By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
As simple comedy, all of this is delightful; every tête-à-tête feels electric. But what’s striking today is the candor. It’s perhaps too easy to celebrate pre-code films as subversive for simply intimating violence or sex, but Jewel Robbery justifies the attention: The sexual chemistry between Powell and Francis makes it seem only natural that, mere moments after meeting, they should hop into bed together -- what’s surprising is that they quite literally do. The film bristles with the sorts of wrongdoings that, just two years later, would be banned under the Hays code: Crime is made out to be a joke, cops are made out to be fools, infidelity and premarital sex are openly embraced, marijuana is widely (and quite hilariously) consumed.
And yet, for all its conspicuous transgressions, Jewel Robbery hardly feels weighed down by immorality -- the film is much too buoyant to sink under sin. The high spirits prove seductive, even infectious; the usual pat bit of moralizing at the end of the affair would have doubtless seemed disingenuous. More honest, I think, and more satisfying, for this affable criminal fantasy to carry on unimpeded. During the Depression, this sort of fun was dreamed up to invigorate America, a reverie to dispel sorrow. Today, its potency persists undiminished: The film delights as more than mere escapism.
It’s tempting to think of Lawyer Man, in which Powell plays an unwaveringly moral attorney on a mission to combat corruption, as a sort of well-meaning corrective to the misdeeds promoted by Jewel Robbery, but in truth it seems unlikely. William Dieterle, a prolific director even by the standards of the period, directed 11 feature films between 1932 and 1933, so it’s difficult to imagine the significance of any one looming over his conscience for long enough to do anything about it. (Powell starred in a further five films over the same two-year stretch.)
In any case, Lawyer Man presents a useful contrast. Powell’s unbridled charisma has been marshaled in aid of the public good, which he serves by flamboyantly thwarting the conspiracies of politicians, businessmen and other trusted members of public office -- all to the exaggerated chagrin of his superiors, who prefer the complacency of the blind eye. Whether he is grandly breaking the law or grandly upholding it, what becomes clear is that it’s the grandiosity that matters most to viewers: The thing about Powell is that he proves a joy to watch whatever side of the moral line he happens to be on at the time.
Its subject naturally requires that Lawyer Man adopt a more overtly dramatic approach than Jewel Robbery, but that distinction ultimately seems rather negligible -- Powell and Dieterle can’t seem to help themselves from indulging in the same jocose sophistication either way. Part of the appeal of their union in these cases is how offhand the efforts feel. Whether a result of their speed or prolificacy, both Lawyer Man and Jewel Robbery come off as “minor” films in the very best sense. Powell, of course, would go on to achieve stratospheric success only a few years later with the double-punch of The Thin Man in 1934 and My Man Godfrey in 1936, the two performances for which he remains best remembered. The reputation of Jewel Robbery likewise suffers in comparison to Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, released the same year, which features both a similar premise and a co-star in Kay Francis. Jewel Robbery is not quite up to the standard set by top-tier Lubitsch (though what is?) and Powell, good in everything, is better in his best-known films.
But that’s part of what I like so much about Warner Archive Instant: It presents minor alternatives no less enjoyable themselves for being lesser than canonical greats. One thing I fear we’re losing in the rush to digitize is the abundance of good films that coexist alongside the truly great. These are the films whose legacies we need to fight hardest to preserve.
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