William Powell … Dan Hardesty
Kay Francis … Joan Ames
Aline MacMahon … Countess Barilhaus (Barrel House Betty)
Frank McHugh … Skippy
Warren Hymer … Sgt. Steve Burke
Frederick Burton … The Doctor
Directed by Tay Garnett.
Produced by Robert Lord and Hal B. Wallis.
Original Music by W. Franke Harling & Bernhard Kaun.
Music Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Cinematography by Robert Kurrle.
Film Editing by Ralph Dawson.
Art Direction by Anton Grot.
Costume Design by Orry-Kelly.
A Warner Bros. Picture.
Released October 13, 1932.
Box Office Information
Cost of Production: $350,000
Domestic Gross: $791,000
Foreign Gross: $317,000
Total Gross: $1,108,000
For more information, please see the Box Office page.
When movie fans talk about the ideal Kay Francis kind of suffering melodramas, One Way Passage (1932) is one of the names always mentioned. And for a movie so full of tragedy, it is clearly one of the most entertaining and lovable films ever made.
Kay Francis and William Powell had won critical and audience favor in five films prior to One Way Passage, Street of Chance (1930) and Jewel Robbery (1932) among them. One Way passage turned out to be the final film the duo ever made, and undoubtedly their best.
However, Warner Brothers executive Darryl F. Zanuck was reluctant to cast Francis at first. The dying Joan, he felt, was too heavy for an odd-looking actress with such an obvious speech impediment. Tay Garnett, the film’s director, insisted on using Kay, and promised to have the script written around Kay’s vocal difficulties. “It’s your problem,” Zanuck snapped back.
Kay was cast, and, as Scott O’Brien wrote, “She brought a genuine vulnerability to a role that would have eluded many of the era’s high-strung actresses.”
One-Way Passage was released to critical and commercial acclaim. Photoplay credited Kay’s performance as one of the “Best of the Month,” and wrote that the film was hands-down the best of the Francis-Powell pairings. With a box office gross of $1,108,000, One Way Passage shot Kay up to the top of the Warner Brothers charts. With this [and her subsequent 1932 films: Trouble in Paradise and Cynara] Kay Francis solidified herself as the Queen of Warner Brothers.
1937 saw a re-release of the film, and two years later a remake starring Merle Oberon and George Brent, titled ‘Till We Meet Again (1939), failed to meet up to the critical and commercial praise Kay’s version had garnered. That same year, Kay and William Powell recreated their roles for a radio performance on Lux Radio Theatre, which turned out to be the last time the two actors worked together in their distinguished careers.
Above: A Picture Play spread from 1932.
“Of all the movies our star of the month Kay Francis ever made,” said Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, “this next one may be the best of them all.”
This is one of the best Hollywood romances ever made. Everything, from the score to the story line, to Kay’s costumes to the settings, is given such a beautiful, sentimental touch. It makes one wonder how the same studio that made such bitter dramas as The Public Enemy (1931) or Baby Face (1933) could make something so sweet.
One Way Passage opens in a bar in Hong Kong. Dan and Joan are introduced immediately when they bump into each other, causing Dan to spill his drink. They have a drink to celebrate their first meeting, then smash the glasses on the bar. A shot of the glasses intertwined follows. Dan leaves the bar, and turns around to wave Joan goodbye. He is then arrested by Steve, who is bringing him back to San Quentin to hang.
The two run into Skippy, a drunken petty criminal they both know, who helps Dan out over the course of the film.
Dan and Steve board the S.S. Maloa, where Dan finds out that Steve can’t swim. Handcuffed together, Dan opens up a latch to a gate on the deck and jumps into the water. Steve is oblivious to this, and thinks that it was an accident, that the gate gave out. “You know, someone must have left that rail unfastened.“ He gives Dan credit for saving his life. While bringing him to safety, Dan sees Joan on board the ship deck.
Since the two are onboard a ship where there’s no place to go, Steve does Dan a favor and lets him have freedom onboard, before they arrive in San Francisco where Dan is to be condemned to die for crime.
Joan is a dying woman. We see her sitting in her room where her doctor tells her avoid the glamorous party life she leads. It’s another one of those Hollywood illnesses in which there are no signs or symptoms, but has a fatal outcome. Nonetheless, the two meet in the bar on the ship, where they have another drink. They again smash the glasses on the bar, and a shot shows them lying intertwined.
Steve is in awe of The Countess when he sees her playing the piano. In reality, The Countess is Barrel House Betty, a criminal acquaintance of Skippy’s and Dan’s. “Betty don’t they ever get on to ‘ya?” Skippy asks. “You’ve been gettin’ away with this stuff for years.”
Dan and Joan enjoy watching the sun set, walks on the deck, and spending every minute of every hour together. While dancing, Joan begins to faint. They go outside for some fresh air.
The ship arrives for a top in Honolulu. Dan is locked in the ship’s holding cell by Steve, but is broken out by Skippy and The Countess. When he takes Joan for a ride in an automobile, Dan arranges plans to board another ship, where he can escape San Quentin and perhaps meet up with Joan.
The two next arrive at a beach, where they’re beautifully lit, smoking cigarettes, flirting, and kissing. He tries to tell her he is a criminal, but “if it’s serious” she doesn’t want to listen. When he tries to tell her he’s not going back on the ship, she faints. Having no other choice, he brings her back onboard where she remains in her cabin, in fatal condition.
Betty beings to really fall in love with Steve, in the mean time. She reveals her identity to him, that she’s not really a Countess, and that she should be taken back to face punishment for her crime. Steve already knows this, because before she tells him, he has already received a telegram which informs him of her identity. Considering her honesty (and the fact that he is ready to leave the detective world), Steve decides that it is best to put their pasts behind them and start over again, together.
He tosses the telegram overboard when they kiss.
Dan and Joan have a final drink in the cabin, and agree to meet in Ague Caliente on New Year’s Eve. They smash their glasses and depart to their cabins to pack.
Dan is handcuffed, willingly, back in the cabin by Steve. While packing, Joan begins to feel uneasy, and starts searching for Dan all over the ship. She arrives at his cabin, where the servants inform her of his arrest and murder charge. Still, she loves him, and spots him with Steve on the deck.
They kiss and Joan watches, with tears in her eyes, as Dan is taken away by Steve. She waves goodbye and faints, dying soon after.
In a bar in Agua Caliente on New Year’s Eve, everyone is dancing, drinking and enjoying a fresh start. Two bartenders are drying glasses, and hear two smash against the bar. A shot of two glasses intertwined follows, then they slowly disappear.
Kay gives a stellar performance in this one, hands-down one of her best. She’s believably fragile, which is difficult to pull off when one is suffering from an illness which is never named throughout the entire film, and has no signs or symptoms whatsoever. She’s especially good searching the boat for Powell, hearing that he is a condemned criminal guilty of murder, than locating him on deck and wishing him good-bye as if nothing has ever happened. With the tears in her eyes, she gently falls into the arms of her doctor. It’s a great indication of how good of an actress she really could be.
William Powell does good without really putting any effort into his performance. He seems to just say most of his lines, which works well with his character’s lack of conscious. It’s not until Dan falls in love with Joan, and his conversations solely with her, where we finally start to hear Powell put some life into his performance.
Watch for the scene where the boat reaches San Francisco. Kay and William are solemnly photographed by the camera. Both standing absolutely still, the eeriness of the shot is embedded in my memory. There we see two people, both unaware the other one is to die, tragically looking onto their destination with an uneasiness which can send a shiver down your spine.
As with Give Me Your Heart, One-Way Passage is a film perfectly cast from its headlining stars down to supporting players. And the supporting players in this one are a real treat. Frank McHugh (as the pickpocket), Aline McMahon (as the phony countess), and Warren Hymer (as the detective) nearly steal the film right away from Bill and Kay. The three play off each other famously, and their characters relationships could have made an interesting film in itself.
This was Kay’s favorite of all her movies, and the only one she owned a copy of. It’s easy to see why this was so popular with critics and audiences at the time of its release.
One Way Passage was remade in 1939 as ‘Til We Meet Again, with Merle Oberon and George Brent. The remake was planned as a Bette Davis vehicle, but she wouldn’t do it. Satisfied with her own performance in Dark Victory (1939), she wanted something different outside the glamorous, dying heiress roles.
By Mordaunt Hall, October 14, 1932.
Published in the New York Times.
In its uncouth, brusque and implausible fashion “One Way Passage,” a pictorial comedy drama which arrived at the Warners’ Strand last night, offers quite a satisfactory entertainment. It has an original idea and the characters stand out clearly in their voyage aboard a vessel bound from Hongkong for San Francisco.
Here, there is Dan Hardesty, a murderer, who soon after the introductory scene is apprehended by a sleuth named Steve Burke. Dan is a polished criminal, which can be readily understood when it is said that he is portrayed by the facile William Powell. Just before the voyage Dan encounters the attractive Joan Ames, played by Kay Francis. It is a matter of a spilled cocktail and love at first sight. He expects to expiate his crime at St. Quentin and Joan is an invalid who is well aware that her days are numbered.
Dan is handcuffed to Steve, who admits that he cannot swim, and the murderer, taking advantage of this, pushes down a loose rail and Dan and his captor plunge into the water. Dan virtually succeeds in rescuing Steve, who thereafter does not persist in the use of the steel bracelets. Steve, however, keeps an eagle eye on his man, until he (Steve) chances to be ensnared by a supposed “Countess” whose fingerprints are actually in several police headquarters. The slow-witted detective decides to go ashore with the “Countess” at Honolulu, and he therefore sees to it that Dan is locked up in the ship’s brig. Skippy, the “Countess’s” pal, who is an adept at picking pockets, soon gets the brig key from Steve and releases Dan.
Dan gallantly sacrifices his chance for freedom when Joan suffers a heart attack. He carries her back to the ship, instead of going aboard a freighter, as he had arranged to do with one or the officers. The physician informs him that a shock would kill Joan, and therefore he conceals from her the fact that he is going ashore at San Francisco a prisoner, and when the time comes the handcuffs are concealed by his overcoat. Dan has one hand free and he bids Joan auf wiedersehen, saying that he will meet her on New Year’s Eve at Agua Caliente. In the meantime she has overheard the remarks of a steward and knows the truth, but pretends she does not.
Besides the capable performances by Mr. Powell and Miss Francis there is some good comedy contributed by Frank McHugh as Skippy. Aline MacMahon is excellent as the “Countess” who one minute speaks in broken English and the next relieves her feelings with American slang. This impostor is as cool as a cucumber when it comes to taking the proceeds lucked by Skippy from the wallets of unsuspecting men. Warren Hymer impersonates Steve, who at least once reveals that he can be alert.
Tay Garnett’s direction is clever. He keeps the story on the move with its levity and dashes of far-fetched romance.
Below: From the October 1932 issue
From the 1937 re-release: