One Way Passage, 1932. 9/10

Cool premise for this ’30s romantic drama. Two people meet in Hong Kong and sail to San Francisco. That’s just enough time to fall in love; but it’s all the time they have left to live, because each is close to death. Dan Hardesty (William Powell) and Joan Ames (Kay Francis) are the star-crossed couple. Other passengers include a con-artist Betty (Aline MacMahon), Dan’s buddy Skippy (Frank McHugh), and the cop, Steve Burke (Warren Hymer), who accompanies Dan. The conceit is that Dan nor Joan know of each other’s predicament until near the end.

In a lively Hong Kong bar, Joan and Dan bump into each other. They have a drink, and break their glasses, obviously celebrating a case of mutual attraction. Dan’s edgy though, and with good reason, as Steve mosies up on him. After a scuffle they’re handcuffed together “I thought I ditched you in Berlin.” Guess not. On the way out, they run into an sketchy-looking acquaintance, Skippy.

On ship Dan and Steve trade insults until Dan creates a diversion by jumping overboard, dragging Steve with him. Once rescued, Steve thinks that Dan saved him from drowning. That helps Dan’s cause, as Steve feels he owes Dan a favor; so now Dan can roam freely about the boat. First thing on Dan’s mind is to go looking for Joan. We see her in her cabin with her overly-protective doctor (Frederick Burton) and an accompanying pile of medications.

So they soon reunite, in the bar, naturally. Skippy has skipped aboard too. We next see Betty, aka, the ‘Countess’ who’s made by Skippy, but Steve, in his naivete, buys her act. She goes back to her room to drink mightily with Skippy, comparing notes on easy marks “No petty larceny in this one.” They discuss Steve and Dan. She thinks of ways to help Dan. “He’s just a ghost.” True.

Joan is radiant; meanwhile, Betty and Skippy run a scam on Steve. What’s clever is that Skippy acts like a hapless buffoon, but he knows exactly what he’s doing; Steve, on the other hand, is very gullible, but acts like he’s in control. Steve is rightly worried that Dan might go missing in Honolulu. He levels with Betty what the deal is with himself and Dan.

But Betty has been busy getting the bullets out of Steve’s gun. Then Dan figures he has to level with Joan, so he explains himself to her in a letter–in which he says he’s going to try to escape to Mexico. Steve, not so dumb as all that, finds out about his missing bullets, and inserts a new clip. So he’s now able to get Dan into the brig; but not before a brief scuffle.

Down in the vicinity of the engine room, Dan’s locked up. But, Skippy sees all. Now the plan is to lift the cell’s key from Steve. That’s easily accomplished, thanks to Betty. “You’ve got plenty of time for a head start” Skippy informs Dan when he’s liberated. On shore with Joan, they maddeningly run into Betty and Steve. Skippy’s duly informed by the now wised-up Steve that “when we get to ‘Frisco I’ll pop you in the can so fast you won’t come out until Chinese New Year!”

Getting a connection in a bar (where else?) Dan make plans with the captain of a Mexico-bound ship. On a side-trip, Skippy passes the time by nabbing a guy’s wallet in front of a cigar store. Meanwhile, Joan and Dan cool it on the beach–everything’s perfect. Dan tells her he’s not going back on the liner, since he’s lighting out on a different vessel. Surprised, she faints, which means he has to carry her back on board the liner…making him a sitting duck.

Sure enough, who pops in but Steve. He even sympathizes with Dan; but Dan’s cornered. The doctor tells Dan about Joan’s condition. Apparently, she never read his letter, or he didn’t actually send it, because Dan confides his situation to the doctor. Skippy accuses Betty of falling for “that copper.” She quickly shoots back with “his racket’s on the other side of the fence, but he’s on the up-and-up.”

Uh-oh, now we’re coming to the Golden Gate; but all Dan can think of is Alcatraz. What’s worse is that the ship gets a wire revealing Betty’s identity. Coincidentally, Steve is with her when gets the info; just as he’s confessing that he’s willing to junk everything for her. He’s taken aback, and so is she (regarding his chicken-ranch Plan B deal if he quits the force). Still, they’re both game “Just don’t smear my bangs” is her only request. He’s also conflicted by having to bring in Dan. The lovebirds, in the bar, are having the traditional glass-breaking after their last toast.

Now Joan gets the news flash about Dan’s fate. Joan goes looking for him as the ship docks. They have a last kiss. Next thing is New Year’s festivities in a Mexican bar, and, what’s this? Skippy’s at the end of the bar, and then, there’s two crushed glasses left behind. But we, and the bartenders, don’t see anyone. Looking again, we see nothing on the bar. Skippy’s doing, undoubtedly. But really, it’s more wishful thinking than deception. We have a look at what might’ve been had Dan and Joan not been doomed.

This was very entertaining, and extremely well done. The cast creates their own milieu of classy nonchalance, which, like the glasses in the recurring toasts, get crushed by fate. The plot is not only coherent and well-paced, but it’s elegant in that much can be left out because it’s clearly implied. The rapport of the criminals (Dan, Betty, and Skippy) is established early on, without anymore than the minimum of introductory scenes.

Similarly, the ending is set up in advance, so that we linger for just that one last scene in Mexico. Everything is shown, not explained in tiresome voice-overs, monologues, or dialogues. The dialogue is a treat in itself. It’s full of little gems, which are given authentic voice by characters who fit so well alongside each other–no matter which “side of the fence” they’re on.

Steve and Betty, initially a very unlikely set, eventually take the place of Joan and Dan; they’re a shadow for the main romance that can’t have a future. Steve’s rebellion only strains credulity to the point of Betty getting off the hook; to save Dan would make this too sentimental, not to mention implausible. After all, Dan’s supposed to be a murderer. Also, despite the playful tone, we don’t get a miracle cure for Joan either. I almost feel deprived of weapy moments; these people accept their fates without very much overt mental or emotional anguish. At least we have the two crushed glasses to give a symbolic touch of renewal.

Farmermouse was in rodent heaven in this movie: cool bars, an ocean liner, and what he thinks is a Hudson or Studebaker roadster that Joan and Dan drove in Hawaii. He gives One Way Passage nine chrome highball glasses. 9/10.

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