Jewels and dalliance; that is all Baroness Teri (Kay Francis) cares about. She has an impossibly rich husband (Henry Kolker), who buys her whatever she can dream up. We first meet her in a bath, playing with bubbles, not a care in the world. That is, except for jewels and dalliance. She has what must be dozens of servants waiting on her every last need. One even carries her from the bath to her chair! Life looks like a dream from here, but of course Teri is bored. Her husband is nice but fusty and she flippantly admits that she only married him for the money. Her daily routine, in her own words; ‘in the morning a cocktail, in the afternoon a man, at night a Veronal.’ Little does she know that the dapper, potentially dangerous and therefore impossibly tempting William Powell is about to enter her life.
Powell plays an unnamed robber, a mystifying man whose smooth assuredness appeals not only to Teri, but to the female audience. You see, Jewel Robbery is basically a female seduction fantasy laid out for us in all its stimulating glory. It’s not afraid to admit the appeal-from-a-distance of endangerment or the fact that being powerless can be, surprise-surprise, a turn-on. As Powell robs the jewelry store Teri happens to be visiting, within minutes she becomes downright giddy with the whole ordeal. She beams at him, admires his panache and the way he is able to attain so much swag so quickly, and excitedly waits for his next move. Their repartee quickly becomes an elaborate foreplay where the endgame, they have both acknowledged, is sex. Forget subtext, these two are frank about what they want from each other. The film provides a safe venue for Teri’s and the audience’s fantasies to play out. One of the many suggestive lines of dialogue is Teri’s ‘nothing like a little fear to whet one’s appetite’. Her fetish for shimmering jewels, the promise of escapade and the illusion of threat come in the perfect package that is the incomparable William Powell.
Jewel Robbery feels like a film that could have only been made in 1932. It was made during that magical Pre-Code era where what women want was actually a focus, depicted without shame or denigration. Keep in mind this was during a time where the very idea that women had sexual desires was new. Today, we still have a hard time truly being able to acknowledge the infinite array of what women might want and that all forms of our desire are valid. Teri is turned on by adventure, by danger, and the purpose of the film is to play around with that desire, to eagerly fulfill it.
Another reason the film could only have been made in 1932 is the studio system. The studio system dealt heavily in fantasy, but in a different kind of fantasy than today’s films. Today, fantasy takes the form of mystic worlds, ordinary people being pulled into unrealities beyond their wildest dreams. The studio system dealt in fantasy that fit seamlessly into a real-life setting. Fantasy rooted in glamour.
Jewel Robbery is an example of this. We are shown a world where our protagonist doesn’t have to lift a finger for herself, where jewels shine extra bright, where people appear extra soft, and where frivolity is the goal of the day. Today, we would ask ourselves, ‘why should we care about someone like Teri’. In the studio system, these characters were par for the course and we still accept them into our hearts without blinking twice. William Powell commits the most non-threatening robbery ever seen in film. Sure, he has a gun and many crooks beside him, but the atmosphere is airy as can be. His priority and pride comes from making a robbery as comfortable for the victims as possible. Robber as society guru. This kind of light comedic tone would be extremely difficult to execute in modern-day film and furthermore, it’s just not the sort of film being made today in America.
So the studio system proves the best environment for this kind of frivolity. Where else can you see William Powell put on the Blue Danube to preside over his criminal activity? And the film’s risqué content, some of the most risqué I’ve seen in a Pre-Code, could only happen in this period within the studio system.
This was the fifth of seven onscreen pairings between William Powell and Kay Francis and the first I’ve seen (I’m dying to see One Way Passage). Francis’ character skirts around the edges of vanity overkill, but her self-assuredness makes her appealing. And her delight in waiting for Powell to make his next move becomes our delight. Powell sits comfortably in this perfect bit of casting. As I said before, he is incomparable. When I started watching classic Hollywood films I remember first seeing him in the 1937 version of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and it was love at first smirk. His snappy better-keep-up wit and his pug-eyed version of sophisticated mischief draw you in. Most characteristically, his mischief is always controlled, well put together, suggestive but never gaudy.
The joy of Jewel Robbery is watching Powell and Francis and their elaborate foreplay. In their first scene together, he doesn’t know what to do with her, finally offering to take her and drop her off ‘untouched in the suburbs’. Her response? ‘Oh no, that doesn’t intrigue me at all!’ And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They go back and forth, making suggestions as to what to do with and to each other. Their foreplay becomes a dance of forthright suggestion. She wants him to do with her as he pleases. She makes it clear this is what she wants, frightened but animated, lit up by the possibilities of the unknown.
During the most promiscuous scene in the film, Teri has been brought to his apartment to make love. They have dinner first, their dynamic sparkles, reeks of the new. Then he uses a ‘shopworn’ line on her and she calls him out on it. He admits it wasn’t up to par. Teri makes sure to dismiss the old at the drop of a hat. It’s the new she’s after. Teri then says with a gleam ‘you can’t invite me to do anything. Whatever you do must be done by force’. She is giving her permission as she goads him on. He gets up, walks over, picks her up and carries her to the bedroom. She laughs and asks ‘What are you doing?’ He responds bluntly, ‘Using force’ and throws her onto the bed. She says ‘Oh please! Let’s not be in such a hurry. After all, there are so many pleasant intervening steps’.
It’s hard to stress just how refreshingly open all of these exchanges are, considering the strict limitations set into place shortly after. To put it in perspective, in 1934 onward, you couldn’t even acknowledge that a married couple might sleep in the same bed. They had to be shown sleeping in two separate beds. Here, we have two people that just met, unmarried, she’s basically been kidnapped, one bed is shown and they are frankly talking about sex whilst engaging in a kind of roleplaying scenario. Insanity.
And so Jewel Robbery, an innocuous sexual fairy-tale directed by the underrated William Dieterle, executed with an energetic liveliness and prompt at 68 minutes, enchants us as it indulges in the appeal of romantic danger. It bares resemblance from Trouble with Paradise, released the same year, but this is an under seen gem all its own. Powell makes his life as a criminal sympathetic and wholly reasonable, Francis projects her desires unashamedly and the result is a startling upfront indulgence in a kind of female fantasy. And I didn’t even touch on the marijuana use!