CAUTION: Contains “spoilers”
The title “Sinners in Paradise” sounded intriguing. Even though the film belongs to the downside of director James Whale’s career at Universal–now the Laemmle-less New Universal–the cast and the concept made it sound intriguing. “Sinners in Paradise” can probably be best described as “a philosophical adventure story.” A disparate group of survivors from a mid-ocean plane crash wash up on an apparently deserted island. In reality the island is serving as a refuge for a world-weary type and his Asian manservant. He wants his privacy. They want off “his” island. He has a sailboat, but won’t allow them to use it, and has buried the compass, magneto and a supply of fuel to make certain that it goes nowhere.
So far we have the adventure. Now the philosophic part comes into play. The reclusive Mr. Taylor offers them food and limited assistance but tells them that they must learn to work together to fend for themselves. Those who cherish Whale’s impressive run of horror films for Universal may sometimes overlook the strong element of satire that runs through them. Here, with no monsters to distract the audience, Whale and his triumvirate of scriptwriters (Lester Cole, Harold Buckley and Louis Stevens) are given a rich cross-section of humanity to explore. There is a pompous, less-than-honorable Senator (Gene Lockhart), a run-away heiress–who far from fleeing a romantic entanglement is fleeing a bitter strike at one of her factories–a gunman fleeing his former associates with a suitcase full of cash (the redoubtable Bruce Cabot), a sale representative for an arms manufacturer looking to sell guns to Chinese warlords (Milburn Stone, decades away from his lovable Doc Adams persona) and his equally unscrupulous rival (Morgan Conway, a few years away from movie heroism as Dick Tracy), and a feisty steward who is tired of his menial’s role in life (Don ‘Red’ Barry). A mother flying to China to see her son (Nana Bryant), a nurse who has walked out on a possibly-abusive marriage (Madge Evans) and a tough gang moll fleeing a subpoena (Marion Martin) round out the group.
John Boles, who was somewhat forgettable as Colin Clive’s old friend in “Frankenstein” does a nice job with Taylor. Initially it appears that tough customers like Cabot, Stone and Conway will literally chew him up and spit him out, but Boles proves equally good with his fists and he is with a quip. His servant, played by Willie Fung, who usually did comic relief part, is no pushover either, as Stone and Conway will later learn to their sorrow. Of course Boles will fall for Madge Evan’s pretty nurse, and she will encourage Boles to do the right thing and return to face the music for a murder charge. (Boles, it seems, was a doctor who had some dealings with the Shanghai underworld–a fact that the gun-toting Cabot cottons to almost immediately.) Yes, “Sinners in Paradise” is a 63-minute package of pulp fiction/romance with plot developments occurring at breakneck speed. The point of the film is that their enforced stay on Boles’ island will bring out each castaway’s true self. So although we expect that Cabot will emerge as an anti-social menace (a role he had honed to perfection in “Let ’em Have It” and “Show Them No Mercy”) actually becomes a better man as an initial flirtation with Martin’s tough moll deepens into a loving relationship and he will become Boles’ loyal ally. Lockhart’s pompous politician will sow dissent and cause no end of problems but, when Boles’ finally relents and sails the rest to freedom and himself to prison, is already planning a book about the castaways’ experiences in which he will emerge as a second George Washington, Charlotte Wynter’s hard-hearted heiress learns a bruising lesson in humility when she finds herself related to a role as the castaways’ housekeeper/maid and discovers that she has more in common with Barry’s bitter working-man than she’d ever believed possible. But Stone and Conway, dedicated to their brutal take-no-prisoners code as “merchants of death” will never change and it remains for Fung’s servant Ping to sort them out. Imagine good old jolly Willie Fung actually gets to be a hero! Dwight Frye, who contributed masterful turns in Whale’s two Frankenstein films, gets a nice cameo at the film’s start as one of Wynter’s slithery minions. If she had guys like this dealing with her strikers, no wonder she’s flying to China! Maybe after her island ordeal she’ll promote Barry to plant manager.