Friday, December 2, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: JEWEL ROBBERY (1932)

It's become a cliche by now to say that movies from the "pre-Code" era (roughly 1930-34) were ahead of their time in their irreverent attitudes, but William Dieterle's comic fantasy for Warner Bros. takes the cliche to the extreme. For all I know, this romance between swanky Kay Francis's bored rich girl and William Powell's omnipotent gentleman thief (he prefers "robber") is Hollywood's earliest pothead comedy. No, the whole film isn't about people getting high, but Dieterle milks the weed for all the laughs he can get. The reason why is that Powell gives his victims reefers to smoke, on the then-current assumption that only a few puffs will so stupefy you that you'll be incapable of or uninterested in calling the police after he and his massive gang leave the crime scene. After they invade one of Vienna's ritziest jewelry stores and clean it out, Powell offers one of his special cigarettes to one of his captives. In a minute he's giggling like he was auditioning for Reefer Madness. The deal is that you accept the reefer of get locked in a safe, but Francis insists on neither. She's infatuated with the robber, but wants to keep her wits about her, and promises not to call the gendarmes, claiming afterward to have fainted. Meanwhile, Powell foists the rest of his pot on the idiot security guard whom he'd convinced to watch his swag while he finished his business in the store. This fool then spreads them around until a stuffy official is found babbling that he's Napoleon and practically forcing a joint down an assistant's throat. Needless to say, the man enjoys it. As Cab Calloway asks, did you ever see that funny reefer man? If not, you will here in perhaps the unlikeliest of settings: a semi-Lubitschian landscape down to sharing Kay Francis, who was targeted by those elegant rogues Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise that same year. Did Hollywood take Francis for an easy mark?

More likely it was just natural to imagine a glamorous star victimized, nay, ravished by some masterful brigand. Powell's robber is perhaps the most dominant thief in pre-Code cinema. He is at once a masterful cat burglar, having emptied another shop's safe in advance of the installation of an ultramodern electric-eye alarm system, and a veritable crimelord with a small army of strongarm men, lookouts and distracting dames at his disposal. Later in the film, he attempts a chivalrous gesture and sneaks into Francis's home to return her stolen jewelry, only to be caught in the act by detectives who insist on taking Francis along as a witness. Turns out they're just more of Powell's minions who staged the scene as an excuse to bring Francis to Powell's predictably elegant lair. He's really just another romantic ravisher in a female-fantasy tradition going back at least as far as Rudolph Valentino's Shiek and extending to Jewel Robbery's contemporary, Tarzan the Ape Man, in which overwhelming mastery comes with intensely romantic solicitude toward a beautiful lady. Some might even extend the fantasy to King Kong, albeit in retrospect, but unlike the beloved ape Powell is no less victorious when he takes to the rooftops, while Francis regards the prospect of a reunion in Nice with rapture -- and a finger across her lips to shush the audience, lest we -- as if we would -- give the game away to the plodding coppers. My friend Wendigo might agree with me that this is the same sort of dark-lover fantasy, though not so dark this time, that Dracula was without the Tod Browning film really trying that hard. Well, in the depths of Depression, who wouldn't dream of a spree of invincible plunder and escape to glamorous hideouts around the world? Would that make you a commie or something? Someone calls Powell a communist after he insinuates that he's only robbing the robbers, i.e. the rich. He quickly sets them straight. What would I rob under communism, he asks -- grain silos and tractors? So no, the fantasy of ill-gotten wealth didn't threaten the social order, no matter what the phalangist fussbudget Joe Breen might have thought. It wasn't until people started saying "share and share alike" was the American way that anyone had to worry. If anything, Dieterle's dream of an all-conquering criminal who succeeds beyond the dreams of mere public enemies or scarfaced caesars was probably proof that recovery was just around the corner.

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