(UK title–Cafe of the Seven Sinners)
Directed by Tay Garnett
October 25, 1940
A torch singer who has been kicked off numerous South Seas islands meets and falls in love with a young naval officer.
This is a light little piece of fluff starring Marlene Dietrich as torch singer Bijou Blanche with second billing going to John Wayne as the object of her affections Lt. Dan Brent. Bijou is a sultry nightclub singer, and Lt. Brent is the Naval Officer that falls head over heels in love with her. Wayne reportedly got the part after Dietrich saw Wayne in the Universal Pictures commissary and said to the film’s producer Joe Pasternak, “Mommy wants that for Christmas.” To add to this story, I read somewhere that the two eventually had an affair, so I guess mommy eventually did get what she wanted for Christmas. And so did daddy.
Dietrich is one of the great old school Hollywood sex symbols and she uses her sexuality for great effect in her role here. She goes all in on the sultry. She slinks all over the screen with a sly, seductive look on her face wearing clothing that often looks as if it she was sown into the garments rather than she put them on.
The men fall all over themselves because of their attraction to her. It is done in a comical way given that this is not a hard drama but rather more of a 40s romcom. I think if they had played it just a little straighter it would have worked out better for the film. It is just a bit TOO silly for my tastes and really sticks out in comparison to everything else.
John Wayne still was not a big star at this point (at least not close to what he eventually became) and Marlene Dietrich was a step or two above him especially after having just revived her career with the film Destry Rides Again which costarred the great James Stewart. Wayne is in less of the film than Dietrich is and even less compared to her comical sidekicks who are the pickpocket/magician Sasha Mencken (Mischa Auer) and the brawling sailor ‘Little Ned’ Finnegan (Broderick Crawford). Considering Wayne became huge star I would say his lack of screen time is rather surprising. He became bigger than most in a time when being the biggest meant something more so than it does today.
The character of Bijou has been kicked out of multiple islands for causing riots since she drives men crazy with desire and her generally questionable morals and such. Upon hearing that a new governor has been appointed to an island she had been previously booted from she sees it as a chance to go back and start again in a scenario that feels right out of a Hallmark romcom.
Samuel S. Hinds, who plays Gov. Harvey Henderson in the film, is best known from It’s A Wonderful Life as the Bailey family patriarch Peter Bailey. It smacks you in the face from the first thing he says. Very hard to miss. Just a fun bit of trivia about one of the actors in the film who was also a lawyer at one point in his life.
As I said before this is a fairly light film. It is more about showcasing Dietrich’s singing talents and general sexuality than it is anything else. It was all about selling her in something that barely has a story. And the film sells it well. This was a vehicle for her that took no chances.
There are thieves and ruffians and shady characters all around here on the island of Boni Komba which is a name that could only come out of old Hollywood. It strikes me that this film is trying to be a Casablanca rip off. I am not sure because as of this writing that particular film is lingering in my watch pile but that is the vibe I got though they are going the shallower route. It is kind of like an Asylum mockbuster in that aspect.
Seven Sinners is dessert and not a meal and that is okay. It is a fun story with some light jokes and a fun turn for John Wayne who is not necessarily the central character but rather is cast as the love interest. Dietrich is the one in control while Lt. Brent is being led around by his feelings.
The scenery and the environment are pretty immersive here. It is a look and feel that you do not get from current films. Nobody does sets and environments like they do here anymore. And the last time I saw an over the top fight scene like the one they had in here was in Blazing Saddles which was a film that Wayne could have starred in but turned down because of his public image.
Seven Sinners, while not a great film, is an enjoyable watch. It is not a turd, but it is also not a must see for casual film fans. However for John Wayne fans it is a must if for no other reason than to see him as the one NOT in control.