Seven Sinners (1940)

Honoring the Duke’–Most Powerful American Star

“Seven Sinners” is part of Universal’s DVD Collection: “John Wayne–An American Icon,” a series of five films that also includes “The Shepherd of the Hills,” “Pittsburgh,” “the Conqueror,” and “Jet Pilot.”

Two of these films, “Seven Sinners” and “Pittsburgh,” stars Marlene Dietrich, with whom Wayne had an off screen affair in the early 1940s.

Film Review

“Seven Sinners” was made by Universal and draws on Wayne’s image in “Stagecoach” (1939), as a figure of simple gallantry and emotional honesty. However, the movie is more of a star vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, following her spectacular comeback in the Western comedy “Destry Rides Again” (with Jimmy Stewart), after being labeled by the industry a “box-office poison.”

Dietrich plays her typical role, an entertainer of dubious backgroundand morality but deep down a good girl. In this tale, the setting is switched from the Old West to the South Sea Islands. Dietrich’s Bijou is a torch singer who collects deportation orders as regularly as she draws pay, when the folks riot over her performances in the Seven Sinners cafe.

A honky-tonk singer playing the South Sea Island circuit, Bijou is at the American naval base at Boni-Komba with three colorful cronies: Little Ned (Broderick Crawford, before he became a leading man), Sacha (Mischa Auer), and Dr. Martin (Albert Dekker). They get a job from Tony (Billy Gilbert), the proprietor of the Seven Sinner café and trouble begins.

A sophisticated woman who’s been around, Bijou is attracted to the naive charm and good manners of the spruce navy lieutenant Dan Brent (John Wayne), who’s a breath of fresh air, compared to the lust of the “dirty old men” she usually meets at the club.

After hearing Bijou perform at the Seven Sinners Cafe, Brent presents her with a bunch of orchids and invites her to sing aboard his ship. His superior officers are concerned by his romantic interest in Bijou, who he sees as a “real lady.” Though Bijou falls hard for him, she knows that her presence endangers his record and navy career. Reluctantly, she gives Brent up just as he is ready to abandon the navy for her.

Bijou sacrifices to save him from the murderous jealousy of her knife-wielding admirer, Antro (Oscar Homolka, overacting). The movie boasts a splendid fight, when Brent takes off his jacket and strides into the caf to take on Antro and a dozen heavies; soon he gets support from his Navy comrades. When Brent is knocked out at the end of the fight, Bijou uses the opportunity to slip out of his life so that he can go back to his first true love, the navy.

John Wayne’s part was first offered to Tyrone Power, who looked good in uniform and back then was more popular than Wayne. Even so, Wayne shows that he can be relaxed and handle romance as well as comedy-adventure and Westerns. Wayne and Dietrich had a romantic affair off screen, and made three movies together.

“Seven Sinners” is an exception in Wayne’s career: It’s one of the few films in which as a Navy Lieutenant falls he falls for a saloon girl and is willing to abandon his career for her. But this was an uncharacteristic picture, made as a Dietrich vehicle, long before Wayne’s image was crystallized in the public’s mind.

Credits

Running Time: 81 Minutes
Released November 4, 1940

Produced by Joe Pasternak
Directed by Tay Garnett
Screenplay: John Meehan and Harry Tugend, based on a story by Ladislaus Fodro and Lazslo Vadnal
Camera: Rudolph Mate
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Musical Director: Charles Previn
Sound: Bernard B. Brown
Music: Frank Skinner
Costumes: Vera West and Irene (for Dietrich’s wardrobe).