his usually intelligent performance as a reformed evangelist who converts the brokenhearted girl after her traveling-salesman lover deserts her. Neil Hamilton is a properly handsome go-getter in this latter rôle. The scenes in a small town hotel, where the girl meets her old lover after she has put him out of mind, offer some amusing sidelights on the habits of the traveling gentry. Here Mr. Kibbee has his moments as a mortician’s supply man—”underground novelties,” he calls his product. Cliff Edwards strums a banjo to good effect in a minor rôle, and Marjorie Rambeau titters her way along as a sentimental entertainer of ancient vintage. The production is smooth and good-looking, and yesterday’s audiences responded to it with some show of enthusiasm, except when that little matter of a story began to be taken very seriously by the director.

The New York Times (July 4, 1931)

Notes compiled by Caren Feldman

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