Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Keyhole (Warners, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards we watched The Keyhole, a 1933 Warners melodrama that began powerfully — with a middle-aged roué type named Maurice Le Brun (Monroe Owsley) in a little room, reviewing his scrapbook of press clippings about his former days as a professional dancer with a partner named Valentine, whom he’d married. The camera dollies to a bottle of poison that Maurice is about to drink, and then the film cuts to his suicide note, which is in the hands of Valentine, who left show business and is now known as Ann Vallée Brooks (Kay Francis), wife of multi-millionaire tycoon Schuyler Brooks (Henry Kolker).

Valentine meets Maurice in the room and learns that he hasn’t killed himself yet — he just drank milk instead of the poison and awaited her arrival — and though she had previously given him $10,000 as a settlement if he agreed to arrange for their divorce, she now learns that he never divorced her (which means they’re still legally married and her golddigger marriage to Schuyler Brooks is invalid on grounds of bigamy) and is demanding $50,000. She’s unable to raise that much money without help and she’s afraid to go to her husband for it, so she connects with Schuyler’s sister Portia (Helen Ware), and the two agree that Portia will put up the money and Ann will go to Havana to meet Maurice, pay him off and get the divorce at last.

Meanwhile, Schuyler has got suspicious of his wife’s absences — when she sneaked out to visit Maurice, Schuyler understandably suspected her of having an affair — so he hires a private-detective agency headed by J. Weems (Clarence Wilson, the marvelous villain from the W. C. Fields/Alison Skipworth movie Tillie and Gus), and Weems hires his top operative, Neil Davis (George Brent), to shadow Ann on her Havana trip — and in order to keep track of her he starts dating her, and sure enough love blossoms and by the end of the film they’re in love, Maurice is conveniently dead, Schuyler Brooks is a faraway memory and Neil and Ann are together as the camera zooms out through a keyhole — mirroring the opening shot that went through a keyhole to reveal Maurice in his room about to entrap the heroine into his blackmail scheme by luring her with the threat of suicide. (In a nicely mordant line by screenwriter Robert Presnell, co-author of Meet John Doe — adapting a story called “Adventuress” by Alice Duer Miller, author of Roberta! — Ann leaves Maurice with the words, “And the next time you try to kill yourself, let me know; I’d love to help you.”)

Directed stylishly by Michael Curtiz, The Keyhole is a perfectly nice soap opera that would have benefited from a stronger leading man than Brent (like William Powell, maybe?) but nonetheless manages to make an effect despite an almost unbearably predictable and clichéd plot; once you realize that hot, sexy George Brent (at least we’re supposed to believe he was hot and sexy, and apparently more than one of his leading ladies, including Bette Davis, thought that way about him in real life even though he’s never done much for me) is being assigned to tail Kay Francis you could practically write the rest of it yourself, and the subplot involving yet another golddigger, Dot (Glenda Farrell, marvelous as usual), vamping Davis’s comic-relief sidekick Hank Wales (Allen Jenkins in a role that expresses him in all his total Allen Jenkins-ness) only to dump him in the proverbial heartbeat once she realizes he’s a detective, is more interesting than the main intrigue.