Running a penny arcade is a family affair for Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne) and her grown children Jennie (Evalyn Knapp), Joe (Ray Gallagher), and Harry (James Cagney). Mitch (Warren Hymer) runs a sideshow near the Delano’s arcade, but it’s actually a front for his bootlegging operation. Ma Delano despises alcohol and wishes Mitch would just go away, but she has more ties to it than she’d like. Her daughter Jennie is dating Angel Harrigan (Grant Withers), Mitch’s former sideshow barker. And unbeknownst to her, Harry has gotten involved in Mitch’s racket.
After Mitch gets picked up by the cops, Harry starts running the bootlegging business himself and helping himself to the profits. When Mitch gets out of jail and finds out how Harry has been running things, he’s out for blood. Mitch confronts Harry, but Harry shoots and kills Mitch. Harry tries to get his girlfriend Myrtle (Joan Blondell) to cover for him with the police. However, he tells the truth to his mother and she tries to frame Harrigan for the whole thing. But what they don’t realize is that Jennie witnessed the confrontation between Harry and Mitch.
Sinners’ Holiday isn’t a terrible movie, but there are plenty of far better movies out there about bootleggers. However, Sinners’ Holiday is very noteworthy for being the film debut of James Cagney. Sinners’ Holiday was based on a play called “Penny Arcade,” which had a brief run on Broadway. Cagney and Blondell were in the play together and even though the critics didn’t care for the show, they did like Cagney and Blondell. As fate would have it, one of their admirers happened to be Al Jolson. Jolson thought the story might work well as a movie so he bought the rights and sold them to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that Cagney and Blondell play the same roles they had in the stage version.
Even though the movie isn’t particularly great, it’s easy to see why Jolson made sure to insist on Cagney being included in the film version. He is by far the biggest reason to watch Sinners’ Holiday. If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t have even guessed that this was his film debut. Not only does he get an extremely generous amount of screen time for someone who had never made a movie before, he plays the part as though he’d already been playing gangster types for years. Not a bad way to get a start a movie career.
When Dan (William Powell) meets Joan (Kay Francis) in a bar in Hong Kong, it’s love at first sight. They have a drink together, but end up going their separate ways. What neither of them realizes is that the other doesn’t have much time to live. You wouldn’t know it by looking at her, but Joan is extremely sick. She’s about to set sail for San Francisco so she can go to a sanitarium, but there’s a good chance she won’t survive the trip. Dan is a murderer on the run from the law and gets arrested by Steve Burke (Warren Hymer) as soon as he leaves the bar that night. Steve’s going to take Dan back to San Francisco where he will be executed.
As fate would have it, Dan and Joan wind up on the same boat to San Francisco. Joan’s doctor wants her to spend the trip resting, but she knows she doesn’t have much time left so she wants to live it up while she can. When she finds out Dan is on board and has been looking for her, she ignores the doctor’s orders and spends all the time she can with Dan. She remains in the dark about his criminal background and he has no idea about her illness, but they are madly in love with each other. Dan is able to spend so much time with Joan thanks to some help from his criminal friends Skippy (Frank McHugh) and Betty (Aline McMahon). Betty is on board posing as a countess so she and Skippy keep distracting Steve so that Dan can be with Joan. But Betty ends up spending so much time with Steve that they also end up falling in love.
When the ship makes a stop in Honolulu, Dan and Joan spend an unforgettable day ashore together and Dan wants to come clean to her about his past. But just as he’s about to break the news, she faints and he takes her back to the ship. Her doctor warns Dan that any more shocking news could kill her, so Dan keeps his secret. She ends up discovering the truth about Dan just before the ship docks in San Francisco and, naturally, she’s surprised. But that doesn’t stop her from saying goodbye to Dan and agreeing to meet him at a bar in Mexico on New Year’s Eve, even though they both know they won’t be able to keep the date.
What’s not to like about One Way Passage? Kay Francis and William Powell were perfection in it. Their chemistry together was superb and both of them give excellent performances. Powell in particular gives one of the best performances of his career. Aline McMahon and Frank McHugh make the supporting cast every bit as memorable as Powell and Francis. I loved the very dreamlike atmosphere of the movie. One Way Passage is a prime example of those early 1930s gems that aren’t very long, but make every single second count. If you haven’t already seen it, definitely be sure to keep an eye out for it. I know I wish I had seen it sooner.