Bright Lights Film Journal

Classy are the DAMNED

If one could ever be truly drunk on good cinema, then I am so bedrunken. The booze in this case is a little thing called “Kay Francis Month” on TCM. I recorded two beautiful pre-code films last Thursday, saw them, fell in love with William Powell and Kay Francis as the coolest of the pre-war sophisticated couples in Hollywood froth cinema.

JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) is a gem about a dashing jewel thief who catches the eye of bored thrill-seeking diplomat’s wife in Vienna. It’s the sort of high class rich people doing naughty things sort of European froth that Hitler’s war machine would soon blow off the surface of the earth, but here it still sparkles and bubbles and everyone is high, literally, since Powell passes out joints to his robbery victims, a trick to make them too sleepy and silly to call the cops after he’s gone. You’ll think you’re high too when you see longtime sourpuss character actor Clarence Wilson smoke one of these thinking it’s an ordinary cigarette, and the hilarity that follows when he starts acting like Napolean… it’s PINEAPPLE-style EXPRESSionistic! And Francis will blow your mind with her weird v-shaped smile and eyes that glaze over with the thought of being kidnapped by the dashing Powell. Her chemistry with Powell is so electrically charged you feel like they’re almost kissing each other even when they’re on opposite ends of the room.

The chemistry between them was so good they were re-teamed the same year in ONE WAY PASSAGE… almost a sequel to the first film, with Powell a caught criminal sailing home to face execution and meeting Francis and falling in love.. and her character is dying and only has a few weeks to live. It’s a testament to humanity’s lack of progress in the past 70 or so years that characters this warm, dashing, cool, romantic, witty, sweet and clever– “whole” people full of confidence, bravery and emotional gravitas, are so rare. Romantic comedies nowadays are full of children in grown up bodies, trying to make mothers out of each other so they can cry in a lap again and not have to grow up and thus, presumably, avoid having to face their own mortality through losing themselves in unconscious consumerism and vehement, self-righteous denial. ONE WAY PASSAGE, by contrast, is laden with grown-ups, and not a drop of stuffy morality taints their beautiful inherent decency as they walk to death like it’s just another ocean voyage.

The real source for praise about Kay Francis and these great movies is really SELF-TITLED SIREN, who blogs frequently about Francis and whose passion for these old gems is unrivaled, as is her straight-forward eloquent prose. She calls PASSAGE, “one of the most romantic movies ever made and, no matter what you’ve heard, bright and snappy, not mushy at all.” She also recommends: “Lubitsch’s great Trouble in Paradise (1932), Kay’s best film and Miriam Hopkins’s best as well; and Mandalay, a fast-moving trek through some dens of iniquity and atmospheric rear-projection, directed by Michael Curtiz.”

Who doesn’t love atmospheric rear projection? I live for it, and can’t wait.