Essential Pre-Code: Jewel Robbery (1932)

Kay Francis dreamily asks for your complicit silence. She is about to commit an illicit act, and it would be gentlemanly not to speak of it.   So I shan’t, although I will spill fawning words about the film that encloses her, William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery (1932). It is screening as part of Film Forum’s Essential Pre-Code series (and airs on TCM on occasion), a near annual festivity of tough-talking immorality that begins this Friday, July 15th. Released the same year as Ernst Lubitsch’s similarly themed Trouble in Paradise (and double-billed with it on August 7/8),  Dieterle’s debonair crime fantasy was necessarily overshadowed, but should be reckoned with as a major work in its own right.

A play by the Hungarian Ladislaus Fodor (“Ekzerrabalas a Vaci-uccaban”, 1931), was purchased by Warner Brothers on February 8th, 1932, with production beginning less than a month later, on March 2nd (credit to Roger Bryant’s biography, William Powell). To lens this sophisticated charmer set in Vienna, the studio tapped their European emigre, the German-born William Dieterle. Dieterle, a prolific actor and director in the Weimar cinema, came to Hollywood to shoot German language versions of WB productions. His first original film for the studio, the Lost Generation drama The Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here), was a success, and he went on an incredibly creative run throughout the 1930s (I would also recommend 6 Hours To Live (1932) and The Devil in Love (1933)).

For the leads, he was gifted William Powell and Kay Francis. $100,000 of the $291,039 budget went to Powell, more than a third of the entire cost. Francis received a comparatively paltry $27,000 (reported by Bryant). Powell plays the unnamed “Robber”, a fastidiously well mannered thief. Francis would get a supporting role in Trouble in Paradise later in the year, but here she is the slinky, shallow and slightly bored housewife Baroness Terri. Stuck with the wealthy but gout-ridden Baron Franz (Henry Kolker), she dreams of escape. Her fantasies incarnate when Powell swoops in to the jewelry store to relieve her of the “Excelsior Diamond” which she was about to squeeze out of the Baron. Entranced by his swaggering, well-coiffed masculinity, the robbery turns into a battling flirtation. Powell, equally intrigued, starts a game of break-ins into the Baroness’ quarters, forcing her to make a choice between comfort and passion.

Dieterle instills a martial rhythm, matching the military precision in which Powell’s Robber executes his heists. He cuts when a screen is filled or an action performed – no lingering on atmosphere. During production, reports Bryant, Warner executive Darryl Zanuck showed concerned about this speedy style. On March 26th he wrote producer Lucien Hubbard to, “keep your eye very close on the rushes of Dieterle…as he has a habit of shooting his most important scenes with the camera moving or sweeping around or going back and forth and you miss the most important point of all.” Ever the diplomat, he sang a different tune to Dieterle, on April 5th: “The rushes continue to be very excellent, and I like the manner in which you are continuing to put movement and action in all the scenes … Keep this up. This is very fine.”

In a rapid opening montage, Dieterle shows a series of safe doors shutting and locking. With equal precision, a group of jewelry shop employees scuttle to line up diagonally across the frame. Dieterle repeats this line-up image in the next two sequences.  As soon as the last man enters the frame, he cuts to the pretentious owner bragging about the new security system. Of course, a few seconds later, he is robbed.

The next lineup occurs in the Baroness’ home, as a who army of maids tromps down a grand staircase to minister to her needs. In the first scene, the line of men was protecting a diamond, in the second, the line is pampering Kay Francis. This jewel/Baroness metaphor continues when one of her helpers carries her into a massage chair to be buffed into beauty – a delicate object cleaned up to be presented to the world.

Powell’s men form the third line-up, a dapper parade of black-suited shysters. And they are here not to protect, but to steal. As the Baron, Baroness and friends try to escape the store, a group of top-hatted criminals enter from the back, doff their caps in unison, and aim guns at chests. It is this shift in the line-up pattern that that then shifts the narrative. No longer coddled, Baroness Teri is shocked out of her comfort zone, and into one of romantic fantasy.

Powell’s perfection has an air of unreality about it, a charming, un-threatening adventurer conjured out of Teri’s imagination. After he frisks a revolver out of a lovely pearl-inlaid box, he tells the stunned patrons, “Would you kindly put up your hands”. And then, to calm their troubled nerves, he gives them all some pot to smoke (a joint is later passed to the police department, who fully investigate its possibilities).The idea that this is just a beautiful dream of Teri’s continues when she is whisked away, or willingly kidnapped, to his ornate apartment getaway, which is filled with his ill got gains. As they sit down for dinner, she asks him for his name, and he gently refuses. To admit to a name would pin down his identity, and snuff out the mystery which fuels her desire. He is anything she wants him to be. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that portrays female fantasy with such sensitivity.

***

The other must-sees, or at least, the titles I’ve been most obsessed with recently, are three early stunners from Raoul Walsh:  Me and My Gal (1932), The Bowery (1933) and Sailor’s Luck (1933). 1932 was a good year. I wrote my first post here at Movie Morlocks on Me and My Gal, and lets see if it embarrasses:

Walsh shot the film in a scant nineteen days, and he doesn’t even mention it in his rakish autobiography, Each Man In His Time.

Perhaps it’s the speed of the schedule that led to its inventive, magpie spirit. Plenty of material needed to be created on the spot (there was obviously little pre-production time), and the film is flooded with ideas (some borrowed, some new) – ideas for pratfalls, camera movements, parodies. The movie contains direct addresses to the camera (by a tight J. Farrell MacDonald), self-reflexive voice-overs, and endless bits of comic business, from Will Stanton’s drunk act to the stinging bon mots flung from Bennett to Tracy.

A little sloppy, but not bad. The movie, as always, astounds. The Bowery is a more personal project for Walsh, revisiting the street that he used to rubberneck at as a curious upper-middle class kid in New York. In his autobiography he writes about how he cast real winos and bums to fill the backgrounds of his shots, in which he experiments with deep focus, a technique he would investigate the rest of his career. Then there’s Sailor’s Luck, which sets a giddy land-speed record for sexual innuendo and bumptious ethnic humor.

32 Responses Essential Pre-Code: Jewel Robbery (1932)
Posted By JeffH : July 12, 2011 3:59 pm

What is really funny about JEWEL ROBBERY is how this film would probably not be remade today-because of the marijuana! Knowing how many studio execs these days do not want to tread on sensitive toes, they would probably insist on alcohol instead of pot as a way to incapacitate, probably throwing in a pill for insurance. What I find so fascinating about this film is how they got marijuana past the Warner hierarchy and the censors of the day. It is a real charmer-sweet, funny and very subversive and would make a great double feature with TROUBLE IN PARADISE.

“I just carried the suitcases to the car!”

Posted By JeffH : July 12, 2011 3:59 pm

What is really funny about JEWEL ROBBERY is how this film would probably not be remade today-because of the marijuana! Knowing how many studio execs these days do not want to tread on sensitive toes, they would probably insist on alcohol instead of pot as a way to incapacitate, probably throwing in a pill for insurance. What I find so fascinating about this film is how they got marijuana past the Warner hierarchy and the censors of the day. It is a real charmer-sweet, funny and very subversive and would make a great double feature with TROUBLE IN PARADISE.

“I just carried the suitcases to the car!”

Posted By Suzi : July 12, 2011 4:32 pm

Love both Powell and Francis. Would love to see this one.

Posted By Suzi : July 12, 2011 4:32 pm

Love both Powell and Francis. Would love to see this one.

Posted By Vincent : July 12, 2011 5:02 pm

If more people had known about this film in the 1960s, it would have been a smash on the college/counterculture circuit for the “wacky tobacky” scenes alone.

Posted By Vincent : July 12, 2011 5:02 pm

If more people had known about this film in the 1960s, it would have been a smash on the college/counterculture circuit for the “wacky tobacky” scenes alone.

Posted By JeffH : July 12, 2011 6:07 pm

There might not have been a print available for screening in the 60′s. It wasn’t until Ted Turner (bless his little colorized heart) bought the film libraries that a lot of this material got preserved and available for us to see again. Too bad they don’t have CONVENTION CITY-would kill to see that one.

Posted By JeffH : July 12, 2011 6:07 pm

There might not have been a print available for screening in the 60′s. It wasn’t until Ted Turner (bless his little colorized heart) bought the film libraries that a lot of this material got preserved and available for us to see again. Too bad they don’t have CONVENTION CITY-would kill to see that one.

Posted By Giles : July 13, 2011 1:32 pm

Very good work highlighting Jewel Robbery. I caught it a few years ago as part of a Powell binge and fell in love with it on the spot. Almost from first frame to last it has something to upset the various leagues of decency and that probably explains it’s near forgotten nature today.

I agree with Jeff’s comment above but think the remake, even if put out today, would be nowhere near as filthy as the original. The scene in the mansion bedroom where the baroness and similarly sex-starved girlfriend hear footsteps on the gravel outside, yell ‘MEN’ and race to the window in an attempt to sate their desire has to be seen to be believed.

Posted By Giles : July 13, 2011 1:32 pm

Very good work highlighting Jewel Robbery. I caught it a few years ago as part of a Powell binge and fell in love with it on the spot. Almost from first frame to last it has something to upset the various leagues of decency and that probably explains it’s near forgotten nature today.

I agree with Jeff’s comment above but think the remake, even if put out today, would be nowhere near as filthy as the original. The scene in the mansion bedroom where the baroness and similarly sex-starved girlfriend hear footsteps on the gravel outside, yell ‘MEN’ and race to the window in an attempt to sate their desire has to be seen to be believed.

Posted By Michael J. Anderson : July 14, 2011 11:55 am

Rob, a really fine job as always; I was especially impressed by your identification of the formal patterning that Dieterle brings to JEWEL ROBBERY (which I agree is great fun). Dieterle, as you point out, made a number of worthwhile films in the period, with my own nominations for his best work being the Code-era THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941), a small masterpiece in my estimation, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935), the latter of which was co-directed by Max Reinhardt.

In response to JeffH, I would agree that the film would never be made today – it’s too adult – but I have to disagree that the marijuana aspect has anything to do with it. To say that the Hollywood studios would shy away from portraying pot use is to ignore the enormous amount of counter-evidence produced by the studios over the last dozen or so years, beginning with THE BIG LEBOWSKI, AMERICAN BEAUTY and continuing through everything in which Seth Rogan has been involved since. Now, were we talking cigarette use, I think then you might have a case…

Posted By Michael J. Anderson : July 14, 2011 11:55 am

Rob, a really fine job as always; I was especially impressed by your identification of the formal patterning that Dieterle brings to JEWEL ROBBERY (which I agree is great fun). Dieterle, as you point out, made a number of worthwhile films in the period, with my own nominations for his best work being the Code-era THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941), a small masterpiece in my estimation, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935), the latter of which was co-directed by Max Reinhardt.

In response to JeffH, I would agree that the film would never be made today – it’s too adult – but I have to disagree that the marijuana aspect has anything to do with it. To say that the Hollywood studios would shy away from portraying pot use is to ignore the enormous amount of counter-evidence produced by the studios over the last dozen or so years, beginning with THE BIG LEBOWSKI, AMERICAN BEAUTY and continuing through everything in which Seth Rogan has been involved since. Now, were we talking cigarette use, I think then you might have a case…

Posted By JoeDoakes : July 14, 2011 4:10 pm

I watched this on the strength on Leonard Maltin’s review. It is really overrated. It is a filmed verion of play and very talky. Very little actually happens in the film. It is more of a housewive’s fantasy of a romance with a mysterious stranger. Precode films more worthy of their high regard include Penthouse, Skyscraper Souls or the marvelous Topaze.

Posted By JoeDoakes : July 14, 2011 4:10 pm

I watched this on the strength on Leonard Maltin’s review. It is really overrated. It is a filmed verion of play and very talky. Very little actually happens in the film. It is more of a housewive’s fantasy of a romance with a mysterious stranger. Precode films more worthy of their high regard include Penthouse, Skyscraper Souls or the marvelous Topaze.

Posted By Julie : July 14, 2011 6:48 pm

Although the film is far from perfect, one of the things I love about TCM is the chance to see movies like this that aren’t bona fide classics. They often reveal more about their era than the famous flicks do.

Posted By Julie : July 14, 2011 6:48 pm

Although the film is far from perfect, one of the things I love about TCM is the chance to see movies like this that aren’t bona fide classics. They often reveal more about their era than the famous flicks do.

Posted By JeffH : July 14, 2011 11:40 pm

The first time I saw this film was on TCMOnDemand-it was nestled in amongst other titles I knew very well. I watched it and fell in love with it and re-ran it so I could burn a copy to a DVD. I watch it from time to time and still love it.

Posted By JeffH : July 14, 2011 11:40 pm

The first time I saw this film was on TCMOnDemand-it was nestled in amongst other titles I knew very well. I watched it and fell in love with it and re-ran it so I could burn a copy to a DVD. I watch it from time to time and still love it.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 15, 2011 9:27 am

I don’t think the marijuana use would be a problem these days. So many movies these days have characters smoking marijuana, including the recent Super 8, which is rated PG-13. They also show pot smoking on television these days.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 15, 2011 9:27 am

I don’t think the marijuana use would be a problem these days. So many movies these days have characters smoking marijuana, including the recent Super 8, which is rated PG-13. They also show pot smoking on television these days.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 15, 2011 9:54 am

Yes, the drug use would not be an issue today. The big sticking point would be how it takes on a woman’s POV. If there was a remake they’d focalize it through Powell’s character, and probably change him into a schlubby suburban husband who steals jewels on the side.

And Jeff, I’ve watched it three times this year and am taken in by its wild rhythms every time.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 15, 2011 9:54 am

Yes, the drug use would not be an issue today. The big sticking point would be how it takes on a woman’s POV. If there was a remake they’d focalize it through Powell’s character, and probably change him into a schlubby suburban husband who steals jewels on the side.

And Jeff, I’ve watched it three times this year and am taken in by its wild rhythms every time.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 15, 2011 3:14 pm

Ah yes! The schlubby suburban husband. I am so tired of that character. And of course, he has to have a very attractive wife who is the real brains of the household. She’d probably find out about the robberies and start taking control of the operation because he always messes everything up.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 15, 2011 3:14 pm

Ah yes! The schlubby suburban husband. I am so tired of that character. And of course, he has to have a very attractive wife who is the real brains of the household. She’d probably find out about the robberies and start taking control of the operation because he always messes everything up.

Posted By JeffH : July 16, 2011 3:21 am

That sounds like the approach Woody Allen took in SMALL TIME CROOKS, where Elaine May’s baked goods actually started making money while they were digging the tunnel under the bakery they used as a front.

Posted By JeffH : July 16, 2011 3:21 am

That sounds like the approach Woody Allen took in SMALL TIME CROOKS, where Elaine May’s baked goods actually started making money while they were digging the tunnel under the bakery they used as a front.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Dieterle Watch : November 15, 2011 10:01 am

[...] Dieterle with William Powell, whom he had worked with two years earlier on Jewel Robbery (which I wrote about earlier this year). Powell again plays a suave member of the criminal class, but instead of a dapper thief he’s [...]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Dieterle Watch : November 15, 2011 10:01 am

[...] Dieterle with William Powell, whom he had worked with two years earlier on Jewel Robbery (which I wrote about earlier this year). Powell again plays a suave member of the criminal class, but instead of a dapper thief he’s [...]

Posted By Johnnzee : June 18, 2012 9:39 am

I don’t believe Woody Allen could come close to this movie’s Directors, Producers, and as an actor himself ,even as a stand in for Powell he could not make the text book never mind the grade, He is a cult figure of the seventies mostly based on his inability to find love in real life and casual sex when not in a mono relationship.Jewel Robbery was one of the best movies ever made comedy wise, Francis shines as her dull life is reformed, Powell keeps the helm of his ship on an even knell. he never misses a note, and praises all actors and actresses in the movie without picking them out nor cheating on his performance.

Posted By Johnnzee : June 18, 2012 9:39 am

I don’t believe Woody Allen could come close to this movie’s Directors, Producers, and as an actor himself ,even as a stand in for Powell he could not make the text book never mind the grade, He is a cult figure of the seventies mostly based on his inability to find love in real life and casual sex when not in a mono relationship.Jewel Robbery was one of the best movies ever made comedy wise, Francis shines as her dull life is reformed, Powell keeps the helm of his ship on an even knell. he never misses a note, and praises all actors and actresses in the movie without picking them out nor cheating on his performance.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Pleasures of the Pre-Code: Forbidden Hollywood Volumes 4 and 5 : July 24, 2012 10:00 am

[...] flurry of creativity after arriving from Germany in 1931. I have enthused about Jewel Robbery in this space before, but it is truly a marvel, an effervescent sex (and drugs) comedy that is also one of [...]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Pleasures of the Pre-Code: Forbidden Hollywood Volumes 4 and 5 : July 24, 2012 10:00 am

[...] flurry of creativity after arriving from Germany in 1931. I have enthused about Jewel Robbery in this space before, but it is truly a marvel, an effervescent sex (and drugs) comedy that is also one of [...]

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