Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Key (1934)

Another of the box sets that I picked up some time back is a four-film set of William Powell at Warner Bros., films he made before going over to MGM in 1934 and becoming a really big star with Myrna Loy and The Thin Man. At any rate, the last of the movies Powell made at Warner Bros, and the last of the four I watched off the set, is The Key.

The movie is set in Dublin in 1920, which if you know your history you'll know was during Ireland's war of independence from the United Kingdom. The British Army was brought in to try to quell the uprising, and Powell plays Capt. Tennant, a career officer in the British army. The British are looking for a man named Peadar Conlan (Donald Crisp), a leader of the rebels more in the political leader mold rather than the military leader mold, that is, somebody who would be an option to become the country's president after independence. It's no surprise the British want custody of Conlan.

To that end, the British have resorted to a curfew, hoping that if they can control the people's movement at night they might be more effective in their search for Conlan. One of the other officers who will be involved in enforcing that curfew is Capt. Kerr (Colin Clive), who is also an old friend of Tennant's and seems more like a spy than a military officer, in that he's got an apartment in Dublin where he lives with his wife Norah (Edna Best), and seems to spend a lot of time on patrol by himself.

Wouldn't you know it, but Capt. Tennant gets billeted in the apartment just below the Kerrs' place. Then again, it seems likely that the British would own the building and put a bunch of officers up in it, although it's much more glamorous than the officers' quarters you'd see in most movies. It's nice that Tennant will get to meet his old friend again, but there's a catch. Tennant also knows Mrs. Kerr, as they had a torrid affair before she married her husband. But she and Capt. Tennant still hold a torch for each other, and one night when Capt. Kerr goes out on patrol, Tennant and Mrs. Kerr rekindle their relationship.

Capt. Kerr finds out, and he's none too pleased, so he goes running out into the night all by himself and in plain clothes. This is especially problematic because the British have finally captured Conlan and sentenced him to death, so you know the Sinn Fein are going to be looking for reprisals. And having a British officer like Kerr running around town in a state of despondence is the the sort of person the Sinn Fein would have no difficulty picking up and using as a political pawn.

I have know idea if Warner Bros. already knew that Powell was going to be leaving for MGM, or whether they just never knew what they had in Powell. But The Key is yet another of his pre-MGM movies that has the feeling of being little more than a programmer. Not that it's a bad programmer by any means, but Warner Bros. didn't really give Powell the prestige treatment that he would get almost immediately at MGM being cast opposite Clark Gable in a movie like Manhattan Melodrama the same year this one came out.

Powell does well with the material he's given, although the Dublin portrayed doesn't seem anywhere as dangerous as the Dublin of later movies set during the Irish war of independence, even John Ford's The Informer just the next year. Unsurprisingly for Hollywood movies of this era, there's also a nice set of charactor actors in the supporting roles. All in all, The Key isn't Powell's greatest movie by a long shot -- those would come later when he moved to MGM -- or even his best movie at Warner Bros. But it's still an eminently watchable programmer.

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