William Powell in High Pressure (1932)

High Pressure is a 1932 movie directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring William Powell as Gar Evans, a fast-talking promoter who specializes in putting together companies and selling stocks that are just barely legal.  As he says in an early scene, all his deals are on the level.  After all, you can go to jail for larceny, but it’s no crime to exaggerate.

highpressureEvans is on a days-long bender when his friend Mike Donoghey (Frank McHugh) tracks him down to introduce him to Mr. Ginsberg (George Sidney), an entrepreneur who claims he’s found an inventor who can make rubber out of sewage.  After initially being repulsed by the idea (there’s no romance in sewage, Gar rightly claims, and all deals need to have some romance to them), Evans names the company the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company and gets to work.

Gar talks his way into renting out an entire floor of a swanky office building at half price, and into having the owner name the building after the new company. He hires the hobo (Guy Kibbee) he regularly puts in place as his companies’ president, because when he’s cleaned up he looks the part.  He hires a delivery boy who happens into the building, just because his name is Gus Vanderbilt.  No relation to the wealthy family, but what does it matter?  Having an Augustus Vanderbilt around will give the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company class.  He hires salesmen to peddle the firm’s stock, rallying them with a rousing pep talk and a chorus of “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.”  Soon stock is flying out the door to eager buyers, and other rubber manufacturers are worried about this new upstart that may soon be taking business away from them.

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There are only a couple of pieces of the puzzle missing.  One is Gar’s girlfriend, Francine, played by Evelyn Brent.  Francine has been strung along by Gar for years, living with both his shady dealings and his unwillingness to commit to her, and she’s had enough.  She’s met someone else and is ready to marry him and move to South America.  To Gar Francine is his good luck charm, however.  He can’t start a company without her.  He sweet talks her into coming back to him and installs her as the company’s receptionist.

The other missing piece is a big one – nobody can find the inventor Ginsberg claims has the formula for turning sewage into rubber.  With so much stock sold and not a pound of artificial rubber yet produced, the District Attorney’s office starts getting suspicious.  And when the inventor finally shows up and is far from the chemical genius they’d expected him to be – his degree in chemistry comes, ironically enough, from a diploma mill Gar ran years ago – things get even crazier, with Gar on the verge of both losing his girl and going to jail.

highpressure_noromance_vd_223x104_120720111047William Powell is at his smooth-talking best as a promoter so good he could sell ice at the North Pole.  He’s especially funny in the opening scenes, wild-haired and unshaven, recovering from days of debauchery.  He plays Gar as the smartest guy in the room, someone slick but not sleazy.  As always Powell delivers dryly amusing lines like no one else, and is the master of reacting to the lunacy going on around him.

The supporting cast is great too, especially Frank McHugh, George Sidney, and Guy Kibbee.  To me the only weak link was Evelyn Brent, who often sounded like she was reading her lines off cue cards.  William Powell could’ve used a leading lady with more sass, who could better hold her own with him.

The screenplay by Joseph Jackson, based on the play Hot Money by Aben Kandel, is sharp and funny, with zingy, extremely fast-williampowellpaced dialogue and a satirical take on the business world that must have seemed especially pointed to Depression-era audiences.  It’s amazing that they crammed so much action and dialogue into just over an hour, but as in a lot of early talkies things zip right along in High Pressure with not a minute wasted.  It’s a really entertaining movie, and a good look at William Powell in a witty, devilishly debonair role of the sort he was making his trademark in the 1930s.

High Pressure is included in Warner Archives’ recently released William Powell at Warner Bros. DVD collection.  It’s also airing on TCM on March 12th.

My other movie goal for 2014

In addition to the 10 Classics for 2014 challenge I wrote about yesterday, my other movie-related goal for the year is to make a dent in the number of unseen movies in my possession. Ever since I got a DVD recorder about three years ago, I’ve been recording movies and saving them for a rainy day. Between those hundreds of recordings and the DVDs I’ve purchased over the years I have a lot of movies saved up — so many that I have to have an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them all.

Of the movies on the sheet I’ve only seen about half, so this year I’m hoping to watch at least a couple of new-to-me films every week, picked at random based simply on what I’m in the mood for. Not a lofty ambition, but a fun one.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve watched so far in 2014. No doubt my viewing will slow down as the year goes on, but I’m off to a strong start. Cold, wintry weather makes for good movie watching , after all! So far everything I’ve seen has been very enjoyable and worth recommending. None have been great classics, but all are quality movies that made for fun viewing.

william-holden-jeanne-crain-edmund-gwenn-apartment-for-peggyApartment for Peggy (1948) is a sweet, funny film starring Jeanne Crain, William Holden, and Edmund Gwenn. Crain and Holden are a young married couple. He’s going to college on the GI Bill, and they can’t find anyplace to live because of the post-war housing shortage. Gwenn is a retired, widowed philosophy professor whose son died in the war. He feels his life has no meaning anymore and plans to commit suicide, until Crain talks her way into renting his attic as an apartment for her and her husband. (And their cat, and the dog she brings home one day, and their soon-to-be-born baby…)

The young couple, especially the sweet but slightly kooky girl, upsets the old man’s household and his plans to kill himself in lots of amusing and touching ways, giving him a reason to live as he grows to love them and to get interested in life again through all their ups and downs. A lovely little film. Edmund Gwenn (who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) is good at playing loveable old men.

I watched this movie on a Fox MOD DVD, and I have to say the quality of the picture and sound was atrocious! This movie deserves better treatment than it got from Fox. Warner Archive does a much better job at releasing films. Honestly, just watch it on YouTube rather than buying the DVD. The quality couldn’t be any worse there than it was on the  disc.

Orchestra Wives (1942) is one of the two movies in which the Glenn Miller Orchestra was featured, the other being Sun Valley Serenade, which I was very happy to finally be able to watch during my Christmas vacation thanks to TCM. The plot — starstruck, innocent girl marries trumpet player she just met and is drawn into life on the road with other orchestra wives — is pretty simple, but the wives’ cattiness is amusing in a The Women-lite kind of way. As with Sun Valley Serenade, however, the real point of the movie is Glenn Miller’s music, which is simply wonderful.

First Love (1939) is a modern (well, 1939 modern) retelling of the Cinderella story, starring Deanna Durbin. This is the second Durbin movie I’ve seen (the other was 1941’s It Started With Eve) and I’ve enjoyed them both. Durbin’s musical style is probably hard for people today to appreciate, I don’t know, but I think she’s lovely. Her acting is so natural. She has great comic timing and can also break your heart. Plus her singing is gorgeous. This movie co-starred a very young Robert Stack in what I think was his first movie role.

I bought myself several Deanna Durbin movies with Christmas gift money after watching It Started With Eve on TCM, so I’m sure more of her stuff will be coming up for me in the weeks ahead.  It’s so fun discovering a new star to love!

Double Harness (1933) stars William Powell as a playboy who has no interest in either work or marriage, and Ann Harding as a woman who sees marriage as a business and sets out William Powell - by George Hurrell 1935to catch him and make him into the successful man she believes he can be. I completely loved this one. It’s a sophisticated look at relationships, and Powell and Harding have great chemistry. I’m starting to think Powell had great chemistry with all women, though!

Pre-Code movies never stop surprising me with how forthright they are about so many things. They’re still tame by today’s standards, of course, but compared to movies from the years after the Code began being strictly enforced they’re shockingly open. For instance Powell and Harding start sleeping together after just a few dates, and there are no punches pulled about this fact. Nothing like that would’ve happened in a movie just a few years later.

Vivacious Lady (1938) had been on my to-watch list for ages, and I don’t know why I waited so long to see it because it’s really good. Jimmy viv ladyStewart plays a quiet, reserved botany professor from a small college town who falls in love at first sight with a spunky nightclub performer, played by Ginger Rogers. They marry after a whirlwind one-day courtship, then head to his hometown to introduce her to his stuffy father, the college president.

Once back home, Stewart can’t seem to find the right moment or the necessary backbone to tell his father he’s married to a blonde singer he met a few days before. Lots of silliness ensues.

Charles Coburn plays Stewart’s father and Beulah Bondi plays his mother. Those two alone make pretty much anything worth watching, and they’re as good as always in this.

In The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), William Powell plays a medical doctor and Jean Arthur plays his murder mystery author ex-wife. They’re still obviously in love in spite of being divorced, and when they get caught up in a real life murder when a jockey falls off his horse and dies under mysterious circumstances, there’s lots of mystery and even more witty banter.

This movie struck me as a wannabe Thin Man film. It isn’t on a par with that series, but it’s still lots of fun. Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses, and of course William Powell is always perfect. The wry wit combined with silliness, the jaunty walk, the mustache, the dimples…sigh. I’m feeling very smitten with him lately, the way my girlfriends are feeling about their Cumberbatches or whoever. Granted, my crush was born 122 years ago this year, but that doesn’t make my love any less real. 😉

The (Tragic) Love Boat

One Way Passage (1932)

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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.

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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!

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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.