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The Sin Ship

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The Sin Ship
Theatrical poster
Directed byLouis Wolheim[1]
James Anderson (assistant)
Charles Kerr (assistant)
Screenplay byHugh Herbert[2]
Story byKeene Thompson[2]
Agnes Brand Leahy[2]
Produced byWilliam LeBaron[3]
Myles Connelly (associate)[1]
StarringLouis Wolheim
Mary Astor
Ian Keith
CinematographyNicholas Musuraca[3]
Edited byGeorge Marsh[4]
Ann McKnight[3]
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • April 18, 1931 (1931-04-18) (US)[3]
Running time
65 minutes
7 reels
CountryUnited States

The Sin Ship is a 1931 American pre-Code drama film produced and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures and directed by the actor Louis Wolheim in his only directorial effort. The film marks the last contribution Wolheim made to the film industry prior to his death from cancer one month shy of his fifty-first birthday. In addition to directing, Wolheim also starred in the picture, alongside Mary Astor and Ian Keith. The screenplay was written by Hugh Herbert (who also did double duty in the cast), from a story by Keene Thompson and Agnes Brand Leahy. The film was released in April 1931, two months after Wolheim's death, and is preserved at the Library of Congress.


Smiley Marsden is a bank-robber on the run from the police, with his moll, Frisco Kitty. Cornered, they arrive at the San Francisco docks, where they convince the captain of a small cargo ship, Sam McVeigh, to take them aboard on his run to Mexico, mostly because he is enchanted with Kitty. Marsden is posing as a minister. As the ship sets sail, every sailor aboard lusts after Kitty, none more so than the captain. One night, when inebriated, he corners Kitty in his cabin and begins to force himself on her. She stops him by basically telling him that he is better than that, which makes him do some deep soul-searching. During the rest of the voyage, Kitty manages to fend off the rest of the crew, with the help of the disarmed captain.

By the time they dock in Mexico, McVeigh has fallen in love with Kitty, who he still believes to be the wife of "Minister" Marsden. Aware that the authorities might become suspicious of him if McVeigh's ship departs immediately, Marsden delays their departure, first through the use of Kitty's flirtation with McVeigh, and later through outright sabotage. When Kitty finally protests, he beats her. After the crew accuses McVeigh of the sabotage and tell him they plan to rape Kitty at the first opportunity, he goes to Marsden’s hotel room to enlist his help in protecting her. Marsden, who has been drinking, reveals his true colors and exposes the truth about Kitty. McVeigh knocks him out but is prevented from doing anything more by the appearance of a man holding a gun. This unnamed character, previously seen as an American tourist, identifies himself as a detective who has been pursuing Marsden. He takes his prisoner away. McVeigh follows but climbs back in the window to see Kitty. She tells about her childhood poverty, her abuse at the hands of men, and how she meant what she said about the sea and the sky. However, she cannot run away; she has to face the consequences. McVeigh leaves, and three shots ring out. A distraught Kitty runs into the street, where she finds the detective, gun drawn. Marsden tried to escape, and he shot him. Kitty is prepared to go with him, but he says he has nothing on her, it was Marsden he wanted. She is perfectly free. She and McVeigh end up together.


(Cast list as per AFI database)[3]


Unfortunately (being Wolheim's final film), the picture only received lukewarm reviews at best. Photoplay said that the film proved "... the difficulty of both acting in and directing a picture."[5] Motion Picture Magazine described the film, "The first directorial effort of Louis Wolheim does not get off to a very auspicious start, but once the rat of melodrama is forced out into the open, a lively time is had by all."[6] The Motion Picture Herald, on the other hand, was more positive, stating the film had a "... meaningless title tacked onto a cracking good sea story", classing it as a "... very satisfactory entertainment for the smaller communities."[7]


The title of the film during production was Sheep's Clothing.[3]

Many of the harbor sequences were shot on Catalina Island, where LeBaron rented six speedboats to patrol the coastal waters and dampen the sound from sightseers and other onlookers.[3]

After completion of the film, Wolheim expressed his dissatisfaction with the role of directing, stating that from that point forward he only intended to act.[8]

After completion of this film, Wolheim began to actively pursue a role in Howard Hughes' film, The Front Page. As part of his campaign, he lost over thirty pounds in three weeks. After being rewarded with the role, he unfortunately died suddenly. Accounts of the time stated it was due to his drastic weight loss, although later sources indicated it was due to stomach cancer. He would be replaced by Adolphe Menjou.[9][10][11]


  1. ^ a b "The Sin Ship, Credits". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on August 23, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c Jewell, Richard B.; Harbin, Vernon (1982). The RKO Story. New York: Arlington House. p. 35. ISBN 0-517-546566.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "The Sin Ship: Detail View". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on June 11, 2017. Retrieved June 28, 2017.
  4. ^ "The Sin Ship". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Baseline & All Movie Guide. 2014. Archived from the original on August 23, 2014. Retrieved June 28, 2017.
  5. ^ "The First and Best Talkie Reviews". Photoplay. January 1931. p. 51.
  6. ^ "A Lively Time is Had by All". Motion Picture Magazine. February 1931. p. 62.
  7. ^ "Cracking Good Story". Motion Picture Herald. April 25, 1931. p. 106.
  8. ^ Schallert, Edwin; Schallert, Elza (March 1931). "Hollywood High Lights". Picture Play Magazine. p. 16.
  9. ^ Waterbury, Ruth (March 1931). "The Final Fling". The Silver Screen. p. 82.
  10. ^ Hal Erickson (2014). "Louis Wolheim, full biography". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Baseline & All Movie Guide. Archived from the original on August 23, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  11. ^ "Hollywood's Goings-On". Photoplay. April 1931. p. 45.
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The Sin Ship
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