Jewel Robbery is a delightful mostly continuous action not-even-seventy minute picture; it’s a play adaptation but never feels stagy, just enthusiastic. Especially once William Powell shows up, then the film revels in his performance. Until he arrives, director Dieterle toggles between showing off filmmaking techniques (with some able cutting courtesy editor Ralph Dawson) and showing off star Kay Francis.
The film opens with a funny bit about state-of-the-art jewel store security, ostensibly setting up something for the eventual, titular heist. Then the action cuts to Francis and sticks with her the rest of the movie. She’s a bored trophy wife who’s only mildly amused by life anymore—she can’t even find a reasonable young stud to have an affair with; her husband’s rich, old, and boring. But he is at least going to buy her a very expensive diamond today. It’s so exciting Francis invites best friend Helen Vinson along to observe the purchase.
All the exposition comes as Francis gets ready for the day in various states of undress, starting with a bubble bath. Jewel Robbery seems immediately dedicated to being a Pre-Code exemplar, although not even scantily clad, decidedly unfaithful Francis is going to compare to where they eventually get.
At the jewelry store, the film introduces the rest of the cast. In addition to Francis and Vinson, there are five more characters to track—shop-owner Lee Kohlmar, special security guard and monumental putz Spencer Charters, Francis’s husband Henry Kolker, Vinson’s husband (presumably, it seems unlikely Kolker would pal around with one of her boyfriends) André Luguet, and Francis’s latest affair, Hardie Albright. Now, Albright and Kolker are blue blood pals, but Albright is determined to win Francis away from him. Except fooling around with Albright has made Francis realize how miserable her affairs have been because he’s such a wet noodle.
Luckily, Francis is still in the shop when gentleman robber Powell and his band of courteous henchmen arrive to rob the place so she can experience some adventure. And Powell’s irresistible charm. The robbery scene is enchanting even without Powell, just the way the robbery is choreographed and how Dieterle and Dawson time the whole thing.
But once Powell puts on Blue Danube to calm the victims and accompany the robbers in their task, he’s the whole show, keeping everyone (particularly Francis and the audience) amused. Once it becomes clear Francis has recognized his potential for fresh excitement in her life, they gradually move into banter. There’s still stuffed shirts Albright and Kolker to deal with, as they don’t consent to smoking dope to chill out with Kohlmar.
A major plot point in Jewel Robbery is straight edges getting stoned and chilling out about the whole robbery thing. Powell provides them with marijuana cigarettes for just that purpose. It’s hilarious the first time, but when it comes back later with some very unexpected participants for the film’s single subplot… it’s hilarious.
It’s also more than the resolution can ever hope to surpass. Powell and Francis doing a fifteen or twenty minute Pre-Code flirtation dance (not literal dance, there’s actually no dancing, even though it’s kind of foreshadowed)… it’s great, they’re charming—Francis keeps up impressively with Powell—but it’s not a laugh riot. It’s charming and glamorous and risqué; all good just not substantive. Though it’d be kind of hard to get super substantive in sixty-eight minutes.
So instead a delightful amusement, with an often beguiling Powell performance. Francis is good, especially after she gets dressed and gets some character. The supporting cast is all solid, though for whatever reason Dieterle can’t direct Vinson and Francis together. The script goes one way and he goes sort of screwball… it doesn’t work. Otherwise Dieterle’s direction is excellent. Erwin Gelsey’s script has a number of good jokes and a fine pace.
Oh, and an inspired cameo from Clarence Wilson.
Jewel Robbery’s a lot of fun.
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