WILLIAM POWELL AND KAY FRANCIS, GOWNED BY ORRY-KELLY, IN ‘JEWEL ROBBERY’
Do yourself a favor and watch or program your TiVo, VCR or whatever other technology you may possess for Turner Classic Movies’ screening of William Dieterle’s JEWEL ROBBERY, a largely unsung 1930s delight, March 19 at 11 A.M. They cite TWENTIETH CENTURY or even IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT as the first screwball comedies, but two years before those movies, in 1932 – a year to rival if not best 1939, film-wise (pre-Code, baby!) – Warner Brothers released this delicious bauble, which is as unpredictable and whimsical, apart from being far superior to and more elegant than most of the “crazy” farces which followed it.
German director William Dieterle here showed his considerable flair for soignée humor and visual niceties – the glowing photography is by Robert Kurrle – in this tale of a dapper thief (William Powell) who absconds with the gems, as well as the heart of a bored millionaire’s wife, Baroness Teri von Horhenfels (Kay Francis). It’s set in glamorous pre-WWII Vienna, and based on a play by Ladislas Fodor, one of the numerous Hungarian playwrights who provided sophisticated movie material in the ’30s. The whole delectably amoral ambiance of the film is Warners’ answer to the Lubitschean ethos of Paramount, slightly darker, a shade heavier in approach, perhaps, but no less Continental and blessedly adult. There’s a lusciously romantic musical theme, as well, provided by Bernhard Kaun (1899-1980), a largely uncredited composer who worked on dozens of films, from the original FRANKENSTEIN to TV’s THE FUGITIVE.
Kay Francis made this movie in the same year she did Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, and her work displays the same seductive shimmer. She gets to show even more comic technique here, however, and her adorable airheadedness, the entrancing gossamer deftness of her touch, must have borne some of the influence of master comedienne Ina Claire’s stage work. Her Teri, first seen luxuriating in a bubble bath, is a deliciously frivolous sybarite, describing her life, “A cocktail in the morning, a man in the afternoon, and in the evening – Veranol.” “Oh, huwy, huwy!” she impatiently cries, with her adorably problematic “r’s” to her masseur (the Amazonian Blanche Payson, who was New York’s first policewoman) as she is dressed for an exciting afternoon’s expedition to the jewelry store. “The more haste, the less speed, Madam,” she is sagely advised. When she encounters Powell, at his smoothest (which is devastatingly smooth), their eyes immediately lock in a scrumptiously knowing kinship of similarly lithe, dark mindsets and physiques. Later, when he throws her on a chaise longue, she says, “Don’t be in such a hu-wy. There are so many charming, intervening steps!” She is dressed superbly, by Orry-Kelly, one of the rare costume designers who knew how to make glamour that was also sensible and wearable, especially in an awe-inspiringly sexy strapless, drop-shouldered, backless black velvet sheath trimmed with ermine (how the hell does she keep it up?).
Helen Vinson fetchingly plays Teri‘s equally venal, sensual girlfriend, Marianne (“Oh, take that diamond away from me before I swallow it!”). When this fabulous Excelsior Diamond is displayed for them, they both ecstatically reach for it like greedy, spoiled children, a gesture that Bernardo Bertolucci repeated in the shopping sequence of THE CONFORMIST with Dominique Sanda and Stephania Sandrelli. The two have a scintillatingly suggestive boudoir conversation about the merits of jewelry vs. adultery. Teri has both gems and a suitably dapper lover, but, bored by love, prefers the former (until she encounters that irresistible thief).
FRANCIS AND “SLINKY HELEN VINSON” (AS PAULINE KAEL DESCRIBED HER)
The centerpiece of the film is the jewelry store hold-up, with Powell keeping Francis and her entourage hostage. The terror, not to mention the longeurs of being held captive are more than allayed when a marijuana joint is suddenly produced. (You read that right.) “It’s just a gentle, harmless smoke,” purrs Powell. “He’ll sleep like a baby and awake with a marvelous appetite!” Even the Viennese police force get to partake, reducing them to helpless fits of giggles.
This being a gloriously Pre-Hays Code production, sinners blissfully get off scot-free, and the film ends entrancingly, with Teri finalizing plans to rendezvous with the Robber on the Riviera, as Francis, in her penultimately sensual and glamorous screen moment, advances towards the camera and kittenishly puts a “don’t tell” finger to her lips for an already happily enslaved and conspiratorial audience.
1932 was a banner year for Kay Francis, who not only sparkled comically in JEWEL ROBBERY and TROUBLE IN PARADISE, but appeared in one of the screen’s great romantic melodramas, ONE WAY PASSAGE, as well
William Dieterle (1893-1972) was, like Michael Curtiz, a versatile, directorial go-to guy at Warner Brothers. He’d been a lead actor with the great Max Rheinhardt in Germany, which informed his strong, Expressionistic visual sense, and, although not widely remembered today, is responsible for some of Hollywood’s most unforgettable films: THE LAST FLIGHT (1931), a fascinating John Monk Saunders-penned study of post-WWI aviators bearing a distinct likeness to Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES; LAWYER MAN (1932), with William Powell, as a suave lady-killing advocate; GRAND SLAM (1933), a distinctly one-of-a-kind film about, of all things, bridge; MADAME DUBARRY (1934), a sophisticated biography featuring a gorgeous, if undoubtedly Mexican Dolores Del Rio as the famed courtesan; the mesmerizing, lavishly imaginative A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935), co-directed with his maestro, Rheinhardt; Charles Laughton’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939); Stephen VIncent Benet’s THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941); two memorably romantic, Lee Garmes-photographed Jennifer Jones vehicles, PORTRAIT OF JENNY (1948) and the superior, magnificent Ayn Rand-scripted Gothic melodrama, LOVE LETTERS. He also helmed two,famous much-honored-in-their-day ponderous Paul Muni biopics, THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR (1936), THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (1937) and JUAREZ (1939), but those should not be held against him.
“PORTRAIT OF JENNIE”
Helen Vinson, gowned by Omar Kiam, jewels by Trabert & Hoeffer, in VOGUES OF 1938. Note: this original, vintage photo is currently for sale on Ebay. Here’s the link:
Helen Vinson (1907-99) should be further mentioned for a pleasure-giving career in which she inevitably evinced a feline gleam, mostly as the other woman-greatest rival to similarly typecast Gail Patrick. She had divertingly bitchy parts in IN NAME ONLY, where she was re-teamed with Francis, again playing girlfriends, but far more malicious, THE WEDDING NIGHT, Gregory LaCava’s interesting PRIVATE WORLDS in which she drives Joan Bennett to madness, VOGUES OF 1938 (one of the best fashion movies, in which, photographed in Technicolor, she is every bit the clothes horse Kay Francis ever was), and THE POWER AND THE GLORY, that William K. Howard directed/Preston Sturges-penned precursor to CITIZEN KANE in its examination of a ruthless, loveless tycoon (Spencer Tracy). She plays his second wife and considerably enlivens this ponderous film, driving the man to suicide when he discovers her affair with his son. Vinson is especially enjoyable in William Keighley’s entertaining banana epic, TORRID ZONE (1940), although she bears the brunt of Ann Sheridan’s wisecracks as her rival for the affections of James Cagney. When Sheridan criticizes her for the careless disposal of a cigarette, “I understand the Chicago fire was started by something like that,” Vinson corrects her, “The Chicago fire was started by a cow,” only to get the response “History repeats itself.”
There’s a beautiful color mid-30s portrait of Vinson at her chicest, testament to her allure and celebrity, in the current exhibition of Edward Steichen fashion photography at The International Center of Photography (running through May). Unfortunately, she is not identified, and the unknowing will consider just some anonymous “rich” sitter – whither the snows…?
Vinson was born Helen Rulfs, in Beaumont, Texas, the daughter of an oil man and eloped at age 17 with Harry Vickerman, a wealthy Philadelphia carpet manufacturer 15 years her senior. She made her Broadway debut in 1927, a walk-on in the play LOS ANGELES but, in 1929, her husband’s fortunes dissolved in the Wall Street Crash. The marriage was dissolved shortly after that, and Vinson continued on Broadway, acting opposite Sydney Greenstreet, and also Charles Laughton’s Hercule Poirot (in 1932’S THE FATAL ALIBI, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD) until she was discovered by a Warners talent scout and signed to a Hollywood contract.
Like Claire Dodd, her contemporaneous, fellow Warners contractee, also type-cast in other woman roles, Vinson soon tired of such parts and described Hollywood as a less-than-glamorous “absolute sea of short men. Robinson, Muni, James Cagney and George Raft all had to stand on boxes when they acted with me.”
CARL BRISSON, GEORGE JESSEL, NORMA TALMADGE, HELEN VINSON AND FRED PERRY AT BRISSON’S BEL AIR HOUSE PARTY IN THE NEWLYWED PERRYS HONOR, 1935
She famously married British tennis pro Fred Perry in 1935 and moved to England, where she made films, notably THE TUNNEL, about the construction of transatlantic tunnel between New York and London. They moved back to Hollywood, but her career had lost its momentum and things were not helped by Perry’s affair with Marlene Dietrich. They divorced in 1938. She married stockbroker Donald Hardenbrook in 1945, giving up her career at his request and leading a socialite’s life between New York, Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Nantucket. She took up interior design and had little interest in remembering her acting career. Hardenbrook died in 1975 and Vinson herself passed away from natural causes in 199, at the age of 92.
THE STARS’ OFF-SCREEN LIVES WERE MOVIES, AS WELL
AT DONALD OGDEN STEWART’S COSTUME PARTY, 1933: JOHN GILBERT AS RASPUTIN, HIS WIFE VIRGINIA BRUCE AS VILMA BANKY, KAY FRANCIS AS NITA NALDI AND HER HUSBAND, KENNETH MACKENNA AS MAURICE CHEVALIER (A LOVER OF KAY’S)