If one wants a fine example of what filmmakers were able to get away with before more vigorous enforcement of the beast that became known as the Hays Code, one need not look much further than the breezy, saucy little crime-comedy Jewel Robbery. From slinky costumes to bubble baths, sexual innuendo so overt that it hardly qualifies as innuendo to triumphant criminals, and of course adultery, extramarital sex, and William Powell’s dashing gentleman thief getting everyone all blissed out on weed, Jewel Robbery is such a gleeful, unabashed collection of shattered taboos that it’s surprising it was made even in the (relatively) liberal year of 1932. Calling a film “pre-Code” can be misleading. Although people often mean it to refer to films made roughly between the end of the silent era (1929) and 1934, when they got serious about enforcing the guidelines, all of the films made during that era were, in fact, made in the shadow of the production code. Will Hays, the man whose name eventually became synonymous with the code, Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, introduced the self-imposed set of decency standards in 1930 in response to criticism regarding the unsavory content of movies (a similar set of “don’ts” and “be carefuls” was drafted in 1927). Enforcement of the Code was not exactly optional, but it was applied in a very uneven manner and suggested changes to a film script based on the code were often ignored by the studios. That’s what makes films produced during this phase of the code “pre-Code.” In 1934, under mounting criticism that the code was about as useful as the League of Nations, William Breen was appointed to enforce its many guidelines, which put the kibosh on all sorts of fun — though it also ushered in an era of profound creativity when it came to circumventing the code.
All of which is to say that, as unbelievable as it may seem given the contents of the film, Jewel Robbery‘s script was subjected to a review before it it went into production. And yet somehow, this modest film about dashing jewel thief William Powell, who lights up elegant Kay Francis’ libido, was passed intact with only a few notes that local censor boards might have a problem with the use of guns, the depiction of successful crime, and the obvious allusions to adultery. Oh, and maybe Powell’s “special” cigarettes. But none of these suggestions were made very forcefully, primarily because the film was a comedy and no one reviewing the film for potential code violations thought audiences would take it seriously. How could one be offended by such a good-natured, wink-wink film? Of course, people were offended, because that’s how people are, but for the most part, Jewel Robbery ran into no significant issues during its initial release. When Warner Brothers tried to re-release it, however, after Breen took over the Production Code office, it was flat out denied a certificate — with the reasons cited being the very reason it was passed just a couple years earlier: that it was breezy, comedic, and made crime look fun and glamorous.
Which is a fair assessment, if not a reason for censorship. Jewel Robbery does indeed make crime look fun and glamorous. It’s one of those movies you kind of wish you could live in, where no one has any real cares, where everyone is sophisticated and liberated. Powell and Francis were a powerful on-screen pair, having first worked together in 1930’s Behind the Make-Up and starring opposite one another in seven films altogether. 1932 found both Powell and Francis at the top of the game (though Powell would go on to even greater heights of fame when he paired with another fantastic actress: Myrna Loy). She was one of the most popular female stars of the era, thanks to a series of films that cast her as an urbane, modern woman, quick with a one-liner, in charge of her own life, and ready for romance only if it came on her terms — and then, not always with eye toward marriage (or, if she was already married, fidelity). Draped in stunning, at times outrageous fashions, she was an aspirational figure, someone to inspire former flappers who found themselves forced back into conservative society and young girls who, with few prospects as the Great Depression smothered the country, could for an hour or so imagine themselves as this unreal, intelligent, and defiant woman. Powell, meanwhile, had risen rapidly to become one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading men, the perfect on-screen match for Francis. Like her, he was quick with a joke, always had a trick up his sleeve, and was impeccably dressed — but possessed of an everyman quality that made him more relatable than other marquee idols, even when he was pulling unbelievable heists and trading expertly crafted bon mots with stylish women at luxurious cocktail galas.
In Jewel Robbery, Powell has no name. He is simply the Robber, a thief who pulls his heists with the utmost politeness and consideration for his victims (usually jewelry stores catering to the upper strata of society). The film begins with a proud security expert explaining the foolproof system he’s recently installed, which of course signals that the Robber is going to show up seconds later and rob the place. Despite the fact that he and his gang are armed, his most potent weapon is the pack of “special” cigarettes he offers to his prey. A few puffs, and they’re giggling, smiling, wandering around and will, according to the Robber eventually come to their senses with nothing more than a “marvelous appetite.” He also likes to keep everyone entertained by turning on the phonograph and playing the greatest hits of the 1920s and ’30s. Upon completion of the robbery, and with a jaunty tip of his hat, the Robber and his gang make their leisurely getaway.
When the Baroness Teri (Kay Francis) here’s about this latest heist, she is worried that it’s occurred at the store where her dull but financially generous husband has a diamond necklace waiting for her. Their marriage is stable but passionless, and the Baroness is unapologetic about her attraction to both the glamorous as well as the wild life, planning potential trysts with other men and remarking that the necklace she is to be receive is beautiful enough that it could convince a woman to tolerate her husband. Naturally, when she and her entourage arrive at the store to pick up the jewels, the Robber is no more than a few minutes behind them. In an extended sequence, he and his gang secure on incapacitate (by liberal offering of magic cigarettes) everyone but the Baroness, who refuses to be bound or penned up in a safe. She can also barely contain her arousal as she watches the Robber go about his business. She flirts, fidgets, and has a look on her face somewhere between amusement at such an adventure and pure animal lust for a man who has, finally, enthralled her both physically and mentally.
The Robber isn’t one to miss so obvious a signal and is more than happy to reciprocate with innuendo-laden banter of his own. It seems a few times like they’re on the verge of just dropping to the floor right then and there, yet the scene never crosses into the vulgar. It’s obvious, sure, even naughty, but it’s also playful. It’s the sort of saucy courtship one wishes they were capable of, instead of what one can usually muster, which is considerably clumsier. Sex must wait, however, because the Robber does have a task to complete, though he certainly seems open to the idea of encountering the Baroness again. In the end, he agrees to leave her untied and unconfined (symbolic indeed) as long as she promises not to tattle. Amused and aroused by the entire affair (so to speak), and looking forward to another encounter in a more intimate setting, Baroness Teri agrees. And of course, they will have another encounter. Or two. As the Robber says, Night is before us, and if you wish, by dawn we shall have a secret behind us.”
A more elegant line than when Powell heartily agrees when Kay asks to see his jewels.
1932 was a hell of a year for Kay Francis. Aside from Jewel Robbery, she starred in Man Wanted, which many consider one of her best films (and which, like Jewel Robbery, was directed by William Dieterle, and Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece Trouble in Paradise, which many consider not just Kay Francis’ best film, but one of the best films, period. Jewel Robbery doesn’t quite rise to the genius of Lubitsch or challenge gender roles quite as bluntly as Man Wanted, (which casts Kay as a workaholic career woman with no interest in marriage or children and, in the end, doesn’t feel the need to punish her for her modernism or make her surrender to a more traditional role) but it’s still a fun film buoyed by the chemistry between the two leads. As the archetypal gentleman thief, William Powell is charming and alluring; debonair but approachable, a man who has learned the ins of society while operating on its outs, and knows how to pitch powerful woo the way of a woman as grand as Kay Francis. Kay is almost so glamorous that it hurts. Powell may be the man with the gun, but there’s no doubt it’s Francis who has the power. He’s the subject of her desire. A perfectly compliant subject, sure, but who can blame him for happily surrendering to Kay Francis? In an ever-changing array of fabulous outfits by the legendary Orry-Kelly, she slinks like a cat across the screen, crackling with confidence and barely contained erotic energy. When the two of them are together, never has it felt so much like two characters are in the throes of lovemaking when all they’re really doing is sitting on a couch.
Powell and Francis shine so bright that it’s easy to forget there’s anyone else in the film. Indeed, director Dieterle and screenwriter Erwin Gelsey seem perfectly aware of this. The rest of the characters, though all ably played, fade into the background as the two leads command the screen. Helen Vinson, in her first credited screen role, gets in a few good moments as Teri’s best friend and confidante. Together, the two of them laugh, dress, undress, bathe, and generally bemoan the sorry state of the average male. She pairs well with Francis. Both women were tall, or at least taller than many of the leading men at Warner Brothers. Francis was listed at 5’9″ while Vinson was 5’7″. No giant, she, but certainly taller than actors like Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney. But where Kay Francis used her height to her advantage in a series of roles where she commanded the attention of everyone and was meant to dwarf the sad, lame men who sought to saddle her with domesticity and conservative behavior, Helen Vinson’s height worked against her, and leading lady status never came her way. She did turn in rather a good performance in In Name Only, playing alongside Cary Grant (6’2″), Carole Lombard (5’6″ — it was a tall person film), and once again, Kay Francis. She also married British tennis star turned fashion designer Fred Perry, though their marriage was brief. In 1945, at the behest of her third (and final) husband, she retired from acting. Her last role, as fate would have it, was alongside William Powell in The Thin Man Goes Home.
As for the supporting male players in Jewel Robbery, seriously, who can remember them? The entire point is that they’re all, at best, pleasantly bland. Several state censorship boards took exception to Jewel Robbery‘s dismissive attitude toward fidelity and the institution of marriage. Kay Francis’ Baroness Teri is not ashamed of her philanderous nature, nor does the film condemn her or punish her for it any more than Powell’s Robber is punished for a life of crime. Instead, marriage is regarded as something that women are often forced into, either by circumstance or social pressure. Monogamy is tantamount to ownership, and the Baroness will not be someone’s piece of property, regardless of how harmless the steward may be. By the same token, the husband who bores her to tears is never presented as a blowhard or rotten human being. He’s basically OK in his way, just not for her. The film doesn’t paint him as a cartoonish buffoon in order to easily justify her infidelity, though he is prone to bouts of self-important chest-pounding. Jewel Robbery expects the viewer to be sophisticated enough to juggle these two concepts, that a person can be unsatisfied with someone who is perfectly fine, and that perhaps one shouldn’t be overly righteous about judging the adventurous nature of others, especially during a time when marriage was more an obligation than a choice.
As a heist film, Jewel Robbery is ridiculous. Heck, that’s what helped it pass muster when under scrutiny by the Hays Office. Anyone who looked toward William Powell’s crimes here as blueprints for their own wouldn’t get very far. Unlike Raffles, a similar gentleman thief movie Francis had starred in opposite Ronald Coleman in 1930, there’s not the slightest effort made to portray crime in a believable fashion. The Robber and his crew run roughshod over the jewelry stores of Vienna, their faces uncovered, more than willing to chat up the people from whom they are stealing, yet no one can ever identify them. The movie is content to simply shrug and excuse it all as a byproduct of the fact that the Robber gets everyone high with his trusty special cigarettes. It’s a heist fantasy, with the crime serving no real purpose other than to ignite sparks between Powell and Francis. Still, as purposefully silly as it is, the criminal angle does provide for a number of exciting sequences, including the big robbery and a rooftop chase between the Robber and the police.
But mostly, we’re here to deliver double entendres and cast smoldering gazes at one another while wearing incredible clothes. In a couple more years, the Code would get strict, and the complex, feminist roles at which Kay Francis excelled would become verboten. But if 1932 was our final fling, what a fine fling it was. Jewel Robbery isn’t quite the measure of Trouble in Paradise (which finds Kay Francis the amused victim once again of a heist), that’s no poor reflection on Jewel Robbery. It’s smart, funny, and sexy, and even without needing to escape for an hour or so from the turmoil of the Great Depression, it’s the sort of movie one watches and thinks, “Now that’s the life I want” — the kind of life where, during a mild bit of cat burglary, you sneak into a lavish hotel room via the window and find Kay Francis in a low-cut evening dress, relaxing languidly across the foot of the bed, waiting for you with a glass of champagne in her hand.