William Powell is, hands down, my all-time favorite actor. And, yet, while I enjoy him best when he shared screen time with Myrna Loy - who, to echo Dillinger, is my all-time favorite actress - Powell's catalogue of motion pictures spans beyond their 14 film partnership. Before Powell hit it big with MGM, he was contracted with Warner Brothers from 1931 to 1934, to the tune of nine lesser known films, of which four are presented in this collection. William Powell at Warner Bros. showcases the breadth of his acting. It manifests his dramatic chops, his flair for sleuthing, his cosmopolitan wit, his impeccable comic timing. Warner Brothers studio is where Powell cemented himself as a leading man. But, okay, there may be more overwrought soap opera here than a case of the giggles.
- THE ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1931)
In this one, Hope and Crosby and Powell all vie for Dorothy Lamour's attention. Heh. No, this one doesn't have a lot of yucks. The Road to Singapore released some years before the Hays Code got serious with its moral agenda. It was Powell's first starring vehicle for Warner Bros. It's a steamy early talkie that makes adept use of Powell's suave bearing and sophisticated wit. He plays notorious adventurer Hugh Dawltry who has an unexpected homecoming to Khota, a place in the tropics of which climate is so beastly that "Nobody but crooks, tourists, and missionaries would be foolish enough to stick their heads into this furnace." Dawltry's return is met with the coolest of receptions, seeing as the last time he was home he was principal in a scandal involving his stealing another man's wife. At least you can count on the man for being consistent. Dawltry's eye promptly roves towards another man's wife... again. I guess it doesn't matter that the latest beauty is wife to the intolerant Dr. George March (Louis Calhern), him what harbors an unbecoming set of prejudices. Quoting him: "Everybody has got to keep his place in this country." The good doctor takes Philippa (Doris Kenyon) for granted. He seems more turned on by malaria and tumors. Quoting him: "You should've seen that tumor. It was a beauty."
Philippa, chafing from playing second fiddle to disease, dwells in the next plantation over. And in a rigid environment populated by stuffed shirts and their bored women, Dawltry, by default, is Khota's most interesting man. Even the doctor's adventurous 18-year-old sister (Marian Marsh) thinks so. And, so, it doesn't take long for an illicit romance to develop. The Road to Singapore swelters and blisters and unfolds a tale of tango and lust and infidelity. I don't even feel bad for the doctor.
- HIGH PRESSURE (1932)
This one is a landmark film in that, for the first time, Powell got to star in a comedy. High Pressure, based on the 1931 Broadway play, Hot Money, by Aben Kandel, is an irreverent yarn about a Depression-era swindle. When not passed out in some speakeasy, Gar Evans (Powell) has got rep as the world's greatest promoter, a PR man of the highest order. An entrepreneur (George Sidney) has got a line on a process for manufacturing artificial rubber out of sewage, and he wants Evans to promote this enterprise. "There's no romance in sewage!" Evans protests but is talked into it. Next thing you know, the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Co. is founded and Evans' horde of salesmen are selling company stock left and right. All goes well until the representatives from the rubber industry demand that Evans prove that the company can actually produce artificial rubber. Only thing is, the inventor of the process has vanished.
Directed by Mervyn Leroy with pizazz and precision and an eye on the clock, High Pressure predates two Howard Hawks gems: Bringing up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). But it anticipates the snappy, rapid-fire banter that was a hallmark of those two classic comedies. Powell is in top form as the fast-talking, very opportunistic, yet likable rogue. Evelyn Brent is his leading lady for the sixth and final time, and she's engaging in a world-weary, resigned sort of way. She plays Powell's oft neglected gal pal, Francine, whom the lout has kept on the merry-go-round for the past five years. Only, she ain't havin' this no more, see? She's on the verge of marrying her Latino suitor and shoving off to South America. Can Powell talk her out of it? Does a bear crap in the woods?
It's an inadvertent flim flam caper and a romantic satire and towering proof that Powell can handle comedies. The jokes blister by you, so you must keep an ear out. My favorite may be the double entendre line delivered by one sap as a conniving Powell examines his footwear: "Are you gentlemen in the heel business?" I also admired Powell's airy introduction of Guy Kibbee, a bum whom he hires as the fledgling company's CEO: "At seven, he was the ideal president of a big company. But he had to wait forty years before he could look like one. Nobody in the world could sit in a chair the way he does." Frank McHugh also appears to try to louse up my day. Thankfully, he's not as aggravating as in other movies.
- PRIVATE DETECTIVE 62 (1933)
A lot happens to Donald Free (Powell) in the film's first 15 minutes. In Paris, Free, a compromised government operative, is nicked by the French Sûreté for smuggling secret state papers. He's branded an undesirable alien and deported. In New York, Free is disavowed by his government and must scramble to make ends meet. At last he finagles a partnership with goonish gumshoe Dan Hogan (Arthur Hohl) of the Peerless Detective Agency. Peerless is a shabby enterprise, a hole-in-the-wall up on 23rd St, but, hey, a gig is a gig.
You can't blame the ever opportunistic Hogan for accepting the patronage of a sketchy casino owner. So now here's the Peerless Detective Agency, relocated to posh 5th Avenue, flourishing. And there's Dan Hogan, having sold his scruples some time ago, now at the beck and call of that sketchy figure. Meanwhile, Donald Free has retained his code of honor. Still, it's hard to reject $10,000, the prize for landing innocent society girl Janet Reynolds (Margaret Lindsay) in hot stir.
Private Detective 62 is a diverting one-off that Powell made while still in his Philo Vance phase but shortly before he would assume his most recognized role of Nick Charles. Private Detective 62 was straight up shot in the Warner Bros. house style, slick and professional. At 67 minutes, the pace crackles, courtesy of director Michael Curtiz's vaunted no-nonsense approach. Powell and Lindsay simply scintillate in their shared scenes, and I have a yen now to look up the lovely Ms. Lindsay's other pictures. Ruth Donnelly delivers several zingy moments as Peerless' loyal, level-headed secretary. Hohl navigates a surprising arc in which his character goes from comic and buffoonish to cold and calculating. Anyway, when the Peerless agency's predations plant Janet in a murder frame, is there any doubt as to which side Free's loyalty falls? Free's sleuthing is bare bones stuff, but Powell's colossal charm powers us thru.
THE KEY (1934)
Powell plays another heroic cad in this one, a pre-Hays Code tearjerker staged in 1920 Dublin and against the explosive backdrop of the Irish "troubles." If this were released only a few months later, the Hays Code would've righteously stamped out that whiff of extra-marital shenanigans. Did you know that the term "Black & Tan" is an Irish pejorative for the British Military Reserve Force stationed in Ireland? Captain Bill Tennant (Powell), notorious for his bravery AND his exploits between the sheets, is a Black & Tan officer who is tasked with smashing unrest in Ireland. He ends up indiscreetly passing time with an ex-flame (Edna Best) who now happens to be the wife of his good pal, the British intelligence officer (Colin Clive). The plot gets even more turgid when the husband is captured by Irish rebels.
Clued into the plot as your are, how did you think this was going to end? Damn right. On the plus side, Powell gets to play a part that puts his skills to good use. He is rakish and jaunty and fun. I love the opening scene in which he charms a flower girl and purchases a blossom from her, only to playfully bestow it to his superior officer. That sets the tone for his character, before the self-sacrificial element comes in.