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TCM Birthday Tribute: William Powell
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,The Key

The Key (1934)

Monday July, 29 2019 at 06:00 AM

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In 1934, William Powell was a big enough box office draw to earn top billing in the credits for The Key, Warner Brothers' love triangle drama set against a backdrop of the Irish War of Independence. But after twenty-two years of paying his dues on stage and screen, the forty-one year old actor was growing restless. He'd garnered some attention as private eye Philo Vance in mysteries like The Canary Murder Case (1929), but real fame eluded him. In the past few years he'd made several drastic starts and stops: leaving Paramount, divorcing his second wife Carole Lombard, and growing dissatisfied with his new studio Warner Brothers. Nothing seemed to work. Where was the elusive something that would make Powell a star?

It's not as though he was unqualified for movie fame. Unlike other actors like Clara Bow or Emil Jannings, whose careers foundered in the sound era, Powell blossomed once the audience could hear his voice -- his clear, theatrical baritone could inject a roguish wink into the most unremarkable lines. He was tall and good looking, in a mature, sleepy-eyed way, and his unforced charisma had the knack of commanding the audience's attention, whether he was playing the villain or the leading man. Nevertheless, Warner Brothers didn't know what to do with him, plunking him down in unsuitable projects like Fashions of 1934 (1934). Publicly, Powell didn't complain - he summed up his professional ethic by declaring "I do not hold that because the author did a bad job of writing the player need trump it with the same kind of acting" - but privately he seethed. His frustration was evident in the letter he wrote to Warner Brothers reminding them of the upcoming termination of his contract "which calls for my appearance in not more than four pictures or productions, one of which may, at my option, be made by a reputable producer other than your company . . .[Y]ou are hereby further notified it is my desire that one of my stipulated four productions shall be made by another producer."

Warner Brothers gave Powell his choice of final project - another Philo Vance mystery The Dragon Murder Case, an unproduced script entitled Dollar Wise, or an adaptation of the British play The Key. The Irish independence subject matter piqued Powell's interest, and he signed on to be directed again by Michael Curtiz, Warner Brothers' jack-of-all-trades director (most famous for Casablanca, 1942) who had already worked with Powell twice previously in Private Detective 62 and The Kennel Murder Case (both 1933). The Key tells the story of a "Black and Tan" officer (Powell) recruited to quell unrest in Dublin, only to discover his lost love (London stage veteran Edna Best) is now married to his friend, a fellow British Intelligence agent (Colin Clive, an English character actor most famous for exhorting "It's alive!" in Frankenstein [1931]).

Powell makes full use of all his gifts in The Key, right from the introductory scene where he flirts with a flower girl (a young Anne Shirley, billed here as "Dawn O'Day"), buys a blossom from her, and later puckishly hands it to his commanding officer. He's jaunty and charming in his trench coat uniform, suave without losing his sense of humor, and he gets all the best lines: lamenting about how he landed in a spot of "husband trouble" in Cairo, he muses how the husband involved "was a bit of a cad. If he'd been a gentleman he would have knocked." (The Key was shot in early 1934, scant months before the newly emboldened Hays Office insisted all motion pictures must earn an MPDDA seal certifying compliance with the Production Code before being released. Luckily, that suggestive line, and an adjoining subplot about an extramarital affair, remains in the final print.)

Powell fulfilled his contractual obligation with Warner Brothers and moved on to MGM to shoot Manhattan Melodrama (1934), his first pairing with Myrna Loy. Powell and Loy's chemistry was so sizzling MGM quickly placed the duo as the crime-solving sophisticates Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934), an unqualified hit that marked the start of six Thin Man films and a total of fourteen features starring the duo, a partnership that's the cornerstone of Powell's legacy today. Warner Brothers realized that their former star had become a hot property. They shelved The Key for release after Manhattan Melodrama had hit theaters, hoping their movie could get a tailwind boost from Powell's ascent. Their strategy didn't quite work - The Key got mixed reviews and made only a minor profit. Meanwhile, Powell was nominated for Best Actor for his role in The Thin Man, leaving his former studio in the dust.

Producer: Robert Presnell, Sr. (uncredited)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Laird Doyle, R. Gore-Browne, J.L. Hardy (play)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Film Editing: Thomas Richards
Cast: William Powell (Capt. Bill Tennant), Edna Best (Norah Kerr), Colin Clive (Capt. Andrew 'Andy' Kerr), Hobart Cavanaugh (Homer, Tennant's Aide), Halliwell Hobbes (General C.O. Furlong), Donald Crisp (Peadar Conlan), J.M. Kerrigan (O'Duffy), Henry O'Neill (Dan), Phil Regan (Young Irishman Killed by Andrew), Arthur Treacher (Lt. Merriman, Furlong's Aide)
BW-72m.

by Violet LeVoit

References:
Bryant, Roger. William Powell: The Life And Films. McFarland & Company, 2006
Francisco, Charles. Gentleman: The William Powell Story. St. Martins, 1985
Quirk, Lawrence J. The Complete Films Of William Powell. Citadel, 1986
Robertson, Dr. James C. The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz. Routledge, 1993

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