Setting Sail on The Sin Ship
For years The Sin Ship‘s frequent appearances on TCM’s monthly lineup repeatedly caught my eye. Besides the saucy title and potential for pre-Code shenanigans with a 1931 release date, I was drawn to the somewhat grim sounding logline (“A ship’s captain fights to protect a female passenger from his crew”), the accompanying contemplative image of star Mary Astor, and of course, the 65 minute run time. Also, there’s this poster.
It took a few tries, but the timing was finally right for me to book passage on The Sin Ship. One could argue that TCM’s synopsis is technically correct, but it really misses the point of the picture. Captain-fighting-crew time was minimal; rather, what awaited me was one of the more unusual love triangles I’ve come across – if you can call it that – involving brusque Captain Sam McVey (Louis Wolheim, pulling double duty as director and star), alluring Frisco Kitty (Mary Astor), and her self-assertive husband Smiley Mardsen (Ian Keith).
On the lam from authorities following a bank robbery, Kitty and Smiley don the cover of a minister and his wife and hop aboard Sam’s ship to make their getaway. Sam makes a pass at Kitty, and she strongly chastises him under the veil of her benevolent lady facade. I mean, she gives it to him good. To everyone’s surprise, her words straighten Sam out instantaneously, and of course he falls hard for Kitty in the process. Being the shady man he is, Smiley senses an opportunity to use Kitty as bait to keep Sam from returning to port and potentially spilling the beans as to their whereabouts. Realizing Sam is actually one of the only decent men around, Kitty abhors the idea of playing him, but with a drunken Smiley leading the charge, she has little choice, even as her feelings of contempt are redirected from the captain to her partner in crime.
To be honest, I don’t think I’d take a repeat voyage on The Sin Ship. A relatively simple story with a lean cast and rather confined locations somehow meanders its way to an ending – and don’t forget, the movie only runs 65 minutes. Plus, two of the three main characters, Sam and Kitty, display initial compelling characteristics that diminish considerably, which dulls the proceedings and results in a pretty improbable romance.
Though The Sin Ship is nowhere near as hedonistic as the title implies, the excursion does glide by a number of recognizable pre-Code displays, listed below for your reading pleasure:
One look at the back of Kitty at the start of the picture, and Sam is mesmerized. “A woman’s a woman, ain’t she?” he remarks upon setting eyes upon her from a distance. “That’s the kind I like.” Evidently at sea too long and mesmerized by the vague shape of a woman, his lustful infatuation works in Kitty and Smiley’s favor, as they miss their steamer, and wouldn’t you know, Sam’s got space on his vessel. Literally, Kitty’s body won their passage, but she won’t be any safer on board: most of the male characters in this picture – from Sam to Smiley to the crewmembers – view women as objects to claim as their own or handle as they please, at one point or another.
Booze and attempted assault:
To be clear, drunken, egotistical characters like Smiley aren’t unique to the era, but here alcohol plays a role in a thwarted incident that pre-Codes were more likely to confront, albeit off-screen. Sam lures invites Kitty to his room for tea, aka an alcoholic beverage. He’s banking on the drink leading to much more, you know, to cover Kitty and Smiley’s ‘fare.’ While not explicitly implying rape, one can assume Kitty wouldn’t submit willingly, which brings me to my next point…
Strong women (or woman, cause there’s really just one in this movie):
What Sam certainly does not expect is for Kitty to spring right back at him with a series of sanctimonious presages and declarations that he’s the worst of the crew. But her closing zinger – that Sam clean up his mind, body and soul – hits a nerve, prompting a complete 180 in Sam’s attitude and demeanor overnight. True, Kitty delivered this diatribe under her righteous guise, but I’ve also got to give the real Kitty credit for having the strength to change her ways and own up to her mistakes later on, which she does … well, read on.
In stark contrast to Sam’s instant rapture, Kitty comes around slowly; she’s got her conscience and a pompous, intemperate partner to reckon with, after all, but by the end of the picture, it’s obvious that she wants out of her lifestyle. Though Smiley gets what’s coming to him in the end (post-Code style), miraculously Kitty goes scot free (pre-Code style), despite admitting that she wants to face her past and pay for her misdeeds (post-Code style again). Oh, well. Only during this era could two characters like Kitty and Sam walk off into the distance together, hand in hand and free to go as they please.
The Sin Ship is far from the strongest entry of the period that I’ve seen, and it’s not half as wild as it leads you to believe. That said, if you embark on the journey, you’ll take in some pre-Code sights – and sail at your own risk.
-Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.