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.
Evans 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.
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.
William 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-paced 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.