Thursday, April 26, 2012

One Way Passage

I've been on a bit of a William Powell kick lately.  I'm not sure why that is.  Sure, he can deliver witty lines with ease, but he plays more or less the same character in every film I've seen so far.  If I'm wrong, please suggest some Powell movies where he isn't suave, clever, charming and probably drunk, by all means.  What drew me to One Way Passage was a comment I found somewhere on the great wide interweb that pointed out that this was one of the great "talkies" of the pre-Hays Code era Hollywood.  What does that mean?  Well, a few things.  First, this picture was released in 1932, which is a long-ass time ago, especially in terms of media.  Second, not adhering to the Hays Code means that One Way Passage could do a lot of things (potentially) that are not recognized as cliche by the modern viewer.  That may or may not sound enticing to you, but I have to admit that I was curious by what might have been scandalous in this 1932 pic.
Answer: sandwiches!

The film opens with Dan (William Powell) having a special drink made for him at the bar.  The bartender keep harping on about how great the drink will be, while Dan is clearly desperate to ingest just about anything alcoholic at the time; when he finally gets this legendary drink, his glass is immediately broken by a strange woman, Joan (Kay Francis).
Intrigued or about to fight?  You decide.
A few moments of witty banter later, the pair have fallen in love/lust.  Rather than actually act upon their mutual attraction, they choose to leave the fate of their romance to serendipity, trusting that fate will once again bring them together.  If they had a little foresight, they might not have taken that patient approach.  You see, Dan is a convicted murderer, doing his damnedest to escape the hangman's noose back in California (oh, the movie begins in Hong Kong, by the way).  Joan happens to be suffering from an unnamed (but obviously not cosmetic) terminal illness that can allegedly be accelerated if she undergoes any sort of shock.  As "luck" would have it, Dan gets caught by a San Francisco cop, Steve (Warren Hymer), and their passage is booked on a month-long cruise back to California.  Furthermore, this is the same cruise ship that Joan is returning home on.  Being a sporting fellow --- at least, that's the best reasoning I can figure --- Steve lets Dan romance Joan, sans handcuffs, during the voyage because it's not like he can escape into the Pacific, right? 
"Every condemned crook deserves a little hanky panky"
Unfortunately neither Joan nor Dan reveal how close they both are to death, which complicates Dan's escape attempts.

I love me some William Powell, so it's not surprising that I found him the single most attractive part of One Way Passage.  Seeing him as a criminal was interesting, but he was a gentlemanly crook, so it wasn't like he was playing against type.  One thing that this film impressed upon me, once again, was just how well Powell plays a man who truly appreciates fine alcohol.  Most movie drunks appear to be happy with anything, but Powell gives the impression of a man with particular tastes (most of the time).
"Mmm...smells like morning regrets...!"
Kay Francis was okay as the leading lady, but she definitely fell into the trap of the damsel in distress.  I hate when otherwise capable female characters get sidelined because they are too fragile to know one thing or another; when she was able to show off her comic timing and witty banter, Francis was good, but I thought she was melodramatic when it came to flaunting her ambiguous illness.  Frank McHugh was surprisingly fun as a stereotypical early-Hollywood drunk.  McHugh's filmography implies that he was a career character actor, but I thought his lazy laugh (think Nelson from The Simpsons, drawn out for about five more seconds) was enough for a few chuckles. 
Direct quote: "Haw-haw!"
Warren Hymer was less entertaining, but I suppose someone has to play the straight man for the criminals, right?  Aline MacMahon was surprisingly good in a small role; she helped make Hymer more interesting and McHugh less irritating by just being fun to watch.  It's too bad she didn't receive much recognition for this feat; she plays a dangerous woman here, but her late career was filled with tame mothering characters.
Above: not motherly

One Way Passage was directed by Tay Garnett.  This was one of his earlier talkies and I suppose it was handled well for the time period.  I would love to blame him for the odd blend of slapstick comedy and romantic tragedy in this movie, but that seems to have been the style at the time.  Garnett did not do anything too spectacular in this film, but he told it well enough.

So what is the big deal about One Way Passage that makes it the stuff of legend among pre-Hays Code Hollywood films?  Good question.  In many ways, this film is pretty typical of its time period.  The basic plot of two lovers destined for death, unbeknownst to each other, is pretty hammy; if you throw in a long-lost twin, this could be a soap opera plot.  The comic relief stands in stark contrast to the main story and the romance is good, but not epic.  Here's what makes One Way Passage unique, though: you care more about the crooks than the lawman.  It would be decades before audiences would again sympathize this much for a killer. 
"Do you like them?  They don't reek of corpses, do they?"
Even better (in my opinion) is the film's ending.  With a lot of movies, you can predict the ending, not because it is the most realistic course of events, but because a lifetime of exposure to Hollywood teaches certain lessons (cranky people discover a heart of gold, good friends triumph over sexy jerks in both love and life, everything will turn out okay, etc.).  I was thrown off by the ending (which was surprisingly well-done) because I forgot that this film happened before...well, it happened before just about everything else I've seen.  A pretty great ending, combined with criminals that are not supposed to teach audiences a lesson in civil obedience and a short run-time (67 minutes!) make One Way Passage more than worth your time.

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