The Virtuous Sin (Louis Gasnier and George Cukor, 1930)
[note: review originally published 8Oct2010]
The fame of director George Cukor would eventually far eclipse that of his mentor, Louis Gasnier. But in 1930, Cukor was a twenty-nine-year-old eager to get into the business. He got his start as a dialogue director in the earliest days of the talkies, including working on Lewis Mileston’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front. But like everyone else in Hollywood, Cukor wanted to direct, and for that, he turned to one of the most popular silent directors of the day, Louis Gasnier. (He also did another film in 1930 as co-director, called Grumpy, working with fellow neophyte Cyril Gardner. I haven’t seen it. By all accounts it’s horrific.) Gasnier made almost one hundred films in his career, as well as being a prolific stage director in his native France. Only one of his talkies, Topaze, is really remembered today, but his silent The Perils of Pauline is one of those things that’s bled into the public consciousness over the years. You may not remember where the image of the girl in the big skirt tied to the train tracks came from, but Gasnier was it. In any case, both of them were quite fond of melodrama, and Austrian novelist/playwright Lajos Zilahy’s drama The General had it in spades. It also had the cachet of being a monster hit. (It was, in fact, adapted three times in the space of two years for the screen; Gasnier and Cukor’s was the first, followed in rapid succession by a Dimitri Buchowetzi version starring Conrad Veidt, and then a Finnish version by Gustaf Bergman; it would be his final film.) So they got to work, and what they came up with was this.
Victor Sablin (Judgment at Nuremberg‘s Kenneth MacKenna) is a Russian scientist and conscientious objector who gets drafted on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough. He’s understandably upset by this, and finally gets so frustrated with the army’s refusal to let him go back to his experiments that he tells off the general in command of his platoon, Grigori Platoff (the great Walter Huston in an early role). Of course, he gets tossed in prison. His devoted wife Marya (Kay Francis, who will forever be linked to the role of Jo March) tries to come up with ways to spring him from prison. Then she finds out the general and his men like to hang out at the local whorehouse…
Quite racy stuff for 1930, indeed. This is pre-code when it was still really pre-code. Yes, it’s all couched in a morality play, but the audiences were not flocking to the theater to see Kay Francis agonizing over whether she should do the nasty with Walter Huston, they were flocking to the theater to see Kay Francis in the act of seducing Walter Huston. Which is exactly why anyone who would watch it today would watch it, as well. If that’s a definition of “timeless”, then there you go. Film buffs may want to check it out, as well, simply because it’s early George Cukor. He would go on to much greater successes over the course of his life, winning a Best Director Oscar (My Fair Lady) and being nominated for four more (Born Yesterday, A Double Life, The Philadelphia Story, and Little Women, the last only three years after this). This is not a movie with that kind of artistry at all. But it’s fun, Kay Francis plays the innocent ingenue with all the dirty slut undertones she needs to (and looks fantastic doing it), the characters are halfway decent, and the plot is solid. No one will ever mistake this for Paths of Glory, but it’s worth your time if you stumble upon it on TCM during insomniac theatre. ***