It was a period of virtuous depravity, where sin and salvation giddily intertwined. Suicide was a viable out (Three on a Match), crime did pay in the end (Trouble in Paradise), and a gal’s road to success was paved with box springs (Baby Face). Even drunk driving was considered socially acceptable behavior.
The abovementioned films and many more pre-code curios screen this month as part of Turner Classic Movies’ annual Summer Under the Stars series. Each day showcases the work of a different Hollywood luminary.
Those who think inaccessible antiquatedness the second that something from Hollywood’s Golden Age passes before their eyes have Will H. Hays to blame. Between 1928 and 1934, when the production code — a list of “don’ts and be carefuls” devised by a legion of decent Catholics bent on keeping a Jew-run industry in line — became law, Hollywood entered a window of openness the likes of which would be otherwise shuttered until the collapse of the studio system in 1968. Though no studio was ever hit with a violation, Hays acted as the Production Code Administration’s frontman, possessed with a power to sanitize everything from dialog and camera placement to hem lines.
William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery (1932) will always hold a special place in my heart. It is one of those rare icebreakers, a “dated” (how I despise that word) yet surprisingly contemporary film capable of thawing a roomful of jaded college students — and one I put to full use. With each passing semester during my teaching years, I listened in wonder as groans quickly turned to guffaws within moments of the worn 16mm print hitting the classroom screen.
Dieterle had over 50 acting and 10 directing credits (in addition to an apprenticeship with revered theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt) under his belt by the time he emigrated from Germany to Warner Bros. in 1930. Sound posed a threat to foreign markets, and Dieterle broke his bones directing German exports of American films. From The Last Flight (1931) — his first “big” picture for Warners — to the time the code became law in 1934, prodigious Dieterle took director’s credit on a whopping 16 features.
Critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon chalked up Dieterle’s expressive camera movements as compensation for the director’s shaky grasp on the English language. And it’s true that there are moments in Jewel Robbery where the camera appears to sprout wings. Thirties dish
William Dieterle’s 1932 film starring Kay Francis and William Powell.
Kay Francis stars as a pampered Viennese socialite instantly smitten by suave swindler William Powell, a devilish rake who emerged from the womb tuxedo-clad and jerking a cocktail jigger. Her husband and lover both witness the titular heist and her sudden shift in romantic conquests. When asked to choose which one she’d prefer to be held hostage in a safe with, Francis opts for Powell’s getaway car.
The film’s foremost pre-code aberration involves the introduction of marijuana cigarettes as a plot device, but don’t expect a propagandistic scare-film along the lines of Reefer Madness. Powell uses the “pleasant, harmless smokes” that will leave one “fresh and happy, and with a marvelous appetite” as a means of settling flustered victims. (Were it to receive a theatrical re-release, would the MPAA — today’s answer to the PCA — award it an R rating?) Powell’s leatherbound cigarette stockpile, passed on as a “gift” to bumbling security guard Spencer Charters, forms the basis of a resilient running gag.
Jewel Robbery airs Saturday, August 9 at 4:30 am on TCM (followed by another powerhouse pairing of Dieterle and Powell, Lawyer Man). It’s bound to be the best 68 minutes(!) you’ll spend all week. For a complete schedule of this month’s films visit tcm.com.