Seven Sinners (1940): John Wayne (in White Uniform) Romancing Marlene Dietrich in the South Seas

Made by Universal, Seven Sinners was meant to draw on John Wayne’s screen image in his breakthrough role as Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), as a figure of simple gallantry and emotional honesty.

seven_sinners_wayne_posterHowever, 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), also in 1939, after being labeled by the industry a “box-office poison.”

Dietrich plays her typical role, an entertainer of dubious background and shady morality, who deep down is actually a good girl.

In this tale, the setting is switched from the Old West to the South Seas 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 after the 1949 All the King’s Men), Sacha (Mischa Auer), and Dr. Martin (Albert Dekker).  When they get a job from Tony (Billy Gilbert), the proprietor of the Seven Sinner café, real trouble begins.

seven_sinners_wayne_2A 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.



seven_sinners_wayne_5After 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.

Later on, Bijou sacrifices to save him from the murderous jealousy of her knife-wielding admirer, Antro (Oscar Homolka, overacting).

seven_sinners_wayne_4The 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.



seven_sinners_wayne_3John Wayne’s part was first offered to Tyrone Power, who looked good in uniform and back then was more popular than Wayne at the box-office.  Even so, Wayne shows that he can be relaxed and handle romance as well as comedy-adventure and Westerns.

Wayne and Dietrich, who had a romantic affair off screen, made three movies together; the others being The Spoilers and Pittsburgh.

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



Marlene Dietrich as Bijou Blanche

John Wayne as Lt. Dan Brent

Albert Dekker as Dr. Martin

Broderick Crawford as Edward Patrick ‘Little Ned’ Finnegan

Anna Lee as Dorothy Henderson

Mischa Auer as Sasha Mencken

Billy Gilbert as Tony

Richard Carle as District Officer

Samuel S. Hinds as Governor Harvey Henderson

Oskar Homolka as Antro

Reginald Denny as Capt. Church

Vince Barnett as Bartender

Herbert Rawlinson as First Mate

James Craig as Ensign

William Bakewell as Ens. Judson



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).