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"Oh lady -- what clothes!"
Tag line for Sin Takes a Holiday
The ads for the 1930 romantic comedy Sin Takes a Holiday said it all. The selling point for Constance Bennett's starring vehicles of the early '30s, despite the titillation factor in their tales of women who sinned and usually paid, was not the drama, the romance or the rare comic touches. It was the star's fashionable wardrobe and her ability to wear it stylishly. Depression-weary audiences flocked to see Bennett swathed in silks, satins and furs as she moved through a sumptuous art deco world you could only find in the movies. Even today, the films have developed a small but devoted following partly interested in the amount of sinning allowed on screen in the days before Production Code enforcement, but primarily as examples of '30s couture and interior design at their most lavish.
Sin Takes a Holiday was made before the formula for Bennett's films had been set. The film that would make her "queen of the confessionals," The Common Clay (1930), had not yet opened when this one went into production. As a result, the later film is more teasing comedy than titillating melodrama. But its rags-to-riches story made it perfect for Bennett's fans. She starts out as a secretary secretly in love with her boss (Kenneth MacKenna). When he needs a wife so he can hold an aggressive married flame at bay, Bennett is available and more than willing. With a generous allowance and no hope of being more than her husband's protection against lasting entanglements, she takes off to France for a makeover, a rebound romance with dashing young lawyer Basil Rathbone and clothes, clothes, clothes.
Rathbone's presence has also helped generate the film's cult status. Before his rise to become one of the screen's best villains (in films such as 1935's David Copperfield and Anna Karenina), Rathbone was a matinee idol with a horde of devoted female fans. His first stint in talking films, starting as Norma Shearer's suave love interest in MGM's 1929 version of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, were designed to build on that image. The eight films he made in just over a year present only a hint of what was to come thanks to his casting as society sleuth Philo Vance in The Bishop Murder Case (1930), a chance to do detective work long before he became the movies' most famous Sherlock Holmes. Sin Takes a Holiday marked the end of his early Hollywood period. He would return to Broadway for two more seasons before making a full-scale move back into the movies.
Even before her success in The Common Clay, Bennett was rising to become RKO's top actress. Along with her beauty, the headlines generated by her off-screen romances put her in demand, and the studio made a nice profit lending her out. In fact, Sin Takes a Holiday marked her return to RKO after three successive loan-outs. Her home studio welcomed her with their best director, Paul L. Stein, who had worked with their first top star, Ann Harding. They also had Gwen Wakeling design Bennett's wardrobe. Wakeling had been discovered by Cecil B. De Mille, who had brought her to Pathe during a brief period away from his usual studio Paramount. She would eventually win an Oscar® for costuming De Mille's Samson and Delilah (1949).
Although critics were lukewarm about Sin Takes a Holiday, giving most of their praise to Rathbone as the lady's man with a conscience, the film was a box-office success that helped make Bennett queen of the lot. With RKO facing major losses from many of its films, they couldn't afford to lose their one big box-office attraction. As a result, following the film's success, Bennett was granted a new contract raising her weekly salary from $2,750 to $5,000 (she would get yet a third contract when her 1931 films performed even better at the box office).
If critics were put off by Sin Takes a Holiday, however, later fans have embraced it, primarily because Bennett looks so good in her transformation from lowly secretary to high-society wife. The star, never one to take herself too seriously, was well aware of the secret of her success. As she would state in one interview, "I'm a lot more sartorial than thespian. They come to see me and go out humming the costumes."
Producer: E.B. Derr
Director: Paul L. Stein
Screenplay: Dorothy Cairns, Horace Jackson, Robert Milton
Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Francis Gromon, Josiah Zuro
Cast: Constance Bennett (Sylvia Brenner), Kenneth MacKenna (Gaylord Stanton), Basil Rathbone (Reginald "Reggie" Durant), Rita La Roy (Grace Lawrence), Louis John Bartels (Richards), John Roche (Sheridan), Zasu Pitts (Anna "Annie").
by Frank Miller