Kay-Rations at TCM
Somebody at Turner must have a big yen for Kay Francis. They’ve shown her a lot over years I’ve watched. This month is another marathon of her Warner (and Monogram!) pics. Last night I watched Raffles off the DVR. This was a Goldwyn/Colman new to me. It’s not as good as The Devil To Pay or The Masquerader, but fun withal and happily precode in letting its crook hero get away at the finish. Colman has this way of keeping at least three quarters of his face before the camera at all times, never mind dialogue directed toward others frequently standing behind him. He’s pleasingly vain and entirely justified in being so. Surely his parents foresaw a future upon Ronnie’s first spoken words --- Now there’s a natural for talkies. Raffles has that measured pace of theatre faithfully transcribed before we realized sound needed fresh tempos. It revels in a Mayfair weekend party milieu familiar to 30’s audiences not yet dismissive or contemptuous of upper class characters with attendant chauffeurs and footmen. There’s even a cricket match played in some detail, a segment I realized was my first sustained exposure to the game in movies. It looks like a weird kind of baseball. I thought of Boris Karloff playing it during hours off around this period. In fact, there’s much cross-pollination between Raffles and classic horrors being made across the valley at Universal. Frederick Kerr (Frankenstein), Frances Dade (Dracula), and Bramwell Fletcher (The Mummy) are all here, their parts a seeming continuum from (or to) those they assumed in the monster pics. Whiney Fletcher might as credibly be working his way out of the Raffles mess he’s in before dashing off to Egypt and a fateful Field Expedition, with straight-jackets to complete his odyssey. We take for granted the wondrous continuity supporting players brought to films then, a thing so lacking today when every show exists like an island divorced from other screen fare (unless it's sequels!). Raffles thievery is a lark practiced by gloved aristocrats who leave teasing notes for working class Yard men we enjoy seeing trumped. Imagine how such a thing would play now! Heists are committed without gunplay or characters getting bashed in the head. As no one's hurt, it’s easier to be good sports at the end and let miscreants make off with jaunty farewells (and sometimes the loot). Obviously Raffles was no vehicle for Kay Francis, as here I am just now getting around to her participation, and there are long sections where she opts out and leaves exposition to Colman. Reliably slinky and butched out hair-wise, Kay’s so flattered by the look as to make me wonder when it might be coming back.
Jewel Robbery is again a celebration of elegant thieves and how they (should!) prosper fleecing dense diamond merchants and dumb gendarmes. You can’t help speculating upon depression-era viewers, already short of bread at home, so inspired by such rascally goings-on as to hold up boxoffices on their way out (and indeed, theatre robberies, often at gunpoint, were rife during the early thirties). This is precode beyond mere lacking of moral and legal compensation so soon to be (rigorously) enforced. Jewel Robbery frankly applauds crime and artful means of getting away with it. Casting William Powell as said purloiner guarantees rooting interest on our part for whatever he does. This actor could drown puppies and make us like it. The great thing about Powell at Warners is how blithely he walks away from consequences of behavior egregious even to modern sensibilities. Adultery and rogueing are games he manages as adroitly as others play checkers. He must have been some role model for young men on already uncertain ethical footing. What a pity he’d spend future years bound up in Code chains at righteous Metro, that strident dispenser of justice to characters blurring societal edicts (watch sometime how the poor guy suffers in 1942's Crossroads!). Kay Francis would soon enough be wiped out by her own market crash of censorial intervention. Where was fun seeing KF tiptoe about post-Code drawing rooms when patrons remembered ones she’d heated up in Jewel Robbery? Always the fashion goddess, Francis in precode also modeled the latest attitudes with regards marriage (preferably open), fidelity (optional), and that eternal expediency of trading sex for gifts (diamonds preferred). Once you took these away, there was nothing left for her but clothes (assuredly staying on), a burden groaning beneath scripts with all semblance of reality siphoned off. Audiences listened to Kay Francis prior to 1934. After that, they merely watched (how many cared about fashions without red meat stories behind them?). Her struggle with the "R" enunciation gets laughs yet, but then and now it served as endearing equalizer for a woman who'd have seemed too perfect otherwise. When she answers Powell’s flawless diction with talk of "wobbers" making off with gems, we’re reassured these are mortals after all. Such impediment registered strongest, if unconsciously, among fans who stayed loyal even as Kay frankly took money and ran, as here was a woman who served less art than bottom lines, a refreshing variant on actress locomotives forever charging studio battlefields.
One Way Passage may rank among better precodes just for being well remembered by people who saw it new (said positive vibes passed down as received wisdom to generations since). Much as we like raw energy of shows from the early-30’s, there’s realization of sameness creeping in with ongoing exposure to them. It’s like a hard time you have recalling individual flavors after eating a roll of LifeSavers. Seen it all scenarists out of city room universities preferred fast and cynical, which explains why love seldom found Lee Tracy. So many precodes were about putting over sock openers, then peppering rest with verbal gagging. How much genuine emotion was managed in running times of seventy minutes or less? I watched my trio of Kay Francis pics in under three and three quarters an hour. Among these One Way Passage puts over romance and tragic dénouement in less time than Ken Maynard took quelling rustlers and runs a straight line contrary to so many Warner precodes where it writers routinely failed sobriety tests in coherent narrative. WB figured serious romance was indulgence better left to novelists and richer studios. Expanded length allowed Paramount to faithfully engage A Farewell To Arms and Universal drew tears over Mae Clarke’s fate in Waterloo Bridge. Both these and One Way Passage were talked about years after most titles of like vintage were deep-sixed. A part of us hates seeing Bill Powell gallows bound on a bum rap, and indeed, any other vehicle from that period would have spared him the rope, but unlike post-code morality lectures, One Way Passage isn’t about necessity of justice being served. The point, and an accurately observed one, is how easily chance and rotten luck can make us pay up for actions justified or at least understandable. Powell forfeits opportunity to escape out of love and/or decent impulses we never feel are imposed upon him (and us). One Way Passage won't patronize viewers in that way post-codes would. It surely traumatized 1932 viewers (jaded ones most of all) to see Bill so close to freedom, only to sacrifice all in a selfless act atypical of precode heroes (he plays it beautifully). No wonder Robert Osborne called One Way Passage the best of many pics Powell and Francis made together (and just because I like Bill and Raffles co-star Ronald Colman so much, here’s a rare shot of the two (who were best friends) relaxing during time off).