William Powell and Kay Francis in a publicity photo for Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle, 1932)
Jack Miller extols the virtues of Jewel Robbery, a slightly weird and completely wonderful pre-Code romantic comedy starring the wildly charming team of Kay Francis and William Powell.
The luminous pre-Code star Kay Francis appeared in seven movies in the year 1932 alone. Of those seven, at least three are truly great films: Tay Garnett’s earnest and sweetly romantic One Way Passage, in which Francis and William Powell co-star as a terminally ill woman and a debonair murderer finding love on a trans-Pacific ocean liner; Ernst Lubitsch’s sublime masterpiece Trouble in Paradise, about a pair of elegant thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) whose affections become entangled with the very woman that they’re swindling; and William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery, a delicious comedy which reunites Francis and Powell as a Viennese baron’s wife and the charmingly dishonest jewel robber who manages to woo her. Of the three, Trouble in Paradise and Jewel Robbery most often get compared, perhaps because both films envision theft as something stylish and sophisticated, a metaphor for sexuality that ends where love begins, and both can be seen as giddy Hollywood visions of continental European cities. (Paris in the case of Trouble in Paradise, Vienna in the case of Jewel Robbery.)
From left to right: Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)
One element that sets Jewel Robbery apart from the others, and that I most enjoy about its tone, is a certain countercultural element which can be perceived running beneath its surface. The film, particularly through Francis’s baroness character, does not display any respect toward the basic tenets of civilized societies: the government, the police, the wealthy patriarchs at the top of the food chain, the adulterous married couples, and the people who gossip about them are all satirized in equal measure. In fact, almost every character outside the two central lovers (Francis and Powell) is made to seem either buffoonish or shallow, or both. This countercultural rejection of mainstream societal mores (and the people who enforce them) works brilliantly in the context of a winking pre-Code comedy. The film creates a luminous and deeply private sphere around its two lovers, as if to say that the rest of the world, with its order and regulations, seems unimportant in contrast to the sparkling romance which occurs between them. The film, in its small way, seems to be saying that love and romance are the only dignified things in our world, the only things worthy of being taken seriously. This can be seen as a radical sentiment.
Vintage lobby card for the film
Another hilarious and proto-countercultural element of Jewel Robbery is its deployment of drug use as an extended gag. During Powell’s robbery of a high-class jewelry store that takes up much of the action in the first half of the film, he uses cigarettes which appear to be laced with some kind of drug (possibly marijuana) to make the jeweler and an attending cop lose their senses. The gag continues after the robbery concludes, as Powell leaves the funny cigarettes behind with an unknowing patrolman; soon, even the Prefect of Police is giggling his head off like a stoned prankster. This display of a loopy, inebriated elected official gestures the film’s tone toward a more anarchic satirical realm, occasionally bringing it closer to the crazy spirit of a Marx Brothers comedy like Duck Soup (1933). And the way that Dieterle ably balances this degree of madcap comedy with the deeper romanticism of the lovers’ scenes shows how strong and flexible a director he was. Dieterle also helmed the gloriously nutty Portrait of Jennie (1948), an absurd piece of Hollywood romanticism that remains beautiful and wacky in a different, more earnest way.
The sparkling romance between Kay Francis and William Powell in Jewel Robbery
Jewel Robbery may not be the deepest experience to be found in the rich vein of American romantic comedy; it never quite attempts to position itself as a wistful and philosophical treatise on human behavior, the way that the best Lubitsch films do. But its crazy, anarchic, and good-natured spirit, the wild rebelliousness of its gags, and the luminosity of the private world that its lovers inhabit make it a small and special gem of its era, worthy of anyone’s time. The film will soon be playing at IU Cinema in its bracingly fun new series, Sirens & Spitfires: Liberated Ladies of Pre-Code Cinema, where the film’s bold and rowdy energy can be appreciated with a reactive audience. Few actresses define the spirit of this special period in American cinema better than Kay Francis, who had a unique way of bringing the viewer in on the joke with her, and the final shot of Jewel Robbery remains a marvelous encapsulation of her ethos as an actress.
Jewel Robbery screens at IU Cinema this Saturday, September 23, at 4pm in a new 2K restoration. Following the screening, join The Media School’s Joan Hawkins and IU Cinema’s Michaela Owens for a discussion on the Production Code, sex in cinema, and the pre-Code era.