The Key (1934) Review, with William Powell and Colin Clive

Captain Tennant
William Powell
Andrew Kerr
Colin Clive
Norah Kerr
Edna Best

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Released by Warner Bros.
Run time: 70 minutes

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Two adults emerge from a bedroom. It takes the husband who’s having a drink in the living room a second to catch on.

The Key: Lock Up Your Wives

“Mr. O’Duffy, I’m a professional hero, ready to fight for money, marbles, or my meals. In fact, for anything but an ideal.”

What do you do with a problem like William Powell? Warner Bros., who held his contract between his most continental days at Paramount and his future as Mr. Myrna Loy at MGM, had little idea how to handle the urbane star. The hardscrabble studio gave Powell three of his best vehicles with The Kennel Murder Case, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage. Unfortunately, other than Kennel which was a sequel to his biggest successes at Paramount, these movies didn’t fit in well with the Warner Bros. style of the time.

The Key is much more of the typical drama one would expect from the studio, full of fighting, gunplay, noble sacrifice and a love triangle with unsurprising consequences. (One IMDB Trivia entry notes, “This film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who later made Casablanca. Compare the films’ endings.” Thanks, IMDB Trivia, for being dumb as hell. As always.) (Casablanca was also made by Warner Bros., to get back to my point.)

Set in the 1920s, we find Powell as a British officer in Northern Ireland. The Irish are, understandably, grumpy about the British occupation, and Powell’s Captain Tennant enters a veritable war zone. One Irish dissident, Paider Conlan (Donald Crisp), is a nagging thorn-in-the-side of the eternal “I’m sure it’ll get fixed eventually” British, so they send Tennant after him.

Working from the other end under intelligence, Andrew Kerr (Clive) hunts Conlan at night. While Andrew is out, his wife, Norah (Edna Beset) waits anxiously at home. Through an amazing set of circumstances– everyone knows everyone in this picture– Tenant moves in below the Kerrs, and he was once Norah’s passionate lover, whom she’s dreamed of for years.

For all the film’s early political machinations– is Powell a double agent? which side is the film on?– the movie does its best to deflate itself as it winds on. The conflict soon focuses on Andrew, captured by the Irish, and Tennant’s attempts to save him. Powell becomes the simple noble scoundrel, and his solution to the crux of the film is simply out-and-out laughable.

Curtiz tries to wallpaper the film’s problems, most notably in one beautiful dreamlike scene where we flash back, briefly, to Tanner and Norah’s past and sweet nothings are exchanged. Colin Clive gets a couple of standout moments as well, such as an early scene as he mourns over a dead friend-turned-resistance-fighter and a later shoot-out in the catacombs.

Of course, these well-done moments, meant to bolster the casual confidence of Clive’s character when he spends the rest of the movie looking hurt or being an idiot husband then make the mistake of transforming him into someone far more interesting than Powell’s charmer, whose exploits aren’t nearly as exciting and are mostly told rather than seen.

Edna Best, as the fulcrum of the love triangle, is left with little work with. While there isn’t much of a character there, it’s a pretty typical role of the time, and she can’t really sink her teeth into it. While Powell and Clive are handsome, suave men, you can’t help but feel both of them would be better off with pretty much anyone else.

The Key isn’t necessarily a bad film, it just so badly misuses its resources that you can’t help but be disappointed. This movie merely functions as what it is. Powell had better and bigger places to go.

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Trivia & Links

It has the distinct advantage of an unusually accomplished cast, and it is further endowed with convincing atmosphere and swiftly paced action.Although pardonable liberties are taken with military matters in a climactic episode, this film, which owes its origin to a play by R. Gore-Browne and J. L. Hardy, is for the most part eminently credible.

The film has a lot of atmosphere, the scene where Andy creeps through a dark, dank basement looking for Conlan with a Sein Fein soldier trailing him, waiting for a good shot, is beautiful and well worth the price of admission. Unfortunately the love triangle detracts from the otherwise engrossing story. Edna Best was miscast too. While she’s a fine actor, she and Powell have almost no chemistry on the screen and the scenes where they’re together will have you reaching for the fast forward button.

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One Reply to “The Key (1934) Review, with William Powell and Colin Clive”

  1. I’ve long felt that Powell was at Paramount at exactly the right time, Warners at exactly the right time, and Metro at exactly the right time. Each offered him something that the others couldn’t, and he thrived in the material Mayer gave him. That said, The Key was as close as I’ve come to see him giving an actual bad performance. Not as bad as the accent of the flower girl, but his heart really wasn’t in this one.

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