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William Powell is one of those rare actors who can command your sympathy in any role, especially when he's playing someone who is, let's say, not a particularly honest individual. Someone like The Robber in the thoroughly delightful comedy caper, Jewel Robbery (1932). However, The Robber is quick to point out that he's not your average rough and tumble thief: "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 could you not like a guy like that? Impeccably dressed in the manner of a true aristocrat, Powell is handsome, sophisticated and - a term that is seldom used for anyone anymore - just plain classy.
1932 was a good year for urbane characters and opulent settings, even though the country was in the midst of a depression. Ernst Lubitsch's elegant continental comedy, Trouble in Paradise was also released that year and shared two things in common with Jewel Robbery - a plot involving professional thieves and Kay Francis who starred in both films. The public loved to watch these rich people cavort on the screen, deriving great pleasure from their fantasy worlds of wealth and privilege. And Powell had a wry sense of humor and an easy-going yet debonair charm that made him instantly likable in his upper crust roles. In Jewel Robbery, he is perfectly cast as a suave jewel thief operating in Vienna where he masquerades as a fine arts connoisseur. When the film opens, he has his eye on his next victim, the bored and very married Baroness Teri von Hohenfels played by Kay Francis. They meet at a jewelry store as The Robber slows down the reactions of the guard and owner of the store by slipping them a marijuana cigarette. Then, while distracting everyone in the store, he cleverly helps himself to the best gems on display, including a diamond just purchased for Teri by her husband. Naturally, Teri is attracted to the jewel thief but she resists him at first, even though we know they are fated to meet again and to fall in love.
Depression era audiences were certainly intrigued and even excited about the novel introduction of that "funny" cigarette in Jewel Robbery, but they were also entertained by the terrific dialogue served up by screenwriter Erwin Gelsey. They were also pleased to see another screen pairing of Powell and Francis who were co-starring in their fifth together; they made a total of seven. But Powell didn't want to do the movie at first. He was happily married and quite comfortable at home with his new bride, Carole Lombard. Now that he was about to turn forty, he also wanted a slower pace and a less stressful work schedule. As noted in Gentleman, The William Powell Story by Charles Francisco, Powell was also not interested in "Éprojecting his charm as a 'ladies man' once more." Yet, he was able to see that the part of The Robber was more than simply an elegant seducer, "He found his role of the jewel thief, torn between love and dishonor, highly amusing."
Although Powell is remembered mostly for The Thin Man series (he made six of them, from 1934 to 1947, with Myrna Loy), his earlier work with Kay Francis is equally enjoyable. The smartly dressed, cynical leading man was meant for the stylish and worldly Francis. As the much revered character actress Aline MacMahon recalled in the Francisco biography, "After you say talent, then you have to ask, What does the audience want? The audiences wanted what Miss Francis had. After all, Kay Francis was in a special class. She was very elegant, and she had taste and special clothes, and she fulfilled a need audiences felt." It was this screen persona that made Francis the ideal choice to play the Baroness. It was easy to believe she could fall in love with Powell's debonair robber.
As for Powell, he was someone who never failed to entertain moviegoers, from his villainous roles in silent films to his immortal Thin Man series to his sterling work in such comedy favorites as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Life with Father (1947). But the actor never allowed the public to see that his own life was less than ideal. He suffered a number of disappointments and personal tragedies such as his short-lived marriage to Lombard (1931-1933), the unexpected death of Jean Harlow (whom, it was rumored, he wanted to marry) and a personal bout with cancer. Doctors told him he would probably die from the disease before he was 46 but Powell beat the odds and lived to the ripe old age of 92. He eventually called it quits as an actor at the age of 63; his last movie was Mister Roberts (1955) and he was unforgettable as the ship's philosophical doctor, a wise and eloquent gentleman who was truly the last of his breed.
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Bertram Bloch, Ladislas Fodor (play), Erwin S. Gelsey
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Cinematography: Robert Kurrle
Editing: Ralph Dawson
Music: Bernhard Kaun
Cast: William Powell (Robber), Kay Francis (Baroness Teri von Hohenfels), Helen Vinson (Marianne), Hardie Albright (Paul), Alan Mowbray (Fritz), Andre Luguet (Count Andre), Henry Kolker (Baron Franz von Hohenfels).
by Joseph D'Onofrio