This post is part of the Pre-Code blogathon hosted by Pre-Code and Shadows and Satin. Click here to see the other entries!
Jewel Robbery has much to recommend it: a debonair thief; a bored, beautiful housewife; marijuana cigarettes adding comic relief; and of course, a host of diamonds. Along the way, we witness a faux kidnapping, a baked police chief, and a rooftop escape. And, of course, we get to hear some killer lines.
This is a pre-Code film—in other words, the kind of film you didn’t think your grandmother watched, but then, you didn’t know her all that well, did you? In the few years before censorship, there was a lot of scandalous footage on the screen, and much rooting for those engaged in immoral behavior. In this film, we are, of course, meant to root for the affair between the wife and thief, but I confess that this time I felt for the wronged husband, probably because the poor guy had so much stacked against him. First of all, Baron Franz (Henry Kolker) is not a looker:
He already has a friend, Paul, making assignations with his wife, Baroness Teri (Kay Francis), and then calling her a “coquette” when she doesn’t keep them. Luckily, most of his fellow politicians are too intimidated by Franz’s position to seduce her, but clearly, an undersecretary or two will slip through the cracks when a wife is as tired of her pampered, quiet life as Teri is. And then, of all weapons aimed against him, it just had to be with one:
I think you’ll agree that the gun is not the threat here. This is not any thief. This is a robber played by William Powell with the grace, sophistication, and wit that would immortalize him two years later in The Thin Man. Describing his stealing method as a “drawing room style,” the robber plays music and converses with Teri as he and his henchmen snatch every trinket in the store she’s visiting after hours with her husband. He even explains his methods in great detail, including positioning a “very alluring blonde on each corner” to distract policemen.
To keep the atmosphere light (and prevent retaliation), the thief compliments the shop owner’s taste and hands him a marijuana cigarette, which keeps him laughing through the trauma.
After such a thrilling experience, the fickle wife is quickly in love, refusing to be locked up in the safe with either her husband or Paul, as she’d rather continue to be charmed by the thief. With such a man in her sights, what hope does a bureaucrat have to keep her interested?
The one weapon Franz has in his arsenal is Teri’s love for sparkling beauties like this one:
The couple is in the shop to purchase a 28-carat whopper, the Excelsior diamond, a ring Teri literally worships.
“What wouldn’t a woman do for such a treasure?” she says when she sees it.
“Anything. I’d deceive my husband, with pleasure,” her sidekick Marianne (Helen Vinson) answers.
“A woman would do much more than that,” Terry explains. “She would tolerate her husband.”
But all such motivation is gone when the handsome distraction in question steals jewels for a living, can give her far more than even her multimillionaire spouse can. Franz tries to convince his “incurably romantic” wife out of her lust, but her expression really says it all:
The thief’s attraction dims a bit once he catches sight of—and steals—her new treasure. But he returns it to her house while her husband is out. Teri’s friend Marianne is initially thrilled by the prospect of the robber on the premises.
But when Teri declares her intention to keep the ring in spite of its risks to her (given that she reported it stolen), Marianne is so spooked she announces her intention to leave to avoid being implicated in a scandal, declaring, “This is one night I shall be very glad to be with my husband.”
Of course, this departure gives the besotted thief a chance to ask Teri to flee with him to Nice. He begins his seduction by taking her to his place. When she claims he should be more forceful (to match her romantic images of this moment), he carries her to the bed. She doesn’t deny him, only asking that they not hurry, with “so many pleasant intervening steps” before they get there.
The thief reveals just how well he’s gotten to know her next. Could any foreplay work better on a woman who claims a diamond’s purity made her rethink her frivolous life than this display of riches?
In spite of her feelings for him, Teri waffles on whether to leave the comforts of her position for a dangerous future. Unfortunately, she has no time for indecision, as the police have arrived. The robber ties her up to save her reputation, employing his usual panache in his daring exit across the roofs and into a waiting cop car his buddy has stolen.
Teri tells her husband she needs to take a long rest in Nice to recover from the trauma of the kidnapping. She approaches the camera with one final gesture to ensure we are in no doubt about her intent:
If this plot doesn’t convince you to watch the film, there are other gems: Helen Vinson is hilarious throughout the film, there’s a subplot about a guard who is both comically gullible and quickly becoming a fan of marijuana, and some nice rooftop action. Give it a try! And while you’re at it, read about many other funny, scandalous, fascinating pre-Code films.