Sinners in Paradise (James Whale, 1938)
In 1938, stuck in the middle of a quagmire of studio politics, James Whale was assigned to direct a feature film which would turn out to be the most disappointing film Whale has ever attached his name to. The film, Sinners in Paradise, is in one word, disastrous. The film opened to negative reviews from both critics and the audience. However, is Whale exactly the one to blame for the cinematic disaster? When Carl Laemmle sold Universal Studios, the result was the ouster of both Laemmle and Carl Laemmle, Jr as head of the studio, lessening Whale's clout within the Hollywood film factory. Whale's level of scrutiny, from the casting, and the script development is completely absent from the film and Whale's task was to merely sit behind the camera and see to it that the script turns into a coherent, watchable whole. That's what Whale basically did, turn a ridiculously bad screenplay by Harold Buckley into something watchable.
A group of outcasts, misfits and other personalities of ill repute find themselves trapped in an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when their seaplane that was supposedly bringing them to China, crashes. The survivors include an all knowing and despicable state senator, two competing businessmen who trade in guns and ammunition, a rich heiress escaping a labor strike in one of her factories, a criminal on the run, another criminal personality who decides to tell on her former colleagues, a cranky airplane steward, a nurse who barters her marriage for an opportunity to work in a Shanghai hospital, and a mother who is off to China to visit her only son. In the island, the different personalities are forced to survive under the mercy of the island's only residents, Jim Taylor (John Boles), who owns the boat parked comfortably near the beach, and his man-servant Ping (Willie Fung).
There's an obvious lack of Whale's usual directorial flourish. Given a measly budget, Whale makes most of what he has. Much of the special effects is laughable. The airplane crash abandons all notions of logic as the miniature plane undergoes turbulence that is most possibly fatal, but the characters in that plane standing up in the plane's aisle as if they were merely experiencing a slight meteorological bump instead of the plot's typhoon. The island itself looks drab and makes you wish for the intricate production designs that dressed up Whale's previous projects. The acting is passable, with most of the actors and actresses, delivering their lines in theatrical fashion, making most of what little characterization the screenplay has to offer.
It's not that the story is hideous, it's just that the writing is so uninspired, the comedy so practically dead, and the plot movement so uncreative, that the film can literally be much worse if given to any director with less talent than Whale. I think the story is actually serviceable, with some similarities with Whale's previous Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where we are introduced to characters so arrogant that they opt to create life and play around with such creations. Here, Jim Taylor comes off as a Dr. Frankenstein type of character whose erstwhile purpose was to build an artificial community of sinners in a remote Pacific island. However, the similarities end there as Jim Taylor devolves into a character that is much less than the maniacal scientist in the famous horror classics.
Taylor turns into a romantic figure whose experimantations in forced community building is stunted by the fact that the participants in the community are mere cardboard cut-outs of stereotypical social misfits or upper class snobs. Taylor himself is trapped in a romantic storm with divorcee Anne Wesson (Madge Evans), which leaves him a character as uninteresting as the island survivors. It's a missed opportunity. Whale can handle comedy most efficiently when it oozes with sarcasm, irony, and deadpan commentary. However, when the comedy is forced down your throat with slapstick, middle-brow humor, it simply wouldn't work no matter how inspired the direction could be. The possible story that examines man's insatiable need to be like gods, by creating artificial communities, is completely lost with this mess.