BluRay/DVD Reviews

WILLIAM POWELL at WARNER BROS.

By • Oct 14th, 2013 •

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William Powell made fifteen films during these four years. The Archive Collection contains a disparate sampling, one per year – and probably belongs on your ‘Pre-Code’ shelf rather than alongside THE THIN MAN series. He is a sleuth in one of them (obvious which one by skimming the titles above), but they really represent something else. Pre-Code films are a genre unto themselves. Endowed with a creaky look, fast (almost apologetically rushing through their first acts) pacing, extreme running-time brevity (the ‘A’s and the ‘B’s all seem resigned to be bottom halves of double-bills), and of course, what we like most about them – sexual and moral freedom that was soon to be clamped down on with all four of the Hays Commission’s feet.

I watched all four films, waiting for one in which Powell looked even remotely like the rendering of him on the cover. Nowhere was such a likeness to be found. Whoever made that painting gave us a portrait more akin to a bilious Hercule Poirot (minus the devil’s horns on Poirot’s moustache) than to the suave, consummate film actor who graces the four titles contained within.

THE ROAD TO SINGAPORE was released in 1931, the worst year of the Great Depression…the worst year of the century. Was seeing a philanderer/seducer at work a form of vicarious release for the huddled masses?

Hugh Dawltry (Powell) returns from a sea voyage during which the citizens of the off-Singapore town of Khota, anxious to be rid of him, put a vacate-the-premises sign on the gate to his home and vote him out of the pompous local Gymkhana Club. All because of his mischievous ways with the ladies.

Arriving back in the area, he casually disregards the posted signs and general venom aimed at him, and continues with his life’s work, targeting Phillippa (Doris Kenyon), the newlywed wife of a local doctor (Louis Calhern). The doctor not only isn’t remotely competition for Dawltry due to his devotion to his work rather than his wife, but also because Calhern’s acting is ‘30s stiff, while Powell’s is so remarkably modern, with his catalogue of subtle looks and body language. As the plot turns, he eventually falls for his conquest – but it’s hard to believe he hasn’t ulterior motives, since a) she isn’t that great-looking a catch, and b) her personality leaves much to be desired. Any chemistry between them seems forced, and the ending, intended to be heroic for a man of Powell’s standards, has the opposite effect of making us suspicious. Or maybe that was the filmmakers’ intention?

Engaging though it is, the film feels abbreviated at 69 mins. Midway through the narrative there’s an elaborately designed and executed series of shots of Powell and Kenyon yearning for each other over the chasm of jungle that separates their homes. And the art direction is beautifully essayed. Young Marian Marsh plays the doctor’s teenage sister, also smitten with Powell, and though he draws the line at 16-year-olds, he might have done better with her horny adolescent enthusiasm. There’s also a lotta drinking going on, mainly by Powell. He’s one of the rebellious poster boys for the Prohibition era (carried over neatly and definitively into THE THIN MAN).

HIGH PRESSURE (1932) was like an antediluvian ancestor of WALL STREET. Full of big business hijinks and close calls, it gives off a hint of the madcap comedies to come, but doesn’t generate half the fun it strives for. I liked Charles Middleton (FLASH GORDON’s Ming the Merciless), and Powell was smooth, but others in the cast rubbed me raw, and you might find your finger hovering over the fast-forward button on your DVD control device. This one was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, whose career was erratic.

PRIVATE DETECTIVE 62 moved so swiftly through its first act, albeit beautifully framed and lit, that I didn’t know what the heck was going on. But then it settled down into a winning tale of stratified morality that keeps one thinking while one is being entertained. Powell is lovely in this one – really at his best – but you can see by comparison how he upped his game having Myrna Loy to joust with in THE THIN MAN. He has nothing comparable going on here, even though there is a love interest provided neatly and effectively by Margaret Lindsay, and well explored by director Michael Curtiz. Powell nonetheless carries the film from beginning to end alone. This was my favorite of the four.

THE KEY (1934). What did the title mean? The story centers around the Irish Revolt in the ‘20s. Seeing Colin Clive in a film not directed by James Whale was exciting, though he’s a dour fellow (probably was off-screen as well), and one cannot choose but wonder how Edna Best could really love/choose him over Powell? That’s just one of the film’s flaws. Another is heavy-handed dialogue (at times). However the lighting, and the film’s veneer, have a saturated, more post-pre-code feel. And Powell does his part proud. Michael Curtiz, who directed the last two, was a master story-teller, and these certainly display his confident hand.

In parting, it’s interesting to note how much Burt Lancaster speaks like William Powell – the clipped, aggressively articulate line readings are often remarkably similar. Wonder if it was in any way intentional? Lancaster was familiar with silent and early sound film, as evidenced in interviews.

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