In 1931, William Powell accepted a contract from Warner Bros. and entered a new phase in his burgeoning career. It was, at least at first, a solid move for the star. He had made his film debut almost a decade earlier at Samuel Goldwyn’s eponymous studio, in a small supporting role in 1922’s Sherlock Holmes, and toiled in small parts in a number of silent features before signing with Paramount in the mid-20s. At Paramount, Powell finally began to make his mark in meatier, albeit still supporting, parts (1926’s Beau Geste and that year’s famously lost adaptation of The Great Gatsby; 1928’s The Last Command), before eventually being cast in his first staring role in the 1929 mystery The Canary Murder Case. This film led to a series of four movies in which Powell played detective Philo Vance–a warm-up for what would later become his most noteworthy role, as roguish detective Nick Charles in the Thin Man series.
The move to the Warner studio initially promised bigger roles and more money (in fact, with this contract, Powell became one of the most highly-paid actors in Hollywood). But to his great frustration, the eight films that Powell made under the Warner Bros. banner did little to cement his reputation as a leading man. There are a couple of standouts: 1932’s One Way Passage is a melodramatic, tear-jerking jewel, and Powell’s 1933 return to the role of Vance in The Kennel Murder Case is an engaging mystery romp–arguably the best of the Vance lot. By and large, however, Powell’s Warner filmography is filled with unceremonious duds.
The new Warner Archive release of the William Powell at Warner Bros. collection includes four of those less-than-memorable titles. Still, while the movies presented here are undoubtedly some of the weakest of Powell’s Warner filmography, there are some bright spots to be found, namely in Powell’s always-game performances and a series of effective costars.
The four movies featured in William Powell at Warner Bros. cover the breadth of his time at the studio, with each year of his tenure there represented by one title. The films included are:
The Road to Singapore (1931). Note: this movie has nothing to do with the 1940 Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” picture of the same name. This Singapore–Powell’s debut at his new studio–features the actor as Hugh Dawltrey, a boozing would-be playboy living it up in the tropics. When Philippa March (Doris Kenyon) shows up, Hugh is drawn to her almost immediately. But Philippa marries a dull doctor, George (Louis Calhern), who loathes Hugh based on his (undeserved) reputation. When Philippa feels neglected, she turns to Hugh and the two fall in love. This forgettable, almost laughably torrid romance clocks in at only seventy minutes, but the action drags to the point that it feels like several hours. This type of love-triangle-in-the-Orient material worked much better in the following year’s steamy MGM drama Red Dust.
High Pressure (1932). This screwball precursor is arguably the most entertaining film included in this set. Powell plays Gar Evans, a fast-talking promoter who is roped into selling stock for a new company set up to sell artificial rubber. Problem is, the inventor of their new product is nowhere to be found–and the national rubber companies want to put them out of business before they even get started. Complicating matters further is Gar’s girlfriend, Francine (Evelyn Brent, in the last of the six films she and Powell made together), who wants nothing more to do with her ne’er-do-well lover. There are some honestly funny comedic bits sprinkled throughout (and some unfortunate ethnic jokes regarding the stereotypical Jewish character), but the real draw for this film is Powell’s slick performance as Gar, who finds himself painted into a corner the one time he legitimately tries to “go straight.”
Private Detective 62 (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz, this light mystery stars Powell as Donald Free, a State Department spy who is captured stealing documents in France. When the government denies any knowledge of his actions, Free is deported back to America, but is unable to find work. He partners with an unscrupulous private detective and eventually finds work “busting up couples” for divorce cases. When he is assigned to tail a beautiful socialite, Janet Reynolds (Margaret Lindsay), he falls in love. But unbeknownst to him, Janet is being set up for a nasty fall, one that leads to murder. The typically underrated Lindsay (perhaps best known for her role as Bette Davis’ rival in 1938’s Jezebel) shines here, and Powell provides a solid, if somewhat ambiguous, moral center for the film.
The Key (1934). Powell’s final film for his Warner Bros. contract (and his third under director Curtiz) is something of an odd duck. Against the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence in 1920, Powell is Bill Tennant, a womanizing British officer assigned to Dublin in the midst of the tension. He soon encounters a lost love, Norah (Edna Best), who is now married to his longtime friend, intelligence officer Andrew (Colin Clive), and old feelings are stirred up between them. When Andrew ends up in jeopardy, Bill’s loyalty to his friend is tested. Though Powell and Clive do their best with the material they are given, the film ultimately sinks under the weight of its own exaggerated melodramatics. Look for child actress Anne Shirley (billed under her pre-Anne of Green Gables moniker Dawn O’Day) in a small role as a flower seller at the beginning of the film.
[On a technical note, the four newly-remastered releases in this set–per usual for these type of MOD releases–do not include subtitles or special features, save the trailers for each film. Unlike many collections, however, each film is presented on its own separate disc, which is welcome.]
While these four Warner-produced movies are hardly memorable entries in Powell’s vast filmography, they nonetheless demonstrate the actor’s almost effortless ability to draw and capture an audience’s attention–an innate scene-stealing skill that Powell would soon put to good use at a new studio. In 1934, Powell jumped ship to MGM, which promptly cast him opposite Clark Gable and rising star Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama, a smash hit that solidified all three actors’ careers. Powell’s pairing with Loy would turn out to be a fortuitous one for them both, as they would go on to appear in fourteen films together (including the aforementioned Thin Man movies), which highlighted the pair’s insanely potent chemistry as well as Powell’s unique charm.
William Powell at Warner Bros. is available now as a manufactured-on-demand (MOD) DVD through the Warner Archive.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of the William Powell at Warner Bros. collection for the purposes of this review.