Directed by: Tay Garnett
Starring: William Powell, Kay Francis, Aline MacMahon, Warren Hymer, Frank McHugh
A strange and strangely magical film from the very uneven filmmaker Tay Garnett, One Way Passage is a movie that once seen is unlikely to be forgotten. It has a premise that — if you reduce it to its bare essentials — sounds like something cooked up at a story conference in a moment of desperation, and maybe it was. I can just hear someone saying, “Look, we just got Bill Powell and Kay Francis from Paramount and need something for ‘em. What if Bill’s a condemned murderer being taken back to be executed and Kay’s a socialite dying from some kind of heart disease and they fall in love on the ship taking them to America?” Whether it happened that way or not, that is the basic story — and it snagged a Best Original Story Oscar for Robert Lord. Did Lord deserve it? That’s hard to say because so much of what makes the film so appealing lies in the details of a screenplay put together by Wilson Mizner, Joseph Jackson and director Garnett — and a lot of that lies in the film’s brilliant balance of cynical comedy (provided by Frank McHugh and the wonderful Aline MacMahon) and tragic — ultimately mystical — romance. (The comedy content — involving unscrupulous but lovable con artists — has all the earmarks of being the work of noted cynic and part-time con artist Mizner.) Whatever the case, the screenplay combined with the perfect performances of an appealing cast, an uncredited love theme by W. Franke Harling and just the right tone from Garnett come together to make a beautiful little movie that has weathered its 80 years effortlessly.
The Asheville Film Society will screen One Way Passage Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
In Brief: The classic doomed lovers/shipboard romance movie, Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage (1932) is a perfect blend of romantic tragedy and hard-boiled comedy — and, yes, the two do fit together. The two elements perfectly complement each other in a way you find in very few films. The basic story is that William Powell and Kay Francis meet by accident in a Hong Kong bar. What he doesn’t know is he’s about to be captured on a murder rap. What she doesn’t know is she’s dying of a heart condition. What neither know is that they’re going back to America on the same ship. What you don’t know is that works beautifully — even if it sounds contrived.