Jan 28, 2015

On DVD: Joan Blondell and James Cagney Debut in Sinners' Holiday (1930)

There are many early films that I'll watch to check out a star in their debut or breakout film role. That was the case with the new Warner Archive release of Sinners' Holiday (1930). It features the one-two punch of Joan Blondell and James Cagney in their first screen appearances. I'll admit I didn't have high expectations for the movie, but it's an entertaining hour (to the minute), and the mesmerizing stage and screen actress Lucille LaVerne is one reason why.

It's based on the Broadway play Penny Arcade, which opened around the dawn of the Great Depression and quickly tanked. Al Jolson snapped up the rights, and insisted that Blondell and Cagney reprise their stage roles in the film version.

The story revolves around a penny arcade operated by the close-knit Delano family on a Coney Island amusement pier. There the tough-as-nails Ma Delano (LaVerne) presides over the business while her children, Myrtle (Evalyn Knapp), Joe (Ray Gallagher) and Harry (James Cagney) find themselves in varying degrees of drama.

As Myrtle's boyfriend Angel, Grant Withers is the nominal star, and he is adorable, but next to Blondell and Cagney he gives the impression of a goldfish flopping around on a table. You want things to turn out for him, but don't particularly care to see how it all pans out. Knapp is similarly pleasant, and even quite effective in her more dramatic scenes, but she had some powerful co-stars to play against.

Though they are billed fourth and fifth respectively, Cagney and Blondell both clearly have the charisma of stars, and it is exciting to see them so confident in their prospective styles from the beginning.

A young Lucille LaVerne
Cagney already possesses the dancing fingers and graceful, but jittery moves that would give his best performances that intoxicating crackle. He goes a bit over the top in some dramatic moments, but isn't too cringe worthy. Blondell gives the impression she has nothing to learn though. In a short brown hairdo that looks like a little furry cap, she already knows how to pop those big, round Joan eyes and race through her lines with perfect comic momentum and bubbly warmth.

As the Delano family matron, Lucille LaVerne was a pleasant surprise. She's got a marvelous face, with a pointy nose and chin and dark slashes of eyebrow. This is the kind of actress that I miss in modern films: a tough, wise, complex matron who is comfortable in her own skin. Most famous for voicing the queen/witch in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), you can see why she would later be chosen to fill that commanding role. I perked up every time she appeared.

The plot is a busy tangle of romance, crime and murder that would become tiresome if the film ran any longer. As it is, it's an entertaining bit of life among the carneys. I enjoyed it, and look forward to watching it again.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.


  1. Really enjoyed your take! It was so interesting to see them just starting out (including Joan's hair -- wondered if it was a wig the way it sat on her head, LOL). And to see the hints of what was to come!

    Best wishes,

  2. Thanks Laura! I like Blondell and Cagney for similar reasons (their energy, how relaxed they seem on screen, bold charisma), so I especially love that they made their screen debut together.