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The Sin Ship

The Sin Ship (1931) was the first and only film directed by actor Louis Wolheim, who had recently appeared as the tough but loving Katczinsky in the previous year's hit All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Wolheim was an unlikely star, with his thick-necked, broken-nosed rough looks that resembled a fighter who had gone one too many rounds with Jack Dempsey. Although his looks had typecast him in Hollywood as a thug, in reality, Wolheim was a highly educated man. He attended Cornell University and received a degree in Mechanical Engineering, graduating in 1906, and remained at the school as a math tutor, where his students included future star Adolphe Menjou. After All Quiet on the Western Front , Wolheim signed a contract with RKO that gave him top billing and the option to direct a film.

Wolheim cast himself in The Sin Ship as Captain Sam McVeigh, a crusty old seadog with a "love 'em and leave 'em" attitude who reforms when he meets Frisco Kitty (Mary Astor). Kitty and her husband, Reverend Marsden (Ian Keith) need passage to the country of El Salvador and McVeigh agrees to take them there. While on the boat, McVeigh attempts to rape Kitty, but she shames him with religion and he vows to be a better man. However, Kitty and the Reverend aren't what they appear to be. Also in the cast were Russ Powell, Alan Roscoe, and Hugh Herbert - who also adapted the screenplay from a story by Keene Thompson and Agnes Brand Leahy.

The film began production under the working title Sheep's Clothing , on September 8, 1930 at the RKO studios in Hollywood, with location shooting done at Catalina Island harbor, 26 miles off the coast of Southern California. Because sound films were still relatively new, the equipment was highly sensitive, so RKO hired six high-speed boats at the rate of $500 per hour to patrol Catalina harbor to keep other boats and onlookers from making too much noise.

The Sin Ship received tepid reviews, with The Motion Picture Review calling it, "An intense melodrama which is rather serious and heavy entertainment, telling a story of reformation. It is sordid in characters and detail, making it unsuitable for children." Reportedly unhappy with The Sin Ship , Louis Wolheim had no future plans to direct. Instead, he was to return to acting, and was chosen by Lewis Milestone (who directed All Quiet on the Western Front ) to play the lead role of Walter Burns in The Front Page (1931). Before that film went into production and only two months before the release of The Sin Ship , Louis Wolheim died suddenly from stomach cancer on February 18, 1931, at the age of 50.

By Lorraine LoBianco

McCaffrey, Donald W. and Jacobs, Christopher Guide to the Silent Years of American Cinema
The Motion Picture Reviews "The Women's University Club, Los Angeles" 1930


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