One Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)
Powell’s greatest success at Warner Brothers was his sixth and final film co-starring Kay Francis, One Way Passage. A rather manipulative tearjerker of a melodrama for a studio better known at the time for gangster films and working-class dramas befitting the era of the Great Depression, One Way Passage tells the story of Dan and Joan, who meet cute at a bar in Hong Kong, unaware of each other’s secret: Dan is about to be escorted across the Pacific Ocean to meet his demise at San Quentin for murder, and Joan is gravely ill. Little is revealed about the nature of why lovely Dan had to commit murder or which illness has beset Joan. Such details are swept aside in this 67-minute film, which won the now-defunct Best Story Academy Award for Robert Lord.
While Powell and Francis made an engaging couple (again), there’s little for them to do for much of the film except gaze lovingly at each other. The film is structured to follow our two lovers on an ocean liner from Hong Kong to San Francisco with a stop in Honolulu. Dan is accompanied by a cop named Steve, played by reliable character schnook Warren Hymer, and Joan by a doctor identified only as “The Doctor.” The B-story involves two con-artist friends of Dan’s played by Aline McMahon and Frank McHugh who assist him in distracting Steve long enough to allow for Dan and Joan’s assignations.
Powell here is a romantic figure in a role to which he acquits himself nobly, but there is still untapped potential here. While Francis thrives in the romantic melodrama atmosphere, laden in furs and her mysterious physical maladies, Powell is restrained here, like he is in much of his Paramount and Warner Brothers talkie period, and it works well here. We can see the wheels constantly turning as he tries to plot his escape from his inevitable execution even as he’s falling hopelessly in love.
Tay Garnett keeps the action moving swiftly, even as the farcical B-story threatens to derail the main romance. The deftest touch of all comes as Dan and Joan take drinks together and smash their glasses on the bar throughout the film. After the ship finally docks in San Francisco and the two lovers meet their fates, they vow to meet again on New Year’s Eve at a nightclub called Agua Caliente. In the final shot, we travel to Agua Caliente on New Year’s Eve, briefly see Frank McHugh drinking sadly at the bar, and the camera travels to two bartenders cleaning their glasses. They hear glasses smash, and we two fragments of champagne glasses on the bar, but no lovers. The glasses slowly fade away. It is arguably the finest moment in the film, in which neither of the lovers appears.
Hey look! I found the Lux Radio Theater version of One Way Passage, recorded seven years after the original film was released, with the original stars.