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Laughing Sinners

Laughing Sinners(1931)

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teaser Laughing Sinners (1931)

Did you hear the one about the travelling salesman and the Salvation Armygirl? Probably not, because even though Neil Hamilton, the travellingsalesman in Laughing Sinners (1931), got the film's best reviews, hisperformance has long been overshadowed by the charisma of its other twostars, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Of course, in true Hollywoodfashion, they weren't originally supposed to be the co-stars.

Kenyon Nicholson's play Torch Song, about a cafe singer who's dumpedby her travelling salesman boyfriend only to find love with a Salvation Armyofficer, hadn't been much of a hit on Broadway. But with a roster offemale stars in need of vehicles, MGM picked up the rights anyway. Theleading lady role was a natural for Joan Crawford, who'd also establishedherself as a singer in early talkies like Hollywood Revue of 1929and Montana Moon (1930). They even gave her two big numbers in the film:a torch song for the early nightclub scene, "What Can I Do, I Love ThatMan," and a religious number for her work with the Salvation Army, "Brightenthe Corner Where You Are."

Crawford had two leading men in the film. As the two-timing travellingsalesman they cast Neil Hamilton, a favorite from silent film days who hadfirst risen to prominence as a model for Arrow Collars and would later playCommissioner Gordon in television's Batman series. Johnny MackBrown, who had teamed with Crawford in Montana Moon, was initiallycast as the Salvation Army officer who changes her life. But when the filmpreviewed under the title Complete Surrender it flopped. True toMGM's nickname, "Retake Valley," studio head Louis B. Mayer orderedextensive re-shooting to save the picture. In particular, he thought theyneeded a stronger star in place of Brown. Crawford had been impressed withan up-and-coming actor who had played a gangster in her previous film,Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), so she suggested Clark Gable for therole.

Gable had been knocking around Hollywood since the late '20s but hadn'tdone well. In an era of more spiritual leading men, he was considered toobig and earthy for stardom. Success in the touring company of The LastMile had brought him a shot at an MGM contract, but he'd only playedsmall roles since signing there in 1930. It took the advocacy of friendslike Lionel Barrymore to win him better roles. Crawford was one of thefirst on the lot to discover his intense sex appeal. Of their firstmeeting while shooting Dance, Fools, Dance, she would later say, "Iknew when this man walked on the set, and I didn't know which door he camein, but I knew he was there. That's how great he was."

The magnetism didn't really register in Laughing Sinners. Gable wasnever well cast as a man of the cloth, as he would prove the following yearwhen he was forced to play the minister who reforms Marion Davies inPolly of the Circus (1932). As a result, Hamilton captured most of the criticalattention in the more flamboyant role of the lecherous travelling salesman.That didn't stop Crawford from promoting Gable as the sexiest man on the lot to anyone who would listen, and the rugged actor would become an overnight sensation with his nextfilm, A Free Soul, in which he won legions of female fans byroughing up leading lady Norma Shearer on screen. Gable and Crawford would reunite inChained (1934), a glossy romance that established them as a top screen team.They would make eight films together and even enjoy a brief offscreenromance. Years later, Crawford would tell television interviewer DavidFrost that Gable was the most exciting actor she had ever worked with.When he asked why, she responded with words bleeped out by the censors,"Because he had balls."

Director: Harry Beaumont
Screenplay: Bess Meredyth, Martin Flavin, Edith Fitzgerald
Based on the play Torch Song by Kenyon Nicholson
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Martin Broones, Arthur Freed
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Ivy Stevens), Neil Hamilton (Howard Palmer),Clark Gable (Carl Loomis), Marjorie Rambeau (Ruby), Guy Kibbee (CassWheeler), Cliff Edwards (Mike), Roscoe Karns (Fred Geer).
BW-73m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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