Jewel Robbery (1932) by matthew c . hoffman

“Jewel Robbery carries the charm of a naughty wink from start to finish.” ~ Scott O’Brien, author of Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait To Be Forgotten (2006)
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The first film series I ever programmed—the first one I could call my own—was a retrospective on Warner contract director William Dieterle. That was back in 2000 at the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in Chicago. One of the key films I didn’t show was Jewel Robbery, which wasn’t available on 16mm—the format I was using at the time. That was unfortunate because movies like Jewel Robbery best explain why I would do a series on the little-known William Dieterle in the first place. Then, ten years later with the Library, I organized a series of pre-Code films called “Forbidden Cinema,” and again, Jewel Robbery was not yet available (on dvd). So finally, after all these years, I’m playing the film for an audience.

If you want to get friends interested in old movies, Jewel Robbery is the one to do it. It’s a delightful romance with a sophisticated edge. It was made before Hollywood’s Production Code went into effect, so the film is very racy with innuendo and references to marital infidelity. And though it’s never mentioned by name, we can guess that those cigarettes that are being passed out throughout the movie is marijuana, which at that time was seen as a novelty.

This was something of a departure for Warner Bros. Many of their films had distinctly American settings featuring working-class characters. Jewel Robbery, which is set in Vienna, demonstrates they could rival Paramount in European elegance. The story would not have worked had it been set in this country. Even in pre-Code cinema, censors would’ve shown little tolerance towards depictions of American policemen in drug-induced hysterics.

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Jewel Robbery is a lot of fun to watch, primarily due to its two stars: William Powell and Kay Francis. In the film, Powell plays a debonair robber with a drawing room technique. He brings an artist’s appreciation to his work while robbing jewelry stores across Europe. He embodies the kind of mystery and excitement missing in the life of the Baroness, played by Kay Francis. She’s a rather shallow coquette who is only interested in furs and jewelry. She’s bored with her rich, older husband and has lovers on the side, but there’s no real romance in her life– that is, until William Powell enters it. As the film’s advertising proclaims, he steals more than her jewels.

William Powell was one of the most underrated actors from the golden age. Though he is best known for the six Thin Man movies he made with Myrna Loy, his career was far more expansive than Nick Charles. From 1922-1955, he appeared in 95 movies including The Great Ziegfeld, My Man Godfrey, Life With Father, and his final film, Mister Roberts. During the course of his long career Powell was nominated for Best Actor three times.

In his book The Films of William Powell, Lawrence Quirk writes, “The fundamental affirmation in his character seemed always to win the sympathy and trust of his audience, regardless of what side of the law his screen self found himself on; among his secrets for getting those people out there in the dark to love him were his urbane charm and lack of pretension, his civilized projection of inner humanity and humor. But he didn’t lack a sense of humor about himself. Asked by one interviewer how he kept so slim and trim, he replied: ‘I highly recommend worrying. It is much more effective than dieting.’”

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He was born in Pittsburgh in 1892. His father had wanted him to enter law, but Powell only wanted to be an actor. He eventually graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After some lean years in stock theatre and vaudeville, he finally got a break in 1922 with Spanish Love, a Broadway play that caught people’s attention. This was a turning point for Powell and he soon transitioned into Hollywood after being offered a contract by Paramount.

At Paramount, Powell would appear in many silent films, usually playing the villain who steals the scene from the hero. This changed when he appeared in The Canary Murder Case, the first of four films in which he played detective Philo Vance. He eventually left and signed a contract with Warner Brothers before going on to become a major star at MGM with the Thin Man films. Our film series has focused its attention on that middle point in Powell’s career when he made several films while under contract to Warner Brothers. This was a very interesting period that hasn’t been explored much. During the course of two years he appeared in some wonderful films including High Pressure, Lawyer Man, Private Detective 62, and The Key, which we’ll play in a few weeks.

Jewel Robbery was a film Powell initially didn’t want to do, but in the end he felt the role would be amusing enough. The film features Powell at his best. He is both precise and polished. He plays the sort of gentleman thief that was then popular in American movies. Other actors like his good friend Ronald Colman portrayed similar types in films like Raffles, which coincidentally starred Kay Francis. Jewel Robbery would be Powell’s fifth film opposite Francis. Everyone remembers how well Myrna Loy complemented Powell at MGM, but fewer people are aware of what great onscreen chemistry he had with Kay Francis. This is simply because their films together haven’t been seen except at film revivals.

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Between 1930 and 1935 Kay Francis was the biggest star on the Warner Bros. lot. By 1937 she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. She was also one of the tallest leading ladies at around five-nine. Kay Francis would remain Warners’ top female star until Bette Davis overtook her. In movie after movie she came across as smart and sophisticated. Fans of pre-Code cinema remember Kay Francis for her chic fashions in her movies—Jewel Robbery features designs by Orry-Kelly—and for her famous speech impediment. Her “r”s were pronounced as “w”s… This vocal idiosyncrasy just made the “wavishing Kay Fwancis” all the more charming to audiences. She was a unique personality and the very definition of a movie star, giving audiences, especially female theatre-goers, the kind of elegance they wanted to see during the Great Depression.

Like Ann Harding, Kay Francis was another Broadway star who migrated to Hollywood in those early days when sound was becoming the rage in movies. With encouragement from actor Walter Huston, she got a test with Paramount and soon starred with him in 1929’s Gentleman of the Press. Her next film had her opposite the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts. In these early years she usually played a vamp, but she made an impression even if she wasn’t the nominal star. She first appeared with William Powell at Paramount in 1930’s Behind the Make-Up, although Fay Wray was the star of that one. Francis would make several films with William Powell, but their most memorable films together came after she left Paramount for Warners. Her last film with him, 1932’s One Way Passage, would be one of her best.

Most of these star vehicles featured fine support from many familiar character actors. Warner Brothers was one of the best with a stock company of actors that turned up in all their productions. Jewel Robbery features a supporting cast of great character actors including Henry Kolker as the Baron and Alan Mowbray as Detective Fritz. Even the minor players are given some sort of business to characterize them.

Shooting a scene during the production of Jewel Robbery…
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Director William Dieterle (on one knee with gloves)…
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It’s easy to compare this film to another sophisticated comedy about jewel thieves, Trouble in Paradise, which was released a few months after Jewel Robbery and again featured Kay Francis. The Ernst Lubitsch film is without question a masterpiece of continental charm, but William Dieterle’s film is hardly costume jewelry by comparison. The entire production is very much tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there’s also an airy quality that makes it feel like something out of a fairy tale. Jewel Robbery stands on its own terms as a great film with Dieterle providing his own touch to the material.

Though based on a 1931 Hungarian play by Ladislaus Fodor and its English adaptation by Bertram Bloch, there is nothing remotely stagy about it with its brisk pacing and fluid camerawork. Shots feel inspired rather than routine. It also has sparkling dialogue by Erwin S. Gelsey, which adds a sense of movement to the proceedings; the words complement the action. Finally, the atmospheric sets wonderfully evoke Vienna—even though the production never left the Warner lot.

Jewel Robbery is a product of a bygone era where the emphasis was on escapism and entertainment. Unlike today’s broad comedies with their modern sensibilities, Jewel Robbery’s story is conveyed with impeccable taste and subtlety by two great stars. It’s one of the finest films to come out of the studio system and certainly one of the best films in The Rediscovered.

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3 Responses to “Jewel Robbery (1932) by matthew c . hoffman”

  1. Michael Jankusky Says:

    I enjoyed viewing this film, great performances by both lead characters!

  2. Michael Jankusky Says:

    …and a delightful tale as well.

  3. What a great movie. William Powell is very underrated. I think he was better than more than a few of the so-called greats of that era.
    It’s a shame he isn’t better remembered.

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