One Way Passage (1932)
I hardly ever finish watching a movie and rush right here to talk about it, but that’s what I’m doing in this case because One Way Passage is so deliciously, tragically good! The plot is only-in-the-movies preposterous, but it’s done with so much style, wit, and heartbreaking romance that the unlikeliness of the storyline doesn’t even matter.
William Powell is Dan, a convicted murderer on his way from Hong Kong to San Quentin to be hung. Kay Francis is Joan, a beautiful, spirited woman suffering from a fatal disease, on her way to San Francisco and a sanitarium. The two meet, fall in love, and spend four dreamy but doomed weeks together on board an ocean liner, neither telling the other of their impending fate.
It’s all impossibly romantic and sad, full of moments like the one in which the couple toasts each other with half-empty cocktail glasses. “Always the most precious, the last drops,” Joan says knowingly. SIGH.
Dan is handsome, debonair, and devoted to Joan, even giving up a chance to escape the hangman’s noose in order to be with her. Joan is lively and fun-loving, despite the occasional swoon brought on by her illness. The movie never explains Dan’s past by giving us any details of who he killed or why, and it never gets into exactly what’s wrong with Joan. All you really need to know is that they’re beautiful, they’re in love, and their bittersweet happiness can’t last.
Kay Francis is a vision in her many elegant fashions by costume designer Orry-Kelly. Her clothing alone would make the movie worth watching, even if it weren’t so good in other ways. I want that floppy hat she wears with the sweater and high-waisted, wide-legged trousers! My favorite of her ensembles is the sweet dress she wears for her day of honeymoon-like passion with Dan in Hawaii. That parasol!
A comic touch is is provided by the film’s supporting cast. Frank McHugh is a drunken pickpocket and Aline MacMahon is a goodhearted con artist. Both of them help Dan spend time with Joan by keeping the sympathetic but dutiful cop accompanying him (Warren Hymer) out of the way. MacMahon and Hymer are especially good, and their characters’ relationship provides a more hopeful romance to mirror the hopeless love of Dan and Joan.
One Way Passage is a treasure trove of escapist, Depression-era fabulousness – free-flowing booze (there’s no Prohibition at sea!), glamorous fashion, exotic locales, and the luxury of spending a month on a ritzy ocean liner, just to get from one point to another.
Most of all, it’s the marvelous William Powell and Kay Francis and their romantic, tragic love story that make the movie so divine. One Way Passage is available from the Warner Archive.