Raising the Eyebrow to an Art

If one were to compile a list of the major stars of the pre-Code era, the name William Powell would have to be at the forefront.  True, he excelled in many post-Code pics, and, indeed, made memorable appearances during the silent era.  But it’s his pre-C titles that we legions of early Thirties fans relish…and worship.  Thus, it is with great satisfaction to broadcast the release of the DVD-R 4-disc ensemble of WILLIAM POWELL AT WARNER BROS., available from the folks at The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.

Granted, the four titles here do not represent the star at his zenith, but they do contain two top-line pictures from his brief Warners days, plus two fascinating obscurites that, combined, make this set a worthy addition to any pre-Code/Powell buff’s library shelf.

Powell’s career was a varied and diverse one, spanning thirty years and nearly one hundred movies (and three Oscar nominations) in which the actor wore both white and black hats, yet NEVER gave a less than terrific performance.  Powell’s sleepy eyes (and ‘stash) seemed to doom him to villainous roles (parts he essayed during most of his 1920s period), but his love affair with the camera and his undeniable likeability aided by a natural flair for comedy soon gave rise to an ascension up the star ladder.  By the late 1920s, he was a key player at Paramount; the part-talkie The Canary Murder Case assured his foothold in the transition to sound.  This piqued the boys Warner, out to snare any and every attraction Vitaphone could accommodate.  Jack Warner’s simple strategy was to, frankly, offer up more money than actors and actresses with excellent speaking voices were worth.  And, during the years 1928-1932, it seemed to pay off.  Sweetheart long-term contracts were given to Al Jolson and Powell Paramount contemporary Kay Francis.  Bill Powell’s Philo Vance turn made him a logical Warner possibility, and soon he was lassoed over to Burbank.

The teaming of the two Paramount luminaries (Powell and Francis) proved a goldmine for Warners, especially with the release of their greatest pic, 1932’s One Way Passage.  Other more salacious offerings (Jewel Robbery, also 1932) reaped more box-office gold, and each star seemed to be proving that Jack Warner had made the right decision (this would eventually prove disastrous for the studio as the 1930s dragged on, particularly with both Jolson and Francis).  Powell was smoothly at ease with such risqué productions as Lawyer Man and especially The Kennel Murder Case, which returned him to his (up to then) most famous role (Vance).  But Powell was becoming increasingly unhappy with the types of vehicles Warners was serving up; more importantly, MGM was dangling an impressive carrot in front of him; and, professionally, the Culver City outfit was where he felt he should be.  The WB Powell musical Fashions of 1934 seemed to indicate he was right, and he eventually secured his release and bolted to Metro, where, during that same year he appeared in Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man.  Need we say more?  The popular actor overnight became a superstar.

But that doesn’t mean the quartet of titles in WILLIAM POWELL AT WARNER BROS. are to be sneezed at.  Au contraire.  In whole or in part, they’re quite entertaining and frequently wonderful (with outstanding participation from folks in front of and behind the camera).

So, let’s take a gander.

 

1931’s THE ROAD TO SINGAPORE is the creakiest of the Powell foursome, making less discriminating viewers likely wish for the presence of the more famous name’s-the-same 1940 pic, costarring Hope and Crosby.  Yet, the sex in the tropics movie does have its moments, nearly all due to its lead.  There are some pre-Code gems dropped between the overall stodginess in J. Grubb Alexander’s screen adaptation of Roland Pertwee’s play Heatwave (a way better title, which was actually based upon a novel by Denise Robins).  In a coconut shell, the plot concerns the return to the islands of well-oiled rake Hugh Dawltry (Powell), whose credo is that it “isn’t against the law to make love to other men’s wives.”  His latest target is recently transplanted Dr. March’s (creepy and dull Louis Calhern) classically beautiful spouse Philippa (Doris Kenyon), whom he first spies on the cross-over voyage (in between romancing a variety of shipboard (and bored) females.

At first the lady rebuffs him, but, after seeing her husband’s true colors (he’s a brutal racist, and, it’s implied, a lousy lover), she amorously gravitates toward the far more desirable Dawltry (“Dinner at eight is never more compromising as breakfast at seven,” they logically conclude…and collude).  A follow-up hard kiss on the veranda is pre-C moment to savor, as it’s obvious the lady is having an orgasm.

Alas, Philippa isn’t the only interested woman, not a surprise as the entire male populace seems to be a bunch of brittle, antiquated bigots with sticks rigidly in place up their arse.  The second best performance is the flick is in fact Marian Marsh as Rene, Calhern’s young, horny teenage sibling, determined to have Powell make her a woman.  She and her sister-in-law bond by sitting around in their lingerie, talking sex and smoking cigarettes while copies of The Hungry Wife get passed around more often than a box of Crackerjack.

SINGAPORE is surprisingly stiffly directed by the usually slick and fast-moving Alfred E. Green (remember Baby Face?).  The photography by Robert Kurrie is a definite plus, as are the Anton Grot sets and excellent supporting cast (Alison Skipworth, Lumsden Hare, Tyrell Davis, Ethel Griffies, Charles Lane and Snub Pollard).  But there are far better things in store for purchasers of this 4-disc set.

 

In contrast, 1932’s HIGH PRESSURE, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is one of the best pictures Powell ever made for Warner Bros.  And it’s a textbook template for Pre-Code 101, full of sexy situations, slimy double-crosses, drinking, whoring, and more great lines than a Jaguar showroom.

Powell plays Gar Evans, the king of the PR world, out on a womanizing toot(sie) du jour.  His ex-peeps are desperate to find him, as there’s a million-dollar op in the works, if they can get the right promoter to promote.  Gar is the guy, but he’s more tight than right, so, after a sobering reunion (“finding a needle in a haystack is nothin’ like looking for a guy in a gin mill!”), Evans zooms back on the (non-Jim) beam and struts his stuff.

Based on a play by Aben Kandel, the mile-a-minute screenplay by Joseph Jackson and S.J. Peters is a never-disappointing hoot.  Powell’s in good company with the ladies, flanked by two hard-candy Say Girls, Evelyn Brent and Evalyn Knapp; with them around no butt is safe from a kicking.  And if that’s not enough, there’s Polly Walters literally bringing up the rear, superbly telling Guy Kibbee where to shove his wreath.  Furthermore, there’s the always-welcome splendid participation of Frank McHugh, George Sidney, Ben Alexander, Charles Middleton, Oscar Apfel, Harry Beresford and Henry Armetta.

The dialog is priceless, with Powell self-described as an excellent night worker, especially when it comes to dictation.  Sidney, a worried investor, is nevertheless impressed by this and Knapp’s eagerness to work into the wee hours.  “I’m very ambitious,” she purrs with enough heat to melt an iceberg.  Powell’s revolutionary ideas really are ahead of their time, coming up with the concept for the informercial.  With technical expertise from d.p. Robert Kurrie, art direction by Anton Grot, and Earl Luick’s panting-friendly pre-C ladies wear, HIGH PRESSURE is high pleasure.  Plus, there’s the trailer, featuring a scene not in the movie of Kibbee “auditioning” babes.

 

In 1933’s PRIVATE DETECTIVE 62, Powell plays an undesirable in Paris, deported for playing a part in an espionage plot, then, recruited back to France to ply his smarmy talents.  But Powell (as Donald Free), wants no part of it.  He jumps ship and ends up in Depression-era New York, where jobs are scarcer than integrity in D.C.  He hooks up with a sleazeball private eye (Arthur Hohl), and, with the help of a gangster client (Gordon Westcott), mushrooms the agency into a mega-successful concern, where the phrase “bedroom dick” is a compliment.  Oh, yeah, and all this happens within the first ten minutes of this rapid-paced 66 minute pre-Code lulu.

Hogan, the unsavory Hohl, is the lowest of the low.  He’ll stoop to no less than murder, deception and robbery to keep his detecting on an even keel (in one sequence, he hires date-rapists in order to blackmail a female client).  Powell/Free finds he’s finally had enough, although it’s not due to being sideswiped by decency, but rather the shapely charms of Margaret Lindsay, an affluent gangland victim whose Jones for plunging rivals her Orry-Kelly necklines.

Some masterful dialog by Rian James (ranging from “Who ever heard of a man going to Atlantic City with his wife?!” to warning cokehead James Bell to “lay off the da snow”) makes this adaptation of Raoul Whitfield’s story a celluloid wow.  The shimmering photography is by Tony Gaudio, the smooth-as-silk direction by the great Michael Curtiz and the overall enjoyment is had by all.

 

Curtiz and Powell team up again for the interesting but problematic THE KEY, a 1934 barely-made it pre-Code (it was released on June 9, 1934).  It’s a low-rent yet intriguing version of the Irish “troubles,” way better realized the following year by John Ford’s The Informer.  This take, as scripted by Laird Doyle (from a play by R. Gore Brown and J.L Handy), differs from Ford’s, as it’s from the British point of view, with personal relationships overpowering the politics.  Powell is Captain Bill Tennant, once again a rake by any other name, a notorious womanizer who nonetheless is an ace undercover man (in many ways) for the British.  Assigned to Dublin in 1920, he is pleasantly surprised to find himself neighbors with Captain and Mrs. Kerr, as portrayed by Colin Clive and Edna Best.  Clive delivers yet another self-loathing, tortured portrayal as a top officer, haunted by his killing a traitorous rebel, who was also his friend.  Powell doesn’t make it easier; he’s another pal from the past – whose earlier days with Clive’s wife Best were far more rousing.

Lots of subterfuge, deceit, self-sacrificing and soul-searching before this drama concludes with able support from Hobart Cavanagh, Halliwell Hobbes, Donald Crisp, J.M. Kerrigan, Henry O’Neill, Arthur Treacher and, a particularly nifty turn by Anne Shirley (still Dawn O’Day), as a young Irish flower-seller, smitten with Powell.  The excellent photography is by Ernest Haller, with music supervision by Warner’s reliable Leo F. Forbstein.

THE KEY, Powell’s last Warners release, proves a decent send-off for the busy actor, a nevertheless quickly forgotten entry that was overshadowed by the suave thesp’s new arrangement over at Metro.

That said, WILLIAM POWELL AT WARNER BROS. is a worthy acquisition for any WP (or WB) aficionado.

WILLIAM POWELL AT WARNER BROS. Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. Made-to-order DVD-Rs from The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT# 1000428690 .  SRP: $39.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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