The Key (1934) by annette bochenek

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William Powell once said: “There is more money in being liked by an audience than in being disliked by it. The biggest thing about movie audiences is the sympathy they give characters on the screen. But the art of acting and the talent of selecting what one will act are divorced qualities.”

Tonight’s film, The Key, presents actor William Powell in a dramatic role, prior to his more familiar portrayal of wry and witty detective, Nick Charles. Although we may know him as sharp-tongued, charismatic, and comedic, this particular film is evidence of Powell’s incredible versatility as an actor.

To be frank, this was Powell’s last film for Warner Brothers, and the one that left him dismissed from the studio as “washed up.” However, it wasn’t until his years at MGM that his star really began to shine in some of his most notable Thin Man films. Yet, when one watches Powell in 1934’s The Key, one can see gradual nods to his future comedic persona.

In The Key, Powell portrays another highly confident character, brimming with wit and excellent quips. His one-liners act as a great equalizer in this drama of the Irish rebellion. Powell’s character of Captain Bill Tennant pays close attention to people from varying social classes, regardless of which position they support. A romantic at heart, he brings notice to the downtrodden, explores the depth of duty to an overarching cause or personal relationship, and does not grant a sense of authority to the egotistic. Rather, Powell’s character aims to rekindle a sense of humanity in a time of political turmoil, and illuminates a dark atmosphere by self-sacrifice, love, and laughter.

In addition to Powell, The Key brings together a delightful cast, including Colin Clive, British actress Edna Best in her first American film role, Donald Crisp, and budding star Anne Shirley, still billed as Dawn O’Day. The film comes to life under the direction of Michael Curtiz, who is especially known as the director of Casablanca—a film that has striking parallels to the plot presented to us in The Key.

In the Curtiz style, this film is particularly captivating in terms of its atmosphere. The tension of the time is evident in extremely dark tones, but shining with nationalistic pride and determination to establish an independent identity. The setting portrays bustling streets that realistically portray Irish life in the 1920s, with a vibrant culture and community that bring the lugubrious town to life.

The more minor characters in this film also possess an understated charm, as they offer a sense of hope and happiness against the gloomy tones of this film. Whether it is a dancer in the background, a romantic Irish folk tune, or a woman selling small bouquets of flowers, these nuances of life and light shine in the conversion of Powell’s political allegiances to the personal.

I invite you to enjoy this often-overlooked dramatic film, and the fine performances of this immensely talented cast.

Colin Clive, Michael Curtiz, and William Powell
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