Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Now Playing: "Laughing Sinners" (1931)

As a rabid Joan Crawford and Clark Gable fan, Laughing Sinners is required viewing;  not because it's an exceptional film but because their chemistry is fantastic.

The plot line of Laughing Sinners is incredibly threadbare. Cabaret performer Ivy Stevens, played by Crawford, is having an affair with salesman Howard Palmer and worse, she's fallen in love with him.  Worse because not only does he have the nickname "Howdy" but he has no intention of making an honest woman out of Ivy. When he dumps her after a particular heartfelt performance of "(What Can I Do) I Love That Man," Ivy decides to end it all by throwing herself off a bridge.   Carl Loomis (Gable), a Salvation Army officer, saves her and convinces her to join the Army.  A year later, she has redeemed herself and is happy so of course Howdy is going to reenter her life. She falls for his smooth speech and seems to be enticed to go back to the life of being the other woman (since Howdy is now married) before she realizes that Carl is the man for her.

This is pretty formulaic stuff and frankly, there's no problem with that.  As unbelievable as the story may be, it's thoroughly enjoyable due to its short run time (a sparse 72 minutes) and the cinematic gold of Crawford and Gable.

John Mack Brown - what could have been
Initially the film was to have been made with John Mack Brown in the Loomis role.  Who? you may be saying.  Mr. Brown may have lacked the charisma of Clark Gable but he was a pretty popular actor back in the day.  He had been a star football player at the University of Alabama, being inducted into the Hall of Fame and lauded by Pop Warner.  His appearance on a Wheaties box led him to Hollywood and his good looks got him noticed around the studios and led to acting jobs, with MGM grooming him to be a major star.  He had appeared with Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters and was probably better suited to the role here.  In fact, the majority of the filming had already been completed with Brown and Crawford when Louis B. Mayer, recognizing the chemistry Gable had with Crawford onscreen in their first pairing (Dance, Fools, Dance the previous year) gave Brown the boot and scrapped the footage.  Ouch.  This would prove to be the end of Brown's career as a leading man in mainstream features; he would be relegated to cowboy B pictures, change his name to Johnny Mack Brown and have a forty year career.

Our Joan with Marjorie Rambeau
This film was Gable's seventh - - SEVENTH - - of 1931.  And he would appear in a total of fourteen.  Madness.  But it also tells you how incredibly popular he got, incredibly quickly.  He does what he can with the part of Carl Loomis, who seems nearly too good to be true.  Would he really have spent a year with Ivy and never put the moves on her?  (With that chemistry, I'm thinking not!)  Even though it's not one of his better roles, Gable sizzles on the screen.  You simply cannot take your eyes off him and I'm not speaking just because of how he looks in that Salvation Army uniform (and he looks good.)   Laughing Sinners is a clear indicator that Clark Gable possessed the magic to make one a superstar.

Neil Hamilton as the sleazy Howdy does a fine job.  Howdy does remind me, to a degree, of Alan, the character he played in Strangers May Kiss, released a month prior to this film.  Alan doesn't seem to be as intentionally sleazy as Howdy (and also isn't saddled with a patently ridiculous nickname.)  Hamilton was a good, solid actor and he was solid here.  He has strong chemistry with Crawford, which makes the viewer understand (at least at the beginning) why she fell for him.

Marjorie Rambeau makes a fun and funny Ruby, a dancing friend of Ivy's. Interestingly, Rambeau also appeared in the aforementioned Strangers May Kiss with Neil Hamilton and she would share the screen again with Joan Crawford twenty-two years later in Torch Song . . . in which she played Joan's mother!  Seriously, folks, you cannot make this up.
Who should she choose? 

The real star of the film, of course, is Our Joan.  The viewer gets to see her dancing a few numbers, as well as sing.  Her singing isn't bad and you can definitely hear the future strong and enunciated voice of the Joan Crawford of the 1940s and 1950s.  She turns in a fine performance as the devil-may-care cabaret girl before turning to a reformed Salvation Army employee.  Her tone and voice itself changes as well as her demeanor.  On a purely shallow note, she looks stunning (perhaps because of her affair with Gable which reportedly either started or was progressing during this film.)

The movie was produced in February of 1931 and released at the end of May, also in 1931.  They did not mess around in those days, did they?  It made MGM a tidy profit ($156,000, which is about $2.5 million in today's dollars) and led to further film pairings of Crawford and Gable.

Laughing Sinners is available on DVD and it pops up every now and again on TCM's schedule.

As it should be

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