After recently watching a “minor” work of the great British team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, “I Know Where I’m Going”, my wife asked me how I enjoyed the 1945 film, most of which was set in the rugged Scottish islands. I responded that though it wasn’t the most enjoyable film in some ways, it was like a visit to another land with interesting people and delightful customs.
That’s similar to how I felt upon revisiting the 1932 classic One Way Passage, directed by Tay Garnett (perhaps known best for 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice). That, however, was a trip to another time, another kind of cinema, another set of stars. 1932 was an unusual time in films. Sound was most definitely now a part of film, and a new crew of stars had appeared. This is also known as the Pre-Code years, when films were experimenting with how risqué they could get, and were pressing boundaries until the real enforcement of the Code in 1934.
One Way Passage is surprisingly short film (a scant 67 minutes) that feels much fuller. It won the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story, a precursor to the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. To keep spoilers away, I can only say that it involves the meeting of a convicted criminal and a very sick young woman, and what happens after they meet aboard a ship.
It’s an extraordinary film for several reasons. It starts a pre-Thin Man William Powell, who delivers a beautiful performance as the criminal. If you’re only used to seeing him in his later work in the Thin Man series or even Life with Father, this early work is a revelation. His performance is delightful and he makes his character genuinely suave without an ounce of oil.
Even more fascinating is the all-but-forgotten Kay Francis. A clotheshorse extraordinaire at this time in American film, Francis had her best year in 1932, between this film and the Ernst Lubitsch classic Trouble in Paradise. There was no one like her before this, and there certainly has been no one like her since. Watch her for her smooth elegance, or her wardrobe, or her glamorous ennui, or even her inability to pronounce a solid “r,” but watch her. Her career was for a moment in time, and she perhaps more than anyone was destroyed by the infamous 1938 “Box Office Poison” article, which did ultimately little damage to Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Mae West, and Marlene Dietrich. Francis’s questionable life choices contributed to her descent at the box office as well, but this was Kay Francis at her lovely peak.
The subplots and supporting players are where the film shows its age—which is simply a descriptive rather than critical comment. The comic relief provided by Frank McHugh is most clearly a trip to another age. His bumbling drunk act and signature laugh can grow tiring quickly, and would never find a place in a more modern film. But it provides insight into what was once thought humorous, and shows us how the role of the supporting comedian has both evolved and in some ways has stayed pretty much the same.
The other supporting player is the wonderful Aline MacMahon (Oscar-nominated 13 years later for Dragon Seed, but a recognizable face for those familiar with ‘30s and ‘40s film). She is almost miscast here, and the narrative arc for her veers into the unbelievable, but she is a comic gem, and is funny and refreshing even now.
Take a trip back in time, especially in film time, and enjoy the lovely story and deft performances in One Way Passage. You’ll definitely enjoy the outing.