Originally published July 25, 2019
The second of two Kay Francis features I saw this weekend as part of Kimberly Truhler’s The Style of Sin series, Jewel Robbery is considered one of Francis’ best films and it’s easy to see why. Francis is paired up with one of her best co-stars, William Powell, for a fun and frisky story of love and crime that has a bit more sexual chemistry than what’s found in Trouble in Paradise (1932), and I say that as someone who absolutely adores that film. Francis and Powell overshadow everyone in this but they make Jewel Robbery the apotheosis of the “crime pays” genre of the era.
Baroness Teri (Francis) has almost everything she wants. On the day she’s set to secure the famed Excelsior Diamond, the jewelry store she’s in is robbed by a dashing and debonair man known only as The Robber (Powell). Despite losing her diamond, Teri is fascinated by the artful thief leading to a romantic cat-and-mouse game between the two.
At just 68 minutes there’s just enough story to consider this a feature-length film and what plays out is a meet cute and a game of tag with a ring. This isn’t meant to sound disparaging, it’s actually amazing that director William Dieterle and the screenwriters are able to make everything so buoyant and fun in such a short time.
The only thing we know about Baroness Teri is she’s married to an older man who she at least likes (played by Henry Kolker). Love never seems to enter into the equation though Teri is never labeled a golddigger. If anything their marriage seems to be one of mutual convenience to prevent either from being alone, though that’s never explicated. Teri also has enough money that her servants will straight up carry her to different parts of her bedroom to get ready. (Who doesn’t have one of those?)
Teri’s biggest problem is she doesn’t have the Excelsior Diamond, and she just happens to be getting it during a string of robberies. It’s funny that Teri is frightened upon hearing about the robberies, but once she finds out her store hasn’t been robbed it’s fine. Unfortunately for her, the store holding the Excelsior is immediately set upon by Powell’s robber. Like a well-oiled machine, the Robber executes his plan with such precision.
This is the joys of screenwriting at this time because the audience only has to look at the robbery to get the character’s history. He has an army of people at his disposal; he can buy off anyone and plans for every eventuality. It’s obvious he’s been doing this for a great many years. The bulk of the film’s set-pieces happen in the jewelry story during the robbery, with Powell and Francis bantering throughout. Powell, giving out “funny cigarettes” to everyone he meets, is no different from his characters in the likes of My Man Godfrey (1936) and Libeled Lady (1936). He’s smooth, eloquent, and isn’t threatening. Even when he’s holding a gun in someone’s face there’s a tenderness to Powell. The gun is just a formality.
Because Powell and Francis are the only ones with actual characterization, they need to be on equal footing and I’d say this is Francis at her best. She’s certainly a woman in love with love, and upon first meeting Powell, she’s drawn to the excitement but also that he seems to understand what moves her. The other men in her life simply want to possess her or blind her with shiny things to make her compliant. When the Robber takes to sending a fake policeman over to lightly kidnap Teri, it proves his devotion. Once the two are ensconced in his apartment the film takes on shades of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, complete with the two verbally spinning circles around each other.
The whole thing caps off with the two lovers not necessarily ending up together, but the belief is they will (whether Teri’s husband likes it or not). Like all good pre-Codes impediments of societal normality don’t matter so long as there’s a happy ending. When Francis looks at the camera, putting her finger to her lips, it’s hilarious. Everyone will get what they want, one way or another.
Jewel Robbery is a lot of fun with Francis at the height of her powers. Her interactions with Powell are the best.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.