SEVEN SINNERS, a broad and dated farce from 1940, holds a footnote in movie backstory history due to an anecdote its director popularized. Tay Garnett (Bataan, The Cross Of Lorraine, The Postman Always Rings Twice) was assigned to helm the 87-minute tropical tossup of “Madame Butterfly” that would give Marlene Dietrich, 38 (repatriated from box-office exile by Destry Rides Again) another leggy leg-up into public forgiveness (for being too naughty and European). At the Universal Studio commissary, she met her designated co-star, John Wayne, 33, fresh from applause for Stagecoach, poised for stardom. Garnett: “Dietrich with that wonderful floating walk, passed by Wayne as if he were invisible, then paused, made a half-turn and cased him from cowlicks to cowboots. As she moved on, she said in her characteristic brasso whisper: ‘Daddy, buy me THAT.'”
Their resultant hot flash teaming had them tussle onscreen in The Spoilers and Pittsburgh and steam up dressing rooms off-time for a few years until Marlene moved on to another conquest.
Were the dopey plot, clumsy scripting and most of the acting in the movie as much fun. A morals-optional South Seas romp, it’s also a lead-anchor commercial for the US Navy, another in the pre-Pearl Harbor-something’s-coming bin that served up Buck Privates, Dive Bomber and a number of other recruitment posters disguised as comedies or light dramas.
Chanteuse torch singer (read, uh…hooker) ‘Bijou Blanche’ (Dietrich), booted off most of the islands between Sumatra and Manila for her part in starting riots among the love-starved, falls for a Navy lieutenant (Wayne). It’s reciprocal. Her jealous and lethal shadow (Oscar Homolka) is not amused, nor is the Navy brass.
Dietrich and Wayne have obvious chemistry heat going on, but the movie is flimsy dross, with achingly terrible comic relief from Broderick Crawford and Billy Gilbert, each trying to outdo each other being excruciatingly unfunny. Well-liked Gilbert accumulated 16 pictures in ’40 alone, but his kill-it-dead hamming makes you long for the subtlety of S.Z. Sakall. Crawford bellows like a wounded hippo, with a concomitant wake of charm. For some bizarre reason, the charm-free Albert Dekker is allowed some sort of romantic angle with Dietrich. Among the supporting players, Homolka easily tops the lot.
Along with the scenes that put dual-devouring Dietrich and Duke together away from the noise of the supporting cast, there is a boisterous barroom brawl staged at the end, with stuntmen giving their zany all; good for some laffs.
That stacked second-tier cast includes Mischa Auer (valiant but wasted), Anna Lee *, Samuel S. Hinds, Reginald Denny (where’d that Brit accent come from on a US Naval admiral? never mind…),Vince Barnett and James Craig (about to get big breaks in Kitty Foyle and The Devil And Daniel Webster). Rudolph Maté was cinematographer, with Burnett Guffey (Bonnie And Clyde) manning his camera. Phil Karlson was Assistant Director. The $760,000 invested paid back with $2,700,000, 63rd place for 1940. Remade a decade later as South Sea Sinner, a programmer with Macdonald Carey, Shelley Winters and…Liberace.(?) Where’s my carafe of Singapore Slings…?
* Chatting about her her first movie in America, 27-year-old British actress and genteel trouper Anna Lee: “Marlene didn’t want a blonde in the picture–other than herself. So it was the first time I had to rinse [color] my hair. John Wayne was a lovely man, what I would call a typical American–very nice, very modest. His stature as a star never came up, although we worked together many times over the years. On our first encounter, we were engaged in conversation and he asked me if I was a Republican. Since I was new to this country, I thought he was asking if I was a publican, which is a person who keeps a publichouse for drinking beer. I told him I was not a publican, but that I did enjoy beer. [Laughs] That really confused him!”