SPOTLIGHT: Flaming Pre-Code Francis (VII)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly under-praised Kay Francis (1905-1968), one of the most popular Warner Brothers stars of the 1930s. Known today as “Kay Fwancis” for her distinguished speech impediment, I am of the opinion that Kay Francis is nevertheless one of the decade’s most natural and captivating leading ladies. We covered one of her little known Post-Code films, The Goose And The Gander (1935), in our series on 1935, but the only Pre-Code picture of hers that we’ve featured is the divine Trouble In Paradise (1932), which is among my favorite films. There are 11 more Pre-Code Francis pictures that I want to cover here. So far we’ve covered Guilty Hands (1931), 24 Hours (1931), Girls About Town (1931), Man Wanted (1932), Jewel Robbery (1932), and One Way Passage (1932). Today…


The Keyhole (1933)


A private eye specializing in divorce cases falls for the woman he’s been hired to frame. Starring Kay Francis, George Brent, Glenda Farrell, and Monroe Owsley. Screenplay by Robert Presnell Sr. Based on the story by Alice D.G. Miller. Directed by Michael Curtiz. This predictable film just barely skates by with a decent, but oddly paced story, and only comes alive thanks to the chemistry of the leading players. After a string of films that I enjoyed tremendously, The Keyhole never frees itself from the shackles of mediocrity. Are the performers enough to rescue this trite?


“Anne Vallee is married to wealthy Schuyler Brooks, a man several years her senior, and is being blackmailed by her former husband and dancing partner, Maurice Le Brun. When she protests, Maurice threatens to get the money from her husband, so she agrees to pay him somehow. At home, Anne lies to her husband when he asks where she has been. Noticing that the necklace she wore at dinner is missing, Schuyler becomes suspicious and makes a note to check up on her activities. The next day, Anne tells her story to Portia Brooks, her sister-in-law: She married Maurice when she was young and they formed a dance team. When things became bad between them, Maurice asked for a divorce, but after her marriage to Schuyler, he reappeared to tell her that the divorce had never been completed. Portia suggests that Anne leave the country, luring Maurice along, and promises that once he is out of the country, she will use her connections to ensure that he can never return to the United States. Anne sails to Cuba using her maiden name, and Schuyler hires a detective, Neil Davis, to follow her without revealing to him that Anne is his wife.


“On board ship, Neil meets Anne through a ruse, and once the introductions are complete, he never leaves her side. She resists his advances, however, and Neil cables Brooks that she is not interested in a flirtation. Meanwhile, Neil’s fortune hunting partner, Hank Wales, meets gold digger Dot. They both pretend to be wealthy, each one hoping to marry the other for money. In Cuba, Anne avoids telling Neil the name of her hotel, but he discovers it and books a room next to hers. Meanwhile, she stalls Maurice while she waits to hear that arrangements have been made to prevent his return to America. Neil continues his pursuit of Anne, and she begins to like him a great deal. Back in the United States, Portia tells Schuyler the truth behind Anne’s visit to Cuba. He realizes that he has been mistaken and rushes after her. In the meantime, Neil and Anne have learned the truth about each other… (This truncated summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)


In trying to pinpoint exactly why the film doesn’t work as well as it should, it seems that everything comes back to the unordinary premise. First husbands, blackmail, detectives, shipboard romances. It’s stuff we’ve all seen before, and we’ve seen it better. The Keyhole never really adds anything new and noteworthy to the concept. More than that, the story’s trajectory is entirely too predictable; it’s evident from the moment we meet George Brent’s character that he and Francis are to be the film’s central romance, and their routinized happy ending is anticipated. However, as the audience, we are rooting for them. After all, Brent and Francis are both capable performers who manage to produce a strong chemistry in their scenes with one another. (Our spotlighted leading lady is always good at forming connections with her scene partners, and here in The Keyhole, it’s no different.) But the film is well cast all the way around, and Glenda Farrell is particularly welcome as a gold digger who provides some much needed levity.

However, not even a tight Warner Brothers cast can overcome this busy but laborious cliché fest, in which the viewer is aware that 69-minutes of his/her life, although not entirely wasted, will never be recaptured again. Kay Francis is a better actress than this script would lead you to believe, and I think this is largely because her character doesn’t get to be as active as she has in past films. She’s on the run, but she doesn’t do much. It’s boring, and makes not for great cinema. Recommended to completists only.




Come back next Friday for another Francis Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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