There’s a myth that makes the rounds every so often suggesting films of yore were always stagnant affairs. You only have to look at the opening bar sequence directed by Tay Garnett in this picture to confirm such an assertion is an unequivocal falsity. The camera is alive and well in One Way Passage.
William Powell is beloved by classic movies fans the world over but you genuinely wonder if he’s much remembered outside of that faithful populous. The broader public has more wherewithal than often their given credit for and yet there’s no doubt Powell is less heralded than his gangster compatriots at Warner Bros.
Meanwhile, Kay Francis is an all but forgotten flame of the 1930s who is no less glamorous or alluring today. If you run the numbers, she was one of the highest paid and biggest box office attractions well into the mid-1930s. Although soon Bette Davis would take on the mantle. But this context will seem insignificant 80 years on. That’s why it’s such a charming realization this film is a true gem worthy of the talents involved and certainly worthy of being rediscovered today.
All we need is a bar. It becomes one of the crucial settings in the picture. A pair of memorable bartenders played by Mike Donlin and Roscoe Karns give each some added coloring. People are gay and jovial. Two merrymakers accidentally clip each other but it hardly feels like a clumsy meet-cute or it’s exactly that.
Except there’s a star-crossed undertone to it all. No time is spent piddling around. We look into their eyes and meet the gazes of Joan (Kay Francis) and Dan (William Powell). They share the moment and it’s lovely but they bid adieu and head their separate ways to forego ruining the electricity they achieved.
Little do we know we have been introduced to a debonair criminal. A gentleman scoundrel if you can imagine the prototype. The shorthand is in place and it’s easy enough to decipher so there’s little to no need to mince words or drag out the exposition. In fact, Jim’s so charming we don’t even realize he’s on the wrong side of the law until a copper sticks a gun in his back.
That’s the key to this picture because at such a short running time it cuts its story down to the essentials, excising the superfluous information and streamlining the events in such a way that is endowed with a playfulness but moreover a grand passion.
Because the inevitable happens and they pass not like ships in the night but aboard an ocean liner named the S.S. Maloa making its way toward Hawaii and ultimately San Francisco.
Far from sputtering, their initial connection only blooms with each passing day together. Of course, she doesn’t know he’s being sent to San Quentin and he has no idea she is terminally ill even near her deathbed. But in this respect, their obliviousness puts them on equal footing.
Joan says she wants to crowd all the intense beautiful happiness into the life she has left. It’s the perfect aspirations for this picture to deliver on because there’s this heightened intensity and that allows it to provide such a potent story in a matter of a few minutes. As things look that’s all they have.
They are going out in a blaze of glory and there’s no more apt description than that. The picture has no time for realism and so it foregoes that for something far more moving in at least in this particular instance. They are imbued with the poetry of star-crossed lovers aboard a sea vessel with an imminent conclusion already in place.
The cop Steve (Warren Hymer) seems like a real brusque stickler and yet he’s baffled by Dan’s charity. He relents since the man saves his life. It’s the only thing that allows this captured petty thief to maintain some kind of pretense of normality with Joan. Steve has enough pity to allow his prisoner the dignity of playing the role he has been cast in.
Of course, Dan also gets some help from the constantly swacked Skippy (Frank McHugh) a con man with a sore spot for cops and the bane of every bartender he comes in contact with. Then there’s Betty a fellow con woman masquerading as the “Countess Barihaus” (Aline MacMahon in a glowing performance), who has the entire ship cast under her spell including Steve. Not only do they provide the film with an amiable strain of comedy, but they also buy their friend his few hours in paradise with his constant companion. But the dread comes upon us because we realize even as the film’s minutes tick away so rapidly — this euphoria cannot last. It will not.
They share one last tearful kiss and wave goodbye with one final “Auf wiedersehen.” But the perfection of it is that the illusion they’ve managed to hold onto isn’t even broken in their final moments together. There’s such an undercurrent to the scene — so many things they could bring up or that they could say — and yet they are content in truly cherishing it. The sequence is wafted over with the epitome of bittersweet emotions. And yet they can hold onto the next dream — a reunion on New Year’s Eve.
When it’s all said and done, it’s a wonderful ending that lets us float away on our doubts clinging to the hopeful ending we want to be true. That’s what the great romances do. They do not quash the sentiment beating inside our hearts but they suggest even if it is folly there still is some insurmountable worth in striving for love. Let that connection between our heart and our emotions never be absolved. Because yes, we are rational beings but what does that do for us if we have not love? This picture will probably rip your heart out but it does so tenderly and with the utmost amount of tact. It deserves to be seen by more people.