“Sinner’s Holiday” was James Cagney and Joan Blondell’s first film. Based on a flop Broadway play called “Penny Arcade” that both appeared in. The quality of the play may have had nothing to do with it being a flop. It was at the start of the depression and people did not have the money to spend going to the theater. Al Jolson purchased the rights to the play, and then sold it to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that both Cagney and Blondell repeat their roles in the film. Warners agreed and two future movie star careers were born, though they did not blossom with this film. Cagney was third billed in the film. Blondell who played his tart of a girlfriend was further on down the list. The stars were Grant Withers and Evelyn Knapp, two pretty much forgotten names today. Withers career started in silent films and it ended in the late 1950’s with his suicide. Evelyn Knapp worked in mostly “B” pictures and is best known for her work as Pauline in the serial “The Perils of Pauline.”
Made in 1930 during the early days of the sound era the film is typically talky and lacking a music soundtrack. It was directed by John Aldofi, who pretty much specialized in low budget films. Sinner’s Holiday takes place in Coney Island and centers around Ma Delano (Lucille La Verne) and her family, Harry (Cagney), Joe (Ray Gallagher) and daughter Jennie (Knapp). Behind the scenes of another concession, owner Mitch McKane is transporting illegal liquor and young Harry is heavily involved. Mitch accuses Harry of stealing, they argue and Harry shoots and kills Mitch, with the whole scene witnessed by Harry’s sister Jennie. The police investigate and Harry’s mother, a protective, tough old woman, takes the gun and plants it in Angel Harrigan’s (Withers) room. Angel is Jennie’s boyfriend who she plans to marry and who her mother thinks is a bum. As the police investigate the murder, they begin to focus on Harry, however, his girlfriend, Myrtle (Blondell) provides him with an alibi when she tells the police she and Harry were together all night at the beach. The police eventually arrest Angel for the murder and Jennie begs the police not to take him away finally admitting to what she knows that her brother is the killer. The police take Harry away. Angel and Jennie stay together and the Penny Arcade business goes on.
The film is most significant for the debut performances of Cagney and Blondell who both shine, especially Cagney, who lights up every scene he is in. He literary takes over every shot. Notice the odd almost incestuous relationship between Cagney’s character, Harry has with his mother. Of course this would not be the first time Cagney’s character’s had a strange mother fixation. It would come into play again in “The Public Enemy” and still later in “White Heat.” Blondell, her hair darker than we will get use too, also shines and even in this first film, she delivers a classic sassy line. When the police are asking if she was with Harry all night at the beach, her father tells her, ”think of your reputation!” To which she replies, “You think of it, you worry about it more than I do.” Grant Withers character is a bit of an odd ball, goofy, and not very appealing. Withers career though long would sink to “B” westerns and small parts. He was married for a very short time to Loretta Young who was seventeen at the time. The marriage was annulled.