ESSENTIAL PRE-CODE: JEWEL ROBBERY (1932)

July 12, 2011

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Kay Francis dreamily asks for your complicit silence. She is about to commit an illicit act, and it would be gentlemanly not to speak of it.   So I shan’t, although I will spill fawning words about the film that encloses her, William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery (1932). It is screening as part of Film Forum’s Essential Pre-Code series (and airs on TCM on occasion), a near annual festivity of tough-talking immorality that begins this Friday, July 15th. Released the same year as Ernst Lubitsch’s similarly themed Trouble in Paradise (and double-billed with it on August 7/8),  Dieterle’s debonair crime fantasy was necessarily overshadowed, but should be reckoned with as a major work in its own right.

A play by the Hungarian Ladislaus Fodor (“Ekzerrabalas a Vaci-uccaban”, 1931), was purchased by Warner Brothers on February 8th, 1932, with production beginning less than a month later, on March 2nd (credit to Roger Bryant’s biography, William Powell). To lens this sophisticated charmer set in Vienna, the studio tapped their European emigre, the German-born William Dieterle. Dieterle, a prolific actor and director in the Weimar cinema, came to Hollywood to shoot German language versions of WB productions. His first original film for the studio, the Lost Generation drama The Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here), was a success, and he went on an incredibly creative run throughout the 1930s (I would also recommend 6 Hours To Live (1932) and The Devil in Love (1933)).

For the leads, he was gifted William Powell and Kay Francis. $100,000 of the $291,039 budget went to Powell, more than a third of the entire cost. Francis received a comparatively paltry $27,000 (reported by Bryant). Powell plays the unnamed “Robber”, a fastidiously well mannered thief. Francis would get a supporting role in Trouble in Paradise later in the year, but here she is the slinky, shallow and slightly bored housewife Baroness Terri. Stuck with the wealthy but gout-ridden Baron Franz (Henry Kolker), she dreams of escape. Her fantasies incarnate when Powell swoops in to the jewelry store to relieve her of the “Excelsior Diamond” which she was about to squeeze out of the Baron. Entranced by his swaggering, well-coiffed masculinity, the robbery turns into a battling flirtation. Powell, equally intrigued, starts a game of break-ins into the Baroness’ quarters, forcing her to make a choice between comfort and passion.

Dieterle instills a martial rhythm, matching the military precision in which Powell’s Robber executes his heists. He cuts when a screen is filled or an action performed – no lingering on atmosphere. During production, reports Bryant, Warner executive Darryl Zanuck showed concerned about this speedy style. On March 26th he wrote producer Lucien Hubbard to, “keep your eye very close on the rushes of Dieterle…as he has a habit of shooting his most important scenes with the camera moving or sweeping around or going back and forth and you miss the most important point of all.” Ever the diplomat, he sang a different tune to Dieterle, on April 5th: “The rushes continue to be very excellent, and I like the manner in which you are continuing to put movement and action in all the scenes … Keep this up. This is very fine.”

In a rapid opening montage, Dieterle shows a series of safe doors shutting and locking. With equal precision, a group of jewelry shop employees scuttle to line up diagonally across the frame. Dieterle repeats this line-up image in the next two sequences.  As soon as the last man enters the frame, he cuts to the pretentious owner bragging about the new security system. Of course, a few seconds later, he is robbed.

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The next lineup occurs in the Baroness’ home, as a who army of maids tromps down a grand staircase to minister to her needs. In the first scene, the line of men was protecting a diamond, in the second, the line is pampering Kay Francis. This jewel/Baroness metaphor continues when one of her helpers carries her into a massage chair to be buffed into beauty – a delicate object cleaned up to be presented to the world.

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Powell’s men form the third line-up, a dapper parade of black-suited shysters. And they are here not to protect, but to steal. As the Baron, Baroness and friends try to escape the store, a group of top-hatted criminals enter from the back, doff their caps in unison, and aim guns at chests. It is this shift in the line-up pattern that that then shifts the narrative. No longer coddled, Baroness Teri is shocked out of her comfort zone, and into one of romantic fantasy.

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Powell’s perfection has an air of unreality about it, a charming, un-threatening adventurer conjured out of Teri’s imagination. After he frisks a revolver out of a lovely pearl-inlaid box, he tells the stunned patrons, “Would you kindly put up your hands”. And then, to calm their troubled nerves, he gives them all some pot to smoke (a joint is later passed to the police department, who fully investigate its possibilities). The idea that this is just a beautiful dream of Teri’s continues when she is whisked away, or willingly kidnapped, to his ornate apartment getaway, which is filled with his ill-gotten gains. As they sit down for dinner, she asks him for his name, and he gently refuses. To admit to a name would pin down his identity, and snuff out the mystery which fuels her desire. He is anything she wants him to be. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that portrays female fantasy with such sensitivity.

***

The other must-sees, or at least, the titles I’ve been most obsessed with recently, are three early stunners from Raoul Walsh:  Me and My Gal (1932), The Bowery (1933) and Sailor’s Luck (1933). 1932 was a good year. I wrote my first post here at Movie Morlocks on Me and My Gal, and lets see if it embarrasses:

Walsh shot the film in a scant nineteen days, and he doesn’t even mention it in his rakish autobiography, Each Man In His Time.

Perhaps it’s the speed of the schedule that led to its inventive, magpie spirit. Plenty of material needed to be created on the spot (there was obviously little pre-production time), and the film is flooded with ideas (some borrowed, some new) – ideas for pratfalls, camera movements, parodies. The movie contains direct addresses to the camera (by a tight J. Farrell MacDonald), self-reflexive voice-overs, and endless bits of comic business, from Will Stanton’s drunk act to the stinging bon mots flung from Bennett to Tracy.

A little sloppy, but not bad. The movie, as always, astounds. The Bowery is a more personal project for Walsh, revisiting the street that he used to rubberneck at as a curious upper-middle class kid in New York. In his autobiography he writes about how he cast real winos and bums to fill the backgrounds of his shots, in which he experiments with deep focus, a technique he would investigate the rest of his career. Then there’s Sailor’s Luck, which sets a giddy land-speed record for sexual innuendo and bumptious ethnic humor.

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