Every month, my blog friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick a pre-Code movie airing on TCM.
This month TCM features some great pre-Codes that I’ve written about before:
- Chandu the Magician (1932) tonight
- Guilty Hands (1931) on the 13th
- The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) on the 28th
- Mandalay, on the 13th, is a blast too,
But for my pick this month I went with one of my favourite screen couples, Kay Francis and William Powell. They made six movies together, and I’ve previously reviewed their troubled relationship in the thriller For the Defense (1930) and their heartbreaking doomed romance in One Way Passage (1932). William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery is a frothy, witty, naughty and playful Lubitsch-style romance between a Viennese Baroness and the sophisticated thief who steals her jewels and her heart.
Baroness Teri (Francis), her excruciatingly dull husband (Henry Kolker) and her boring and pompous admirer, cabinet minister Anton (Andre Lueget), are shopping for her diamond ring in a swanky jewelry store when the notoriously elusive “Robber” (Powell) and his gang hold the joint up. The Robber bristles when Teri calls him a “thief” because he considers himself a gentleman and top shelf criminal, one who finds violence declasse, puts on a waltz record as he cleans out the inventory, charms the guard Lenz (Spencer Charters) into carrying out cases of stolen loot, and hands out pot-laced cigarettes to pacify his victims.
He has Teri making big heart eyes by the end of the heist, and he’s just as smitten with her. She lies in her witness description, shares the juicy details of her newfound excitement with her bestie Marianne (Helen Vinson) in some very funny exchanges, and then The Robber breaks into her place with flowers and returns her ring. He claims to need a place to hide for the night but with one of his crew (Alan Mowbray) he tricks Teri into coming to his secret apartment. There, the couple’s witty whirlwind courtship escalates, Teri surprises Robber with a double-cross, and by the time the police arrive she’s ready to leave her lush life behind to join him at Nice.
The decadence and daring of it all is enchanting. In the opening moments we learn the Robber has beat the highest tech light-beam alarm setup, later he tells Teri he’s “fifteen years old” because that’s when he really started living, and that he has so many names she can just think of one that fits. He takes smooth operating to a new level but makes it art and poetry. Meanwhile, Teri sits in her giant tub complaining how empty life is with all her jewels and furs, the Baron’s countless millions, the spa-like bathroom, masseuse and full beauty squad (one woman even carries Teri to her hair and makeup chair). Francis, the fashion plate of that era, gets one of her most ultra-glam and structurally implausible wardrobes. One outfit even fools you into thinking she’s about to emerge naked from behind a screen. She throws him off his game when she praises brutal men and later, when she says she responds to force, he throws her off an upper level onto a bed. It’s all playfully naughty and no actual intimacy is shown, but the most adult thing these two end up doing is moving past their obsession with acquiring shiny objects, to realize the value of living for the moment with each other.
Jewel Robbery is about as pre-Code as you can get, making an adulteress and crook this lovable and smart, and making flirting, cheating, drugs and crime look this fun, fulfilling and glamorous. It’s a must if you love Powell and Francis, and it’s on TCM January 13th.