The Warner Archives, that great resource for film buffs, has just released an interesting quartet of pre-code features staring by three-time Oscar nominee William Powell. The set is a mixed bag, but the two good films outweigh the mediocre one and the one that misses so it's worth picking up.
The Road to Singapore (1931): Before Bing Crosby and Bob Hope took to globe trotting, William Powell played a rich alcoholic on the island of Khota in this romantic melodrama. Hugh Dawltry (Powell) fled the island some time ago after stealing another man's wife, and now he returns to his home alone, aside from a cart full of booze. On the boat over he meets Phillipa Doris Kenyon) and makes a play for the attractive young woman but she's engaged to the island's physician, George March (Louis Calhern) and doesn't want anything to do with the smooth-talking bachelor.
Once married and settled, Phillipa sees that things are quite different than she'd planned. Once a nurse, she doesn't want to work at the hospital, though her husband would like to have her assist him, and she's bored at home. The doctor is always busy and she grows resentful of his urge to treat the natives and starts to realize how attractive the infamous Dawltry really is.
I didn't find much in this film to like. The characters are all two-dimensional and I couldn't identify with any of them. Dawltry is an rather unpleasant person who's only interests are drinking or seducing women, George is a workaholic, and I thought that Phillipa was pretty much a witch for having an affair. Her husband assumed that since she was a nurse that she'd be interested in his medical stories, and the fact that she wasn't doesn't seem to be a good reason to fool around. The ending seemed contrived too, though I was surprised at some of the slight twists.
High Pressure (1932): For his very next film Powell had a much better script. This time he plays Gar Evans, a 'promoter.' Gar can take any product or idea and get people interested in it. Half con man, half shyster, and all salesman, Gar is approached by Colonel Ginsburg (George Sidney) to help him start a company to cash in on a new process he's just purchased: a way to turn raw sewage into rubber. After Gar's friend assures him that Ginsburg is on the level (Gar would never promote anything that wasn't honest and legal), he gets the ball rolling. They start the "Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company," lease a floor in a New York high rise (for half price once Gar convinces the manager into name the building after the company... after all it'll put the building on the map!) and hire an army of salesmen to sell stock in the company. Everything is going well, until a lawyer from the established rubber companies demands to see a sample of their product. When Ginsburg can't find the inventor and no one can decode his formula, things start to look really bad for the unflappable Mr. Evans.
This was a fun flick. Powell is at his best when he's a fast-talking operator and he does that in spades in this film. While the ending is a bit contrived it's almost beside the point. Seeing gar operate is the attraction and this film pays off.
Private Detective 62 (1933): In this film directed by Michael Curtiz, Powell plays Don Free a spy for the US who is cut free when he's caught stealing some classified documents from the French. Managing to get back to the US, his agency can't reinstate him because that'll be like an admission that they were spying. At the height of the depression it's hard to find a job, but Free manages to talk his way into a detective agency... and not only get a job, but become a partner. The company grows by leaps and bounds when Free's partner starts taking assignments from a gangster who runs an illegal gambling den, and expects some favors for all of his business. One of those favors is to manufacture some dirt on Janet Reynolds (Margaret Lindsay), a society woman who has been taking the house by playing roulette. Free isn't about to frame someone, but he's willing to spend some time with Janet to see what she's up to, and soon falls for the attractive woman.
I've always liked Margaret Lindsay and I enjoyed her in this film. She has an air of European class about her, even if she does come from Iowa. Powell is as slick as always and it's a joy to watch him maneuver. Another character actor that I've always liked, Ruth Donnelly, plays the firm's secretary and is her usual feisty and amusing self.
The Key (1934): The final film in this collection is a bit different. Powell plays a womanizing officer in the British Army, Capt. Bill Tennant, who has just been assigned to help settle the troubles in 1920's Ireland. Assigned to his old CO, General Furlong (Halliwell Hobbes), Tennant is charged with finding the Sein Fein leader Peadar Conlan (Donald Crisp). Moving into the officer's quarters, Tennant finds his upstairs neighbor is an old comrade, Capt. Andy Kerr (Colin Clive, who played the mad scientist in Frankenstein). He's glad to see Kerr, but surprised to discover that Kerr is married to Nora (Edna Best), a woman with whom Tennant had a passionate affair with several years earlier.
Tennant wants to rekindle the affair with his mate's wife, but she resists... until Andy is ordered to spend the night looking for Conlan. Alone for the evening, Nora can't resist Bill's charm and sleeps with him. Meanwhile Andy manages to capture Conlan and returns home elated, only to find his wife with another man.
Like the previous film in this set, this one was directed by Michael Curtiz and he does a brilliant job. The film has a lot of atmosphere, the scene where Andy creeps through a dark, dank basement looking for Conlan with a Sein Fein soldier trailing him, waiting for a good shot, is beautiful and well worth the price of admission. Unfortunately the love triangle detracts from the otherwise engrossing story. Edna Best was miscast too. While she's a fine actor, she and Powell have almost no chemistry on the screen and the scenes where they're together will have you reaching for the fast forward button.
These four movies arrive on a quartet of pressed DVDs (for the first run at least... I assume the second and later editions will be DVD-Rs) housed in a single-width quad case.
The unrestored mono soundtracks sound fine. They're not perfect, with a little bit of background noise, but they fit the movies very well. There's no problem with levels or heard the dialog.
I was very happy with the full screen image on all four discs. They looked fine, especially for movies that are this old that haven't been restored. The grain was at a natural level, the contrast was very good, and the level of detail was fine. An overall wonderful looking set.
Each film comes with a trailer.
This set has two great films, one flawed movie with some great scenes that's well worth watching (The Key) and one dud (The Road to Singapore). Overall it's a nice collection and well worth seeking out if you're a fan of early talkies and/or William Powell. It gets a strong recommendation.