Monday, May 23, 2016

One Way Passage

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

One Way Passage (WB, 1932) – Director: Tay Garnett. Writers: Wilson Mizner & Joseph Jackson (s/p). Robert Lord (story). Stars: Kay Francis, William Powell, Aline MacMahon, Frank McHugh, Warren Hymer, & Frederick Burton. B&W, 67 minutes.

Today, Kay Francis is seen as the Queen of the Weepies. That, along with her Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment, tends to downgrade her in the eyes of many casual fans. But Kay Francis was one of the most important figures in the development of motion pictures in the era of sound. Her four-hankie films drew many women customers and enabled Warner Bros. to escape financial ruin during the Depression. Francis also coined a type: the mink-clad martyr who suffered nobly through each film, bravely overcoming whatever difficulties were cooked up by the writers. She set the canvas for later queens of suffering such as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

One of her best weepies is One Way Passage, from 1932, a film she almost didn’t get to make. Although director Tay Garnett wanted her as the star, studio executive Darryl Zanuck thought she was too lightweight an actress for such a heavy role. But Garnett won out and Francis was cast.

The film opens in a Hong Kong bar, as Joan Ames (Francis) and Dan Hardest (Powell) literally bump into one another, causing Dan to spill his freshly made Paradise Cocktail. But it’s love at first sight, and leads to a toast, as Joan remarks, "Always the most precious. The last few drops.” (Not only Dan’s spilled drink, we quickly surmise, but about what remains.) They break their glasses and cross the stems before Dan departs, a motif that would be employed throughout the film.

Trusting in chance as their only hope for seeing each other again, Joan returns to her friends. Dan, without taking his eyes off her, leaves the bar, where he is arrested by Steve Burke (Hymer), a policeman who pokes a gun in Dan’s back and swiftly overcomes Dan’s resistance to slap the bracelets on him, cuffing him to his own wrist. Steve, it seems, has been pursuing Dan since he escaped from San Quentin, where he was sent after being convicted of murder. Burke’s job is to bring him back to hang.

While on deck of the ship headed to San Francisco, Dan, still cuffed to Burke, talks his captor into showing him the key to the cuffs. Burke also remarks to Dan that he can’t swim. Unbolting the railing without Steve’s knowledge, Dan pulls Burke overboard with him to the ocean and manages to unlock the handcuffs. Then, instead of swimming to shore, Dan dunks Burke underwater and holds him there. But director Garnett, knowing this act of cold-blooded murder would lose Dan sympathy in the eyes of the audience, has Dan come to his senses after hearing the cry of ”man overboard” coming from the ship. He lifts Burke’s head out of the water and swims him back to the boat. Dan may be a murderer, but to soften his character with the audience, McHugh’s character, Skippy, says at one point that Dan was “croaking the dirtiest heel who ever lived.”

Grateful to his rescuer, and realizing there is no way for Dan to escape from the ship, Steve agrees to remove his handcuffs. Joan is also aboard the ship, and while she seems healthy, we learn she is actually very ill and has only a short time to live, although we are never told what it is that’s killing her. (Terminal prickly-heat? Mogo on the gogogo?)

Just before the ship leaves its dock, Skippy, a petty thief on the run, barely eludes the Hong Kong police by running up the gangplank and jumping onto the ship as it pulls away. During the voyage, Dan and Joan spend every minute together, breaking their glasses after a toast to symbolize living for the moment.

Steve also has his moments, as when he is immediately smitten by the exotic figure and accent of Countess Barilhaus (MacMahon). But as they pass by Dan and Joan, the Countess and Dan share a recognizing glance, tipping us off that there’s more here than meets the eye. And so there is, for in the next scene the Countess and Skippy are sharing a bottle. As she reminisces over old times in her natural voice we learn that the "Countess Barilhaus," is better known as Barrel House Betty (MacMahon), a dame who makes her living on the grift. We also learn that Betty is tired of this life and wishes to settle down with a financially-secure man.

Neither Dan nor Joan can bear to tell the other the truth, but while Joan plans a trip ashore in Honolulu, Dan plans an escape. But Steve, expecting Dan to escape, has him locked in the brig during the stopover. Betty also decides to help Dan. Flirting with Steve, she gets the key to the brig and passes it to Skippy (McHugh). Skippy unlocks the cell, releasing Dan, who goes ashore with Joan while Steve and Betty do the same. 

There is a wonderful scene that just could not be filmed if the picture were made a couple of years later. Skippy meets up with Betty in her cabin where she hands him the bullets from Burke’s gun. This should give Dan free range once the boat docks in Honolulu. Skippy, puzzled, asks Betty how she got close enough to get a hold of Burke’s pistol. Betty simply replies with a jerk of her head, which the camera follows to reveal Burke's tie laid across a chair. She then shushes Skippy, leaving the audience no doubt that not only did she seduce Burke, but that he's still asleep in her bed.

After spending a lovely day together, Dan is about to tell Joan about his planned escape when she suddenly collapses. To save her life, Dan carries her back to the ship, giving up his chance at freedom. The doctor warns him that another shock could kill Joan, so he keeps his secret. Meanwhile, Steve and Betty have also fallen in love. Steve asks Betty to marry him. She tells him who she really is, but it doesn’t matter. Joan learns the truth about Dan when she overhears a porter’s conversation, but says goodbye to him, pretending that everything is fine. They agree to meet in Caliente on New Year's Eve even though they know that is impossible. At midnight on New Year's Eve, a bartender in Caliente hears a sound and turns to find the shattered stems of two glasses, broken in the same way that Dan and Joan always broke them, but no one is there.

One thing Warner Bros. had going for it was its strong supporting cast of actors, which is on full display in One Way Passage. Warren Hymer brings a little depth to what otherwise would be a cardboard role as Steve Burke. His humanity in releasing Dan from the cuffs after Dan rescued him from the water is tempered with common sense, as when he has Dan committed to the brig while the ship stops in Honolulu. It’s a typical Hymer one-note performance, but in this film he has a little more to do than simply growl and act tough, and he comes through nicely.

Frank McHugh is the real underpinning of the film. Without his antics the movie would sink of its own weight. When he jumps aboard the S.S. Maloa just as it’s pulling out of Hong Kong he looks back and gives his patented “ha…ha…ha” laugh. No one can do that like McHugh, who did it in almost every film he made. He's given several scenes to pick pockets and steal liquor. Watch for his scene where he has a run-in with himself in a mirror. It’s an old gag that could have easily fallen flat, but McHugh pulls off the character of Skippy so deftly that we believe that is indeed who he really is. He functions in the film as the link between Joan and Dan on the one hand, and Steve and Betty on the other. 

MacMahon also shines as Betty the grifter, putting on her act with such grace that we actually buy it. At first, she speaks in broken English, and later rattling off her lines in wonderfully slangy English with Skippy. Her scenes with McHugh are precious as they let their hair down with each other, almost like an old married couple. From these scenes it’s obvious that they know each other very well. When they run into one another, Skippy asks, “Betty, don’t they ever get on to ya? You’ve been gettin’ away with this stuff for years.”

Behind the scenery, Garnett’s direction was superb, getting exceptional performances out of his cast. Powell is his usual suave, sophisticated self, but in One Way Passage, Garnett makes him more vulnerable than we see him in other films, where he is always so reassured. With Francis’ character, Garnett tones down the suds and gives her a softer glow. 

We see what he did with Hymer, and as for McHugh and MacMahon, he seems just to have simply let them do their thing, as it were. The duo never needed any special coaching, as their professionalism never allowed them to stoop to overacting to steal a scene. MacMahon could steal a scene just with her eyes alone, and McHugh knew, instinctively it seems, when to ratchet things up and when to tone them down.

Robert Lord won an Oscar for Original Story for his part in writing the film, and screenwriters Wilson and Jackson mix in plenty of period lingo without drawing the dialogue. Robert Kurrle’s cinematography is consistent throughout, using lighting to great effect, especially in the opening scene where our lovers meet.

The film was re-released in 1937 in a edited form and remade in 1939 as Till We Meet Again, starring Merle Oberon and George Brent as the doomed couple. Bette Davis was originally approached for the role, but as she starred in Dark Victory the same year, she decided against going to the proverbial well once too often, at least in the same year. The remake tanked at the box office, as Oberon and Brent failed their chemistry class. Later that same year, Francis and Powell recreated their roles for a radio adaptation on Lux Radio Theatre. It would be the last time the two actors worked together.

One Way Passage stands as one of the finest romances ever to come out of Hollywood. It also marks the sixth pairing of Powell and Francis, and was their biggest hit, both critically and commercially, grossing slightly over $1.1 million. The pair was first teamed at Paramount, where their on-screen chemistry was noticed by the studio, and turned into a string of financially successful melodramas. When Warner Bros. lured them away (Paramount could no longer afford them), they teamed for two films, Jewel Robbery and this film. Yet, despite their success they were never teamed again by the studio.

A little over a year later, Powell, thoroughly disillusioned by the way the studio was using him, jumped over to MGM. As for Francis, her career slowly began to fade, a victim of poor scripts and a lack of interest on the part of the studio. By the mid-40s she was working at Monogram Studios, where she was given the “luxury” of being billed as the producer in addition to her star billing. But while her career was at its height run the early ‘30s, there was no actress more popular than Kay Francis. Besides playing the mink-clad martyr, Francis also excelled at playing the free-thinking, independent woman, seen in such Pre-Code favorites as Mary Stevens, MD (1933), Mandalay, and Dr. Monica (both 1934). Of all the forgotten stars of Hollywood, her star burned brightest during its height.


  1. 'Of all the forgotten stars of Hollywood, her star burned brightest during its height.' Spectacular closing line.

    Great review!

    1. From Ed:
      Thank you for the kind words. It is appreciative readers such as yourself that make writing these essays so much fun.

  2. Great review of a great movie. Powell and Francis had incredible chemistry. She seemed to have a rather sad life.

    1. From Ed:
      Thank you for the feedback. Francis and Powell did indeed have great chemistry. Yes, Francis did have a rather rocky life, but most of her woes were self-inflicted. Unlike such as Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland, she lived for today with nary a thought to what tomorrow might bring. I strongly recommend the biography, "Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career," by Lynn Kear and John Rossman. It is available as an e-book and provides great insight into the legendary actress and what made her tick.

  3. I liked thevmovie very much! It is sweet and a bit romantic. I adore anything with Kay in it!

  4. I loved the movie. Loved the entire cast. (So much better than the remake.) Warner Brothers forced Kay out because she was making more money than Harry Warner. Her career was never the same again. She slowly faded from the silver screen.