Heard the one about the travelling salesman and the Salvation Army gal? The second of six films Joan Crawford made with Clark Gable, 1931’s Laughing Sinners sees her as the red hot blues singer who’s just nuts about a charismatic travelling salesman – at least until he decides to marry the boss’s daughter and leaves her a Dear Joan letter written on the back of a nightclub menu and she decides to end it all until a passing Salvation Army man stops her and gives her a purpose in life. But it’s not long before her old boyfriend reappears on the scene and wants to get her out of that uniform and she’s finding his old charms much more tempting than God’s and is back dancing on the table again…
Crawford’s very much the big attraction here, initially playing off her star-making Our Dancing Daughters flapper persona, burning up the screen as a veritable ball of fire until she discovers salvation and the temptation of going back to her sinful ways and piles on the angst and self-disgust that would serve her so well in her later years at Warner Bros. If it’s a surprise to see Gable third-billed after Neil Hamilton, a major star in the silent era but destined to be eternally remembered as Commissioner Gordon in the Batman TV series, it’s a real jaw dropper that it’s Gable who’s the decent but a bit soppy reformer and Hamilton whose the irresistible Mr Excitement. Even more surprising is just how charismatic and confident Hamilton really is in the role, delivering a performance that seems almost a template for Fred MacMurray’s screen persona (at times you almost expect him to ask to borrow the key to Jack Lemmon’s apartment), easily dominating much of the film and commanding his every scene while the frequently sidelined Gable just keeps on reminding you of Trey Parker when he’s doing one of his faux misty-eyed introductions to an episode of South Park. If Gable’s clearly miscast, he was never originally intended to be in the film at all – it was originally shot as [I]Complete Surrender[/I] with John(ny) Mack Brown in his role but previewed so badly that Louis B. Mayer ordered extensive reshoots and a new co-star, with Crawford recommending Gable after working with him on [I]Dance, Fools, Dance[/I] a few months earlier.
There’s nothing here to indicate Crawford and Gable would become one of the most popular screen pairings of the Thirties and it’s melodrama through and through, but it’s executed with enough pace and panache to keep you from thinking about how hokey it all is. There’s some good pre-Code banter between the various seedy travelling salesmen, including Guy Kibbee’s purveyor of underground novelties (that’s morticians’ supplies to you and me), and a truly surreal musical number with Crawford in fake beard and carrot nose as a dancing hayseed. Much more enjoyable than it has any right to be.
Warner Archive's US manufactured on demand DVD-R offers a decent transfer but includes no extras.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) presents "LAUGHING SINNERS" (1931) (72 min/B&W) -- Starring: Joan Crawford, Neil Hamilton, Clark Gable, Marjorie Rambeau, Guy Kibbee, Cliff Edwards, Roscoe Karns
Directed by Harry Beaumont
The plot is as follows: -- Club entertainer Ivy is desperately in love with her man Howard. Howard has plans to marry for money, however. Unable to tell Ivy to her face, he runs out on her leaving a goodbye note. Ivy is crushed. That night she is stopped from jumping off a bridge by Salvation Army man Carl. As she joins Carl with some of his work, she leaves the fast life and becomes truly happy helping others. Later the restless traveling salesman Howard runs into Ivy again. He tries his best to get her to be his mistress. Will Ivy revert back to her old life and return to Howard, or will she continue straight with Carl?
Crawford and Gable -- she already a star, he a rising actor -- coming together and making early music to the viewer's eyes. Before Hepburn and Tracy, these were the ones the public wanted to see together even if the film in itself was less than memorable, and MGM gave it to them 8 times -- and the rest is history!
Also a feature where one can get to see Crawford dance, sing, and indirectly, essay what would become a breakout role in RAIN only a year later.
Special footnote: -- Most of the film was shot with Johnny Mack Brown in the role of Carl when it was decided to drop this footage and reshoot it with Clark Gable.
1. Harry Beaumont (Director)
Date of Birth: 10 February 1888 - Abilene, Kansas
Date of Death: 22 December 1966 - Santa Monica, California
2. Joan Crawford [aka: Lucille Fay LeSueur]
Date of Birth: 23 March 1905 - San Antonio, Texas
Date of Death: 10 May 1977 - New York City, New York
3. Neil Hamilton [aka: James Neil Hamilton]
Date of Birth: 9 September 1899 - Lynn, Massachusetts
Date of Death: 24 September 1984 - Escondido, California
4. Clark Gable
Date of birth: 1 February 1901 - Cadiz, Ohio,
Date of death: 16 November 1960 - Los Angeles, California
Mr. Jim's Ratings:
Quality of Picture & Sound: 4 Stars
Performance: 4 Stars
Story & Screenplay: 4 Stars
Overall: 4 Stars [Original Music, Cinematography & Film Editing]
Total Time: 72 min on DVD ~ Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) ~ (June 22, 2009)