Not that long ago I discussed on this blog the career of actress Jean Parker. I mentioned how I couldn't understand why she didn't become a bigger star. I have often wondered the same thing about Lelia Hyams, a beautiful blonde whose film career started at the end of the silent era and lasted through the mid-1930s. Hyams is best known for her roles in the cult horror films FREAKS and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Despite being a contract player at MGM, she never was able to break through to major stardom.
Hyams was almost always cast in "nice girl" roles, and her characters would usually wind up reacting to events instead of instigating them. It didn't help that she was constantly overshadowed by various things in her movies, whether they be circus freaks, panther women, or a psychotic Jean Harlow in RED HEADED WOMAN. Hyams did have a nice supporting role in RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935), but soon after she left acting to concentrate on her family life.
She did get a chance to shine in a 1933 film from low-budget company Majestic called SING SINNER SING. Hyams plays Lela, a torch singer on a gambling ship. Her character even gets to actually sing a couple of tunes--despite my internet research I was never able to ascertain whether the songs were performed by Hyams or she was dubbed.
The gambling ship is run by a man named Phil Carida (Paul Lukas). If you go by the "old movie rules", you know that Phil is a shady guy, because he has a mustache and he speaks in a foreign accent. Phil also needs a cold shower--whenever he and Lela are alone he can't keep his hands off her, yet when she is on stage he's fooling around with one of the chorus girls. Lela also has another admirer in drunken playboy Ted Rendon (played by an actor with the unfortunate name of Don Dillaway). Lela is getting tired of Phil's horndog activities, and wants to leave her job, but she's afraid of what the gangster-like ship owner might do to her. Lela takes advantage of a robbery attempt on the ship's safe (in which Phil is injured) to take up Ted's offer of marriage and go away with him.
Lela's problems do not end, however. Ted spends almost all of his time drinking and partying, and when he is sober he's morose and depressed. Instead of just divorcing the jerk Lela tries to help him. Things come to a head one night when a hungover Ted contemplates suicide with a pistol, just as Phil shows up wanting revenge. Lela hears a shot, but she (and the audience) do not see who fired it. Lela finds Ted dead, and she faints on top of a gun lying on the floor. Lela winds up being tried for Ted's murder....which leads to one of those "someone bursts into the courtroom and does something spectacular" scenes. But just when the viewer thinks that wraps everything up, another twist is revealed.
SING SINNER SING was produced during the height of the Pre-Code era, but despite its plot and title, it isn't risque or outlandish. The idea of a gambling ship as a major location is noteworthy, but the movie's budget doesn't allow it to make proper use of the idea. The subplot of Phil's underworld associates trying to rob the gambling ship's take isn't developed enough, and the few musical numbers on the ship are nothing to get excited about. Director Howard Christie (billed in the credits as "Christy') films the events in a straightforward manner. There is a lot of things happening for a movie that runs 66 minutes, and the climax is worth getting to.
The movie shifts in tone once Lela gets off the ship and marries Ted. Lela winds up being exasperated by Ted's partying ways (although she doesn't do the smart thing and just leave him). Once again Leila Hyams plays a nice girl stuck in a bad situation--even away from MGM she couldn't escape that kind of role. Lelia does at least get a number of ravishing close-ups. According to my internet research, the plot of SING SINNER SING was apparently inspired by a real-life case involving a singer named Libby Holman and a tobacco fortune heir named Zachary Reynolds.
The best feature of SING SINNER SING is the cast, which is quite impressive for a low-budget production. Not only do you get Leila Hyams and Paul Lukas, there's Ruth Donnelly as Lela's best friend and comic relief, and character actors such as George E. Stone, Edgar Norton, and Walter Brennan. (I have to admit that while watching SING SINNER SING on YouTube I didn't notice Brennan in it.)
The print of SING SINNER SING that I viewed on YouTube wasn't the best quality, but Hyams still looked gorgeous in it. For those who have seen the actress in FREAKS and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and would like to see more of her, SING SINNER SING is an easy place to start.