Film scholars consider the pre-Code 1932 comedy Trouble in Paradise to be the best work of actress Kay Francis. I disagree. Francis was good in everything she did – and if one particular performance could be named her best, that would be found in another 1932 release, the romantic melodrama One Way Passage.
That same year – no less than seven Francis vehicles were released in 1932 – Kay Francis starred in another naughty and noteworthy comedy, Jewel Robbery. Jewel Robbery, however, is not on the same level as Trouble in Paradise; in fact, it is much superior.
Based on a play by Ladislaus Fodor and adapted for the screen by Erwin S. Gelsey, Jewel Robbery revolves around the affair between a bored (and very married) baroness played by Francis and a suave jewel thief played by William Powell. (See synopsis.) The film has the look and feel of a sophisticated Paramount comedy even though it was made at Warner Bros., home of Hollywood's tough guys and dames.
Though lacking the “Lubitsch Touch,” Jewel Robbery relies on the savoir faire of the highly capable and underrated William Dieterle, who handled several other racy Warner Bros. Pre-Code features, such as The Last Flight (1931), Female (1933), and Dr. Monica (1934).
William Powell, the man responsible for the film's title, was the epitome of American elegance in the 1930s – even without affecting a clipped accent. Powell spoke eloquently, but in a distinctly American manner. Since a great deal of Jewel Robbery relies on the flair of the conversations between the two leads, Powell's and Francis' suave voices are put to excellent use. Indeed, the couple feel as intimate onscreen as rustling sheets in the dark. (Ironically, Francis was often mocked for her slight lisp even though the tone and texture of her voice – “audible velvet” I'd call it – more than compensate for her speech impediment.)
Today, Kay Francis is, however unfairly, only a minor deity in the pantheon of Pre-Code goddesses. For comparisons' sake: During the Pre-Code era (1929-1934), Francis appeared in 37 films, whereas Norma Shearer – for some the queen of the Pre-Code era – starred in a mere twelve.
Additionally, Shearer's vehicles were nowhere near as controversial as Francis'. No matter how scandalous she was in her films' first few reels, Shearer, the First Lady of MGM, always turned to convention before The End. Francis, for her part, played characters who could – and still do – surprise us. Watching her films, one can never really tell what fate awaits her heroines.
Jewel Robbery also showcases minor player Sheila Terry, who makes the most of any (literally speaking) walk-on part this reviewer has ever seen. As a sexy blonde decoy, she is on screen for less than 10 seconds, but if Terry could act as well as she could walk she would have become a superstar.
All in all, Jewel Robbery is a delightful confection that outright mocks the moralistic Motion Picture Production Code, better known as “the Hays Code,” laid out in 1930. At the time, the Code was all but unenforceable – and for that, this reviewer is thankful.
© Marcus Tucker
Jewel Robbery (1932). Dir.: William Dieterle. Scr.: Erwin C. Gelsey, from Ladislas Fodor's 1931 play Ekszerrablás a Váci-uccában and Bertram Bloch's English-language adaptation, Jewel Robbery. Cast: William Powell, Kay Francis, Helen Vinson, Hardie Albright, Alan Mowbray.
Marcus Tucker is a free-lance Alt Film Contributor and Pre-Code Hollywood aficionado.
A series of jewel robberies has the jewelers of the fair city of Vienna on edge. No security system can outwit the knack, the style, and the sophistication of this mysterious jewel thief.
Meanwhile, Baroness Teri von Horhenfels (Kay Francis) is busy getting ready for an afternoon trip to a jewelry store. The Baroness is rich, beautiful, married, and relentlessly bored. A private chat with her friend Marianne (Helen Vinson), in which they discuss the merits of adultery vs. jewelry, reveals that the Baroness has let her love of gems take the place of her erotic life. In fact, she is positively orgasmic while explaining that she will soon slip one of her pretty little fingers into the Excelsior Diamond.
The Baroness, however, will soon discover that she can have both jewels and an exciting sex life – even without the help of her husband. Enter The Robber (William Powell).