Kay Francis … Anne Brooks
George Brent … Mr. Neil Davis
Glenda Farrell … Dot
Monroe Owsley … Maurice Le Brun
Allen Jenkins … Hank Wales
Helen Ware … Portia Brooks
Henry Kolker … Schuyler Brooks
Ferdinand Gottschalk … Brooks’ Lawyer
Directed by Michael Curtiz.
Based on a story by Alice D.G. Miller.
Screenplay by Robert Presnell.
Cinematography by Barney McGill.
Film Editing by Ray Curtiss.
Art Direction by Anton Grot.
Costume Design by Orry-Kelly.
Music by Leo F. Forbstein, W. Franke Harling & Ray Heindorf.
A Warner Bros. Picture.
Released March 30, 1933.
Cost of Production: $167,000
Domestic Gross: $301,000
Foreign Gross: $227,000
Total Gross: $528,000
See the Box Office page for more info.
The Keyhole was of major importance to Kay Francis’ career. She had gone on a four-picture winning streak with Jewel Robbery (1932, with William Powell), One Way Passage (1932, with Powell again), Trouble in Paradise (1932, Ernst Lubitsch’s comedic masterpiece), and Cynara (1932, with Ronald Colman, produced by Samuel Goldwyn). Now back at Warner Bros. as a full-fledged star, the year she made Keyhole represented another major transition for her career. Those four movies had made her one of the most famous actresses in Hollywood, and Keyhole gave her the ideal star formula which became typical of the Kay Francis melodramas at Warner Brothers.
Recognizing the magic that had been created in Robbery and Passage (not to mention some previous movies at Paramount), Jack and Harry Warner thought it would be best to reunite Kay with William Powell for this production of Alice D.G. Miller’s “The Adventuress.” Problems with studio executives led to his replacing with George Brent, a studio new-comer who had already romanced Barbara Stanwyck in So Big! & The Purchase Price (both 1932) and Ruth Chatterton in The Crash & The Rich Are Always With Us (again, both 1932).
“In their day,” wrote James Robert Parish in Hollywood’s Great Love Teams, “Francis & Brent were Warner Bros. melodramatic equivalent of MGM’s droll Myrna Loy and William Powell, and were regarded by the bulk of steady filmgoers as the height of refined, upper-class romantics; personified, sartorial elegance.”
Certainly they were one of the most popular couples of the 1930s, but Kay was the real star of their movies; Brent was an added bonus for movie audiences. They weren’t Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Kay Francis had her own identity as an independent star.
Michael Curtiz, one of Kay’s favorite directors, did a splendid job of directing her in Keyhole (as in all of her movies with him). Do not let the hugely impressive sets fool you; this is a glorified B movie, produced on a budget of only $167,000. Production began in late November 1932 and wrapped in twenty-five days.
The success of The Keyhole led to Warner Brothers’ absolute refusal to loan her out. Storm at Daybreak (1933), her following movie made for MGM (she was agreed to do the film prior to Keyhole’s release), would be the last time Jack Warner would allow her to work for someone else. After Keyhole she was too valuable, but it was a curse in disguise. His refusal to lend her services elsewhere would play a major factor in her law suit against him in the fall of 1937.
The film opens with the shot of…a keyhole. Inside we see Maurice smoking and looking through a scraps book of Maurice and Valentine’s dancing days. Anne, the former Valentine, arrives at his home because she has read his suicide note. “In the neck of time,” he says. “Come in.” Maurice has been milking Anne for money, threatening to tell her rich husband of their secret past. She’s already given him $10,000, now he wants $50,000 to stay out of her life forever. He makes a cheap move on her, and she smacks him across the face pretty hard.
“And the next time you try to kill yourself,” says Anne, “let me know. I’d love to help you.”
The home Anne and her husband, Schuyler, live in is spectacular. Clearly this movie is a sign of Kay Francis’ importance at Warner Brothers. The sets are huge, larger than any you’ll find in any Bette Davis, Ruth Chatterton, or Barbara Stanwyck feature of this time.
Schuyler is suspicious of Anne’s latest activities. He questions her and her chauffer like a real detective. He’s convinced his wife is cheating.
The next day, Anne has lunch with Schuyler’s sister, Portia. She explains her relationship with Maurice, and explains that the two are still married. Portia tells Anne to lure Maurice out of the country so a friend of hers can prevent his coming back. Maurice is not a US citizen, and Portia knows someone who can cancel his visa.
At dinner, Anne tells her husband that she would like to go to Cuba. More suspicious than ever, Schuyler hires a detective to stalk her every move. This agency specializes in catching unfaithful wives in the act of adultery, and Neil Davis is the hired stalker at hand.
Back at her lavish home, Anne packs her luggage and hears the telephone ring. Portia answers it, and lets Maurice know that she is sailing to Cuba, so of course the loser has to follow her onboard.
For his first move, Davis takes a small suitcase of Anne’s into his room, so he can have an excuse to walk into her cabin and introduce himself. Hank, Davis’ assistant, goes outside and makes sure that Davis’ chair is next to Anne’s on deck.
Hank becomes interested in a snobbish brat named Dot at the ship’s bar. She insults the bartender’s drinks, intelligence, and quality of service. Apparently this movie was made before people noticed that such an attitude would land spit–or worse—in one’s drink. But Dot’s no dope. She and the bartender are in on a gold digging job. She lures men with money to spend it on her, but what she doesn’t realize is Hank hasn’t really got a dime.
In the mean time, Maurice gets a hold of Anne and attempts to blackmail her, again. Sitting next to Davis at the ship’s pub, she tells him that Maurice is pestering her. When he tries to work in a little charm of his own, Davis realizes that Anne isn’t interested in cheating on her husband like Schuyler suspects.
Anne, Davis, Hank, and Dot all book rooms at the Hotel Metropole when they arrive in Cuba. Of course Davis and Anne have rooms next to each other, and wine and dine together all night long. But Anne is beginning to fall in love with Davis, and he with her. Unwilling to cheat on her husband, she decides to have her room switched. It’s useless, he tracks her down and they go for a carriage ride across Havana.
A montage shows Anne and Davis having a wonderful time in Cuba. From the letter’s Davis has been sending to Schuyler, it is obvious that he is falling in love with her, so Schuyler catches the first plane to Cuba to bring his wife home. On a beach, Anne confesses everything to Davis, Maurice, Schuyler and all. A few days later, Davis reveals everything to Anne, including the fact that he loves her.
Maurice arrives at Anne’s room. Davis tricks Maurice into thinking that the police are on their way to arrest him for blackmail. He ditches the scene of the crime. In reality, it’s Schuyler who is pounding on the door, and when he bursts in, he sees Anne and Davis kissing. She tells him off, tells him that he’s getting exactly what he wants to see, and that she’s leaving him for Davis.
When Schuyler leaves, they hear sirens and look outside to see Maurice lying dead on the ground. They take out his suicide note so the police can understand what happened, and kiss to begin their new life together.
This movie borderlines fiction and complete fantasy. Many Kay Francis fans rate The Keyhole among the best of her roles. I like this one a lot, largely because it moves quickly and has a certain spark to it, but it’s not on my list of favorite Kay Francis titles.
Kay’s character doesn’t really require her to do much. She desperately tries to keep her secret past from her rich husband, only to give up and get with the guy her husband sent as a spy to watch her every move in Havana. Outside of a few snappy lines to the sleazy Maurice—”Next time you try to kill yourself, let me know. I’d love to help you.”—there isn’t much brilliant dialogue for her, either.
But it’s still a nice little picture for her.
George Brent almost seems to be imitating Robert Montgomery in these kinds of films where he’s just playing second fiddle to the leading lady. He tries to be cute and charming, and succeeds in doing so only somewhat. Monroe Owsley, as Maurice, is a total creep. There is nothing to like about his character, and Owsley makes no attempt to get audience sympathy. Its nice to see someone just play the part as is.
Of course Helen Ware knows all the tricks as Schuyler’s sister. She takes the side of his wife—the right side—and is of great assistance to Ann throughout the story. And as Schuyler, Henry Kolker is dumb-founded from the opening credits all the way to the closing titles. He plays the incredibly rich, intelligent man who lacks common sense and self confidence well.
The Keyhole was shot in 25 days on a budget of $167,000. A glorified B movie, this is typical of the Warner Brothers features of the time. The same year this movie was released, Barbara Stanwyck caused a sensation in Baby Face, a sex drama about a prostitute who sleeps her way to the top of a banking empire. Ruth Chatterton had a memorable role in Frisco Jenny. Production values of both films rate slightly lower than The Keyhole.
With Chatterton fading fast and Stanwyck an independent star, the success of The Keyhole made it clear to Jack and Harry Warner that Kay Francis was becoming their Queen of the Lot. Her position was solidified with a salary increase to nearly $4,000 a week. After the release of The House on 56th Street (1933), Kay Francis was a household name, and one of the biggest movie stars in the entire world.
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