Walter Huston … Gen. Gregori Platoff
Kay Francis … Marya Ivanova Sablin
Kenneth MacKenna … Lt. Victor Sablin
Jobyna Howland … Alexandra Stroganov
Paul Cavanagh … Capt. Orloff
Eric Kalkhurst … Lt. Glinka
Oscar Apfel … Maj. Ivanoff
Gordon McLeod … Col. Nikitin
Youcca Troubetzkov … Capt. Sobakin
Victor Potel … Sentry
Directed by George Cukor & Louis Gasnier.
Based on the play “A Tabornok” by Lajos Zilahy.
Screenplay by Martin Brown.
Scenery by Louise Long.
Music by Sam Coslow, Karl Hajos, Howard Jackson, Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin, Max Terr & Richard A Whiting.
Sound by Harold M. McNiff.
Camera by David Abel.
Editing by Otto Lovering.
Gowns by Travis Banton.
Released October 24, 1930.
A Paramount Picture.
The Virtuous Sin, despite a second billing to Walter Huston, proved to be the first starring role for Kay Francis. And it’s a good one. Floating between heavy drama and clever comedy, the picture gave Kay her best acting opportunity until that point. The role allowed her to play a desperate woman trying to save the life of a husband she doesn’t love by posing as a glorified prostitute, trying to seduce a hard-edged General, falling in love with him in the process.
The film opens up in Russia in 1914. Kay plays Marya, a young woman interested in scientist Victor, played by Kay’s future husband Kenneth MacKenna. Though she doesn’t really love him, they decide to get married anyway, since Marya is interested in his science work. Unfortunately, she loses him when he is drafted into the war under the tough, dominant General Gregori Platoff.
Victor doesn’t prove to be a good solider. Uninterested in his duties, he has a confrontation with Platoff. When he refuses to respect the General, he is sentenced to die by firing squad.
Marya receives a letter announcing the news her husband is to die. She unsuccessfully tried to beg Platoff not to draft her husband before, and he was unimpressed by her tears.
This time, she’s firm. There will be no tears.
Marya goes away and gets herself in with Alexandra, the mistress of an enormous brothel. The General and his soldiers visit frequently, and Marya realizes this is her best opportunity to seduce the Platoff into a night of love making, after which she can plea for her husband’s pardon.
After her first night there, the General doesn’t come in. Knowing it’s only days until her husband is to be shot, she goes out to lure him in. She pretends that one of his soldiers made a cheap pass at her as she was walking along, and she demands him to walk her home. Isn’t he quite surprised when her home is the brothel he and his soldiers visit?
Interested in her, he goes to Alexandra’s that night. They drink and go for a long walk. By the next night, they make love.
During the course of this the camera shows a shot here and there of Victor sitting in his cell thinking and wondering what it is Marya can possibly doing to get him out.
The morning after their night together, Marya goes to visit General Platoff to beg him to release Victor. She tells him she’s his wife. He’s enraged, believing her and Victor got this scheme together to release him. She tells him Victor doesn’t know, “Then you’ve been rotten to both of us!” He scolds her, and tells her to get out.
Victor is released by Platoff, but realizes what Marya has done. When she confirms it, and that she never really loved Victor, he’s surprised but not entirely shocked. When questioning her, she admits, “To be loyal, I had to be disloyal.”
Realizing they are an unmatched pair, Victor agrees they should get a divorce.
The last scene shows General Patoff and Marya embrace and kiss.
This film was far better than I had ever expected it to be. Really. I know the plot is extremely dated, but I think it’s handled fairly well. This is one of those Kay Francis movies her critics like to use to argue she had no talent. In reality, take a name like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis and throw them in here and the performances would have been just as uniformly poor.
Or even worse.
Honestly, this isn’t that bad of a movie. It certainly moves quickly, and the brothel is really a marvel to look at. It’s like a palace. The rest of the sets are a bit drab, but it’s 1914 Russia at the start of the First World War. It’s not a glamorous setup to begin with. This isn’t Park Ave, and the set designers weren’t about to give it the illusion as being such.
Kay gives a good performance. This allows her great range. To say it’s one of her best may be a bit of a stretch, but it certainly was up until that point. Despite Walter Huston getting top billing, this is her movie. This is about her struggle, no one else’s.
It’s most interesting seeing her play coquettish when the General is walking her home. The camera shoots Kay from a downward angle, and she’s extremely flirty but very suggestive. Almost channeling the suggestiveness of Clara Bow, whom she had worked with in the previous year’s Dangerous Curves.
It’s interesting to see her play opposite Kenneth MacKenna, knowing how hot things were between them off the set. Still, aside from all her personal diary entries about their love making, she is totally out for Walter Huston in this one.
His character is ideal for him, a tough General whose heart is warmed by a young woman in trouble. He makes the most of every scene he’s in, and his chemistry with Kay is the strongest here than in any of the other films that made together: Gentlemen of the Press, Storm At Daybreak, and Always in My Heart.
MacKenna is theatrical in the way one would expect a stage actor from New York to be in an early sound film. Really, it is Jobyna Howland as Alexandra who does most of the scene stealing. Standing at 6 feet tall, she is the only woman I can ever remember seeing on the screen who towered over Kay Francis.
The two have good chemistry, too. Howland as the older mistress of the brothel, and Kay, a young a woman who’s pretending to work there. She’s humorous and the center of attention of whatever scene she’s in. It is her who prevents this film from becoming just another early talking melodrama.
It’s unfortunate she didn’t make more films.
Director George Cukor later said he wished the movie would just disappear. Thankfully, that isn’t the case. While this may not have been the best example of his work, it certainly wasn’t as painful as he remembered it to be.
There are painful to watch movies made from this time. The Virtuous Sin definitely isn’t one of them.
A spread that originally appeared in
Picture Play, December 1930:
By Mordaunt Hall. Published November 2, 1930 in the New York Times.
“THE Virtuous Sin,” the lurid title for the picturization of Lajos Zilahy’s play “The General,” which was at the Paramount, is a clever comedy with a splendid performance by Walter Huston, who appears as a Russian General-Gregori Platoff. This high officer is a strict disciplinarian, whose uniforms fit him to perfection. He is not a philanderer. He might never have noticed Marya Ivanova, played by Kay Francis, had she not accosted him one day when he is with his officers.
Marya’s intention in addressing the General is to prevail upon him to pardon her husband, who at that moment is in jail, sentenced to be shot within less than a week. Marya thought that by flirting with the General and flattering him she might wheedle a signature out of him that would set free her husband, Lieutenant Victor Sablin, a medical student who found himself unfit for the fighting branch of the army. Marya, after having elicited admiration and affection from the General, finds that she has fallen in love with him.
This talking picture was directed by George Cukor and Louis Gasnier, who have sensed the many opportunities afforded for levity—restrained, natural comedy. When the General, who knows no superior on earth in his district, stalks into a night club presided over by Alexandra Stroganoff the whole atmosphere of the place changes. Young officers flushed by wine control themselves and where there was revelry and boisterous laughter there is sudden quiet. The General takes a seat beside Marya. Where drinks and bottles of wine were being ordered a moment before, the gilded youths content themselves with subdued conversation and smiles at pretty girls. As for Alexandra, who is impersonated by Jobyna Howland, she is more than slightly disappointed in the falling off in receipts. In fact, it is with a decided sigh of relief that Alexandra observes the General and Marya leave the place.
There is a constant fund of interest in this picture’s action. It is one of those rare offerings in which youth takes a back seat and the General wins the bright-eyed Marya, the excuse being that Marya, although willing to do her utmost to obtain a pardon for her husband, is not really in love with him and never was. Marya, one understands, would be just as devoted to the haughty General if he wore a lounge suit as she is when he is arrayed in his stunning Cossack regalia.
Originally appeared in Photoplay, March 1931: