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Did you hear the one about the travelling salesman and the Salvation Army girl? Probably not, because even though Neil Hamilton, the travelling salesman in Laughing Sinners (1931), got the film's best reviews, his performance has long been overshadowed by the charisma of its other two stars, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, they weren't originally supposed to be the co-stars.
Kenyon Nicholson's play Torch Song, about a cafe singer who's dumped by her travelling salesman boyfriend only to find love with a Salvation Army officer, hadn't been much of a hit on Broadway. But with a roster of female stars in need of vehicles, MGM picked up the rights anyway. The leading lady role was a natural for Joan Crawford, who'd also established herself as a singer in early talkies like Hollywood Revue of 1929 and 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 That Man," and a religious number for her work with the Salvation Army, "Brighten the Corner Where You Are."
Crawford had two leading men in the film. As the two-timing travelling salesman they cast Neil Hamilton, a favorite from silent film days who had first risen to prominence as a model for Arrow Collars and would later play Commissioner Gordon in television's Batman series. Johnny Mack Brown, who had teamed with Crawford in Montana Moon, was initially cast as the Salvation Army officer who changes her life. But when the film previewed under the title Complete Surrender it flopped. True to MGM's nickname, "Retake Valley," studio head Louis B. Mayer ordered extensive re-shooting to save the picture. In particular, he thought they needed a stronger star in place of Brown. Crawford had been impressed with an up-and-coming actor who had played a gangster in her previous film, Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), so she suggested Clark Gable for the role.
Gable had been knocking around Hollywood since the late '20s but hadn't done well. In an era of more spiritual leading men, he was considered too big and earthy for stardom. Success in the touring company of The Last Mile had brought him a shot at an MGM contract, but he'd only played small roles since signing there in 1930. It took the advocacy of friends like Lionel Barrymore to win him better roles. Crawford was one of the first on the lot to discover his intense sex appeal. Of their first meeting while shooting Dance, Fools, Dance, she would later say, "I knew when this man walked on the set, and I didn't know which door he came in, but I knew he was there. That's how great he was."
The magnetism didn't really register in Laughing Sinners. Gable was never well cast as a man of the cloth, as he would prove the following year when he was forced to play the minister who reforms Marion Davies in Polly of the Circus (1932). As a result, Hamilton captured most of the critical attention 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 next film, A Free Soul, in which he won legions of female fans by roughing up leading lady Norma Shearer on screen. Gable and Crawford would reunite in Chained (1934), a glossy romance that established them as a top screen team. They would make eight films together and even enjoy a brief offscreen romance. Years later, Crawford would tell television interviewer David Frost 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 (Cass Wheeler), Cliff Edwards (Mike), Roscoe Karns (Fred Geer).
BW-73m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller