Star-crossed lovers and secrets in this excellent pre-code.
I kind of tipped my hand that I might pick One Way Passage (1932) in my July TCM Guide, but I just can’t help raving about one of my all time favourite movies of any era, and one of the best romances ever filmed. Kay Francis and William Powell meet, fall madly in love at first sight, and spend time getting to know each other on an ocean liner travelling from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Romantic already, with such a charismatic gentleman and such a glamorous lady. The complication that makes this love so memorable and fulfilling is that Powell is a prisoner bound for the electric chair, while Francis is terminally ill and could die at any moment from overexertion or excitement. The pair spend most of their trip in the dark about each other’s dim future, until an excursion in Honolulu where Powell is seconds from escape but stays to help Francis when she collapses. Later Francis learns about his predicament but through the end, they never let on to each other what they know. They just love each other for what they are, and love and live in the moment.
As if the charm and poignancy of that plot weren’t enough to entice you, this film also features some outstanding support by Aline MacMahon, Frank McHugh and Warren Hymer. MacMahon is the infamous hustler Betty Barrelhouse, who on this voyage is scamming male admirers as the grand Madame Le Countess Barilhouse. Powell’s small time thieving buddy McHugh is also on board, and the first to spot old pal MacMahon. They get together for shop talk and extensive boozing as they fill the viewer in on Powell’s admirable qualities, the unfair rap against him, and their desire to help him. Aline spreads the allure on thick to distract the police sergeant escorting Powell (Hymer), and through the film they steal his bullets, his key to the ship’s brig, plus lots of cash from other passengers, as they work for Powell’s escape. But they come to accept, or knew from the start, that what makes Powell such a respectable gentleman criminal, is what makes him able to love Francis (and she him), and what will make him choose her instead of freedom.
These characters are complex and develop quite a ways for being drawn in such short time (only 68 minutes) and given this one trip in which to operate and reveal themselves. Each has secrets to hide and false fronts to keep up as they fall in love. Once in love, they’re willing to reveal their true selves, change their ways, and forgive and forget dark pasts. MacMahon gets a glimpse of Hymer’s soft heart when he melts at the sight of Powell at Francis’ bedside. Though Hymer denies having expressed any such thing, MacMahon falls in love with him. She defends Hymer to McHugh on the basis that he’s just like them, a person good at his job and doing it “100%.” When Hymer learns that MacMahon is a conwoman, we get a touching and amusing scene thanks to the timing of that reveal, her choice to be honest and his choice to keep a new secret, and the discovery that they share a one-in-a-million retirement dream. On paper these two would surely be enemies; in person they are rich characters who keep you guessing about whether they can start from scratch.
Director Tay Garnett does such a wonderful job balancing the romance and the comedy, and making clear the parallel between the literal ocean crossing and two specific death sentences with the universal lesson of seizing the moment in life’s journey. The acts are stitched together with recurring jokes like McHugh’s flight from local authorities at every port, ending when he leaps on board and turns to mock his pursuers with his signature wheezy laugh. The ritual where Powell and Francis break their glasses after drinking cocktails is also repeated with more loaded signifigance each time. First it shows them bonding over their belief in fate and their zest for life, later it engages and infuriates the ship’s bartender (Roscoe Karns, excellent as the witness to all kinds of love and theft) and finally the shattered glasses signify the couple’s fate. Just as skilfully done are the little gags, like MacMahon peeling off her paste-on bangs, or McHugh stealing liquor and then asking for change that isn’t his (but with that money he pays for more than one drink, good guy McHugh). From longing looks to tearful goodbyes to laugh out loud crooks, One Way Passage is a must see, a fantastically made and deeply touching pre-Code. If by the end of this movie, you cynics aren’t moved to believe in love, and you softies aren’t moved to tears, then I bid you auf wiedersehen.
One Way Passage is on TCM July 29 @ 7:15 AM (ET) and also available from Warner Archive.