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The Motion Picture Production Code, a self-censorship tool adopted by the film community, officially went into effect in 1930, but enforcement and oversight was lax for several years, allowing great liberties in subject matter on screen. Between the beginning of sound and 1934, when the Code became strictly enforced, it was not unusual to see such taboos as sexual innuendo, drug use, adultery, abortion, crime, and violence depicted on American movie screens. Although tame by today's standards, the liberties taken in those Pre-Code years were finally enough to incite strong condemnation and threats of boycott and government action from forces out to protect America's morals. The most vocal and powerful of these was the Catholic Church.
For a woman known to be a pious Catholic all of her life, Loretta Young appeared in her share of racier pre-Code movies. In pictures since her toddler years in the early days of silents (including an uncredited bit as an Arab child in Valentino's The Sheik, 1921), Young had become an in-demand ingnue by the late 20s, appearing with such silent stars as Antonio Moreno, Mae Murray, Florence Vidor, Colleen Moore, and Lon Chaney (Laugh, Clown, Laugh , in which Young was the leading lady although still only 14). For a time, it looked as though her deep voice would keep her from success in talking pictures, but with her casting in The Squall (1929), the first sound film from First National Pictures (a subsidiary of Warner Brothers), she proved herself a viable player for the new era and quickly found herself in a succession of pictures as both good girls who weren't always all that good and bad girls who weren't necessarily all bad. Over the next few years, she made her way through the Pre-Code era as a gangster's moll on trial for murder in Midnight Mary (1933), an unwed mother turned blackmailer in Born to Be Bad (1934, filmed prior to Code enforcement), the unfaithful wife of a Chinese Tong lord in The Hatchet Man (1932), and a dual role as a young thief and a wealthy socialite in Road to Paradise (1930), among others.
In They Call It Sin (1932), Miss Young starts out innocently enough as a small-town church organist. After a brief fling with an engaged playboy passing through town on business, she moves to New York to pursue both her lover and a musical career. Her looks and talent land her a job with a predatory theater producer, along with his less-than-noble intentions. The bulk of the movie has her juggling the affections of the two men and a decent, ordinary doctor.
Coming in at just over an hour, the potboiler was directed by Thornton Freeland, no stranger to spicy Pre-Code movies: Whoopee! (1930), an Eddie Cantor runaway bride comedy with an inter-racial romance subplot that would be banned under the Code in years to come; Love Affair (1932), not the classic Leo McCarey romance of several years later but an early appearance by Humphrey Bogart in the story of a wayward heiress; and Week-end Marriage (1932), in which Loretta Young's job drives her husband into the arms of another woman. After They Call It Sin, Freeland moved over to RKO for the musical Flying Down to Rio (1933), which marked the first teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
According to film historian Thomas Patrick Doherty, by the time They Call It Sin went into production, Warner Brothers had already instituted an official policy that "four out of five stories should be hot" and that just about any film could use a little "ginger" to grab the public's interest. It was natural, then, that they'd be attracted to Alberta Stedman Eagan's novel and hand it off to screenwriter Lillie Hayward, who had penned movies with suggestive titles like Every Man's Wife (1925) and Runaway Girls (1928) and had co-written the screenplay for Big City Blues (1932), about an Indiana man who falls prey to chorus girls and booze in New York, leading to charges of murder against him. Beyond those plot points, you know that one's a Pre-Code film when you spot a girl at a party reading Radcliffe Hall's 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. Hayward handled more than these "ginger" assignments, however; her prolific career included Tom Mix Westerns, Rin Tin Tin adventures, Dorothy Lamour sarong dramas, and the wholesome My Friend Flicka (1943). Later in life, she turned to television and frequent work for Walt Disney shows and features.
Young's paramours in They Call It Sin included David Manners, fresh from romancing Katharine Hepburn in her debut film A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and a turn as Harker in Dracula (1931); suave Louis Calhern, a future Oscar® nominee for his portrayal of Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (1950); and George Brent, who would become the most dependable male lead at Warner Brothers opposite the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton, and his most frequent co-star Bette Davis (eleven films in all). But the cast member who attracted the most attention for her work here was comedienne Una Merkel as the appropriately named Dixie Dare. Merkel had been in the business ten years at this point and still had a long career ahead of her, often as the leading lady's wisecracking best friend. She got recognition for her dramatic skills late in life with a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke (1961).
Director: Thornton Freeland
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Lillie Hayward, Howard J. Green, based on the novel by Alberta Stedman Eagan
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Editing: James Gibbon
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Cast: Loretta Young (Marion Cullen), George Brent (Dr. Tony Travers), Una Merkel (Dixie Dare), David Manners (Jimmie Decker), Helen Vinson (Enid Hollister), Louis Calhern (Ford Humphries).
by Rob Nixon