Sin Takes a Holiday (1930)

Toronto Film Society presented Sin Takes a Holiday (1930) on Saturday, April 28, 2024 as part of the Season 76 Virtual Film Buffs Screening Series, Programme 8.

Production Company: Pathé Exchange. Producer: E.B. Derr.  Director: Paul L. Stein.  Story: Robert Milton, Dorothy Cairns.  Screenplay: Horace Jackson.  Cinematographer: John Mescall.  Editor: Daniel Mandell.  Music: Francis Groman.  Released November 10, 1930.

Cast: Constance Bennett (Sylvia Brenner), Kenneth McKenna (Gaylord Stanton), Basil Rathbone (Reggie Durant), Rita LaRoy (Grace Lawrence), Zasu Pitts (Annie).

Sin Takes a Holiday‘s 1930 release falls squarely in the middle of Hollywood’s pre-Code era, a brief period from the late 1920s until the enforcement of the Production Code Administration in 1934 that saw Hollywood filmmakers push contemporary social boundaries by exploring daring themes, particularly around sexuality and violence.

In the case of Sin Takes a Holiday, one need only glance at the film’s synopsis to confirm its pre-Code origins.

Sylvia Brenner (Constance Bennett) is a lowly New York secretary who secretly harbors feelings for her boss, Gaylord Stanton (Kenneth MacKenna), a confirmed bachelor and lothario who seeks affairs with married women for his romantic conquests. When one of his dalliances decides to leave her husband to marry him, Gaylord, eager to keep his single status, proposes a business arrangement to Sylvia: a sham marriage in name only for one year. Gaylord offers Sylvia generous financial compensation for her efforts, to which she agrees.

Shortly after the wedding, she is sent to Paris where she becomes emotionally entangled with Gaylord’s old friend, the very charming and wealthy Reggie Durant (Basil Rathbone). During her trip, Sylvia undergoes a transformation by discovering her self-worth and desirability to other men. Upon her return to New York, Sylvia must confront her feelings towards her new husband, all while fending off Reggie’s romantic intentions and having to reckon with the recently divorced woman determined to marry Gaylord.

The story, slight and perhaps underwhelming by today’s standards, at the time was considered quite sophisticated, with liberated attitudes towards romantic relationships and female independence. In many ways, Sylvia defies traditional gender roles of the era by being in control of her destiny and sexuality. By the film’s conclusion, she has developed a real self-awareness, confidence and independence that would have stood out to audiences of the time.

Of note is the depiction of marriage in the film as a social construct that can be manipulated for personal gain or happiness. This somewhat cynical view is reinforced by Sylvia’s view of her relationship with Gaylord as a playful competition to be won. This is true of the film’s other characters, particularly Gaylord, who engage in their own deceptive and manipulative tactics (even with married women) in pursuit of fulfillment.

Of course, the role of Sylvia benefits greatly from Constance Bennett’s wonderful portrayal. Although perhaps not as known today, Bennett was among the most popular and highly paid actresses of the early 1930s, starring in a successful string of films until her death in 1966 at the age of 60. Her life was as dazzling and dramatic as the films she starred in. With five marriages throughout her lifetime, her character’s journey can also interestingly be seen as a reflection of Bennett’s own search for love and fulfillment.

Bennett was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a formidably charming pair of male co-stars in Kenneth MacKenna and Basil Rathbone. The trio all savour the frequent wit of screenwriter Horace Jackson’s script, replete with clever passages of eye-winking pre-Code innuendo that serve as a model of effective subtext.

The film’s contemporary positive critical reception reflected its appeal of the amusing and nuanced treatment of the mature subject matter, and the following excerpt from a review summarizes this sentiment:

Sin Takes a Holiday has a remarkable human appeal, and is cleverly interspersed with a sex angle, possibly hitherto undeveloped on the speaking screen. – Atlanta Constitution, December 26, 1930

While the film is not widely recognized today among the pantheon of classic comedies, its witty writing, sly performances, and Carroll Clark’s terrific sets make this an entertaining hallmark of pre-Code cinema that also dared to explore the complexity of romance and adult relationships.

Notes by Cam Tolton

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