Jewel Robbery (1932) Review

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Everything. Every minute of it. It’s worth seeing for how bat shit Pre-Code it is. See below.

The Particulars of the Picture

Baroness Teri … Kay Francis The Robber … William Powell Directed by
William Dieterle

Everything In One Tight Package

One of the reviews I read called Jewel Robbery simply “Pre-Code in a Nutshell,” and it’s hard to argue with that. Follow along with me on this one:It’s Vienna. We’re introduced to Teri (Kay Francis) in the bathtub, seeing how high up she can get her legs. Let’s just say it’s pretty high. She then loses her soap and sits up, and spends the rest of this sequence almost slipping completely into frame, if you get my gist.

Her friend Marianne (Helen Vinson) has arrived to tell her about the latest in a string of daring robberies, and Teri listens while getting her morning back rub and beauty regimen. She’s thrilled, and quickly changes the subject to complain about how bored she is with her dullard baron husband, and how she longs for romantic affairs.Luckily for her she’s headed to a jewelry shop that evening to beg her fabulously rich husband the Baron (Henry Kolker) to buy her the Excelsior Diamond, a ring that’s extremely pricey. Her husband also brings along Paul (Hardie Albright), a cabinet member who has become infatuated with Teri, but she finds him dull before their affair has even begun.
Suddenly another man enters the store, a dapper fellow who introduces himself as The Robber (William Powell). Yes, he’s so dapper, that’s what he goes by. He also brings in a legion of crooks (who all take off their hats when they’re introduced) who begin to politely ransack the place. The bluebloods are scared, while Teri remains coldly amused and turned on. To make things even smoother, The Robber turns on some nice classical music and puts away his gun, and, after Teri exclaims how pleasant it all is, he explains his methods:

“This is becoming delightful!”
“As a matter of fact, I’m opposed to the American school of banditry. I studied in Paris. You have to work harder but you do acquire a certain finesse that is missing from the stick-em-up and shoot-em-down school.”

How suave is The Robber? He talks the dimwitted security guard into carrying the bags full of jewelry out into his car and guarding it. The Robber doesn’t even break a sweat.He then proceeds to– and I’m not making this up– offer the jewelry store owner a ‘pleasant smoke’ to take his mind off his troubles. That’s right, William Powell, one of the biggest emblems of motion picture class and grace, is passing out Mary Jane. The Robber even notes, “He’ll awake in the morning with a wonderful appetite.” Wow.After locking up the baron and Paul into a safe, Kay plays coy with him for a bit. In one beautiful moment, she busts out her full smile, and he does a double take. He notes:

“You’re so lovely. It’s hard to be brutal with you.”

She retorts:

“You sure strike a fresh note. Up to now, men have been brutal with me because I’m so lovely.”

“Come with me,” he offers. “I’ll drop you somewhere in the suburbs. Untouched.” “Untouched? In the suburbs? That doesn’t interest me at all!”

At an impasse, the robber notices that she’s still wearing the Excelsior Diamond. She resists, and he, uh, reaches back…He gets the diamond and scurries away, and both are now more than a bit smitten.

So, let’s just recap: so far we have a woman desperately looking for an extramarital affair (not allowed during the Production Code) of whom we get to see a great deal of her legs in long lingering shots (also not allowed), a gentleman robber who easily outwits the law and the authorities (again, not allowed) and accuses bankers of having used their money to corrupt governments (really not allowed), and then the robber gets his victims high with marijuana to put them in a better mood (noooooooo).

The film defies the Production Code at every turn. Marriage is a joke, robbers are better than bankers, smoking pot looks like a blast… I can’t imagine the hemming and hawing this one produced. It helps that the movie manages to make all of it incredibly funny, too.

The next scene pushes us completely over the edge, as the dimwitted security guard shares The Robber’s leftover cigarettes with the chief of police, leading to a scene where both men, high out of their minds, begin prank calling people, debating between each other over which one is Napoleon:So, yeah. Next time you hear someone go on about how much classier and ‘moral’ films were from the Golden Age of Hollywood, this one is a pretty good counterpoint.

There’s a lot more to the film, as Teri and The Robber meet again at her house later that night. I’ll leave most of that as a pleasant surprise except for this moment:because rarely do you see such a reaction to flowers.

The thing about Jewel Robbery is that there isn’t an ounce of subtlety to the innuendos or actions of the characters. Kay Francis wants jewelry and she wants William Powell. William Powell wants jewelry and Kay Francis. All that’s left is the balancing act.

The interesting thing there is that the film’s resolution isn’t about consummating their love (no, for all the sexual tension we don’t see so much as a peck), but rather both of them overcoming their material desire (not easy during the Depression) and deciding that the sex is probably going to be more fun anyway. It’s not your normal adult ending to such an affair– one would expect that Teri would either become a criminal herself or The Robber would reform (or at least gain a respectable real name).

And that’s kind of the beauty to this movie in that it’s not a traditionally mature  fantasy. It’s the pleasure of watching two beautiful people deciding upon diamonds or each other, and enjoying the jaunty nonthreatening ride as it bristles along. Hell, the film’s run time is barely an hour– simply more than worth it. This is easily one of the best films Francis made.

The epitome of the film’s sense of humor has to be this subtle gag. Kay Francis is barely off screen for a second when we cut to her behind the screen, looking like she’s still in the midst of changing. When her friend shouts an exclamation, Kay runs out, and instead of being naked, she’s simply wearing a low cut frock. It’s not hilarious, but it’s subtle, surprising, and expertly played out.

Trivia & Links

  • This film’s title is atrocious. We can all agree on that, right? Even as a double entendre it stinks. At the very least it could have been called The Jewel Robber. Whatever.
  • How immature does this make me? This was my first big laugh in the movie:

  • Andre Sennweld for the Times finds Powell charming but Francis’ performance lacking. I think Kay is less of a problem than the character, who doesn’t do anything especially interesting in the picture outside of being seduced and making off with the jewels at the end. Kay’s funny enough that I can overlook this, but I can see why it’d be trouble for someone expecting more.
  • Immortal Ephemera goes into the relationship between Vinson and Fracis’ characters, and comments on the film’s accent problem. I don’t really pay attention to accents, and it looks like that paid off here.
  • I was going to try and work this in above, but couldn’t manage. Jewel Robbery was released the same year as Trouble in Paradise. Both Kay Francis flicks play with sex very overtly, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the level of craftsmanship in Trouble doesn’t outclass this in practically every way. Regardless, Jewel Robbery still plays out like a cruder cousin, and has just about as much fun.
  • The film’s poster contains a scene absolutely nothing like what is present in the film:
Though I suppose it is at least evocative.

4 Replies to “Jewel Robbery (1932) Review”

  1. “Bat shit Pre-Code,” awesome way to open! I nominate Jewel Robbery as top movie to show friends who think they hate old movies for all the wrong reasons. Especially stoner friends.

    Thanks for the link, feeling kinda classy right under the New York Time there.

    Bad accents only bug me when they are distracting enough to notice. I wish I had a higher threshold!

    1. Yeah, I finished watching it and immediately started trying to decide how to get my roommates to watch it. They’re not pushy, luckily, but I think they’d all really enjoy it.

      And it’s my pleasure on the link. You write great stuff!

Leave a Reply!