An engrossing, tenderly told, and substantive romance, One Way Passage still tugs the heartstrings more than 90 years after its premiere. William Powell and Kay Francis star as the doomed lovers and lyrical direction by Tay Garnett maximizes the tale's impact. A breathtaking 4K scan struck from the original nitrate negative, excellent audio, and several interesting extras distinguish Warner Archive's Blu-ray release of this high-quality vintage classic that deserves to be rediscovered. Highly Recommended.
Before William Powell embarked on his legendary 13-film partnership with Myrna Loy in 1934, he made six very successful - and very different - movies with early talkie star Kay Francis. Powell and Loy put romantic comedy on the cinematic map, delighting audiences with their playful, arch repartee, but few laughs pepper the sober melodramas Powell made with Francis. None of their pictures end happily, but that didn't keep Depression Era moviegoers armed with tissues from flocking to their films and wallowing in their suffering.
And suffer they do in One Way Passage, a beautifully made, nuanced love story about two doomed people who find fleeting happiness on a month-long cruise between Hong Kong and San Francisco. Director Tay Garnett's impeccably mounted mix of romance, heartache, intrigue, and light comedy would turn out to be the duo's final film together and it's by far their best. More elegant and literate than many Warner Bros movies of the period, One Way Passage also exercises restraint as it tells an ironic tale of an ill-fated yet everlasting love in a straightforward, adult manner.
Dan Hardesty (Powell) and Joan Ames (Francis) meet by chance in a Hong Kong bar and sparks instantly fly between them, but minutes later Dan is arrested by police detective Steve Burke (Warren Hymer), who's been chasing him across the globe after Dan busted out of prison in the hope of beating a murder rap. Steve is determined to deliver Dan to the hangman at San Quentin, but while at sea, Steve allows Dan to enjoy the freedoms of a normal citizen. That includes pursuing a relationship with Joan, who is also on the ship and also facing a death sentence, thanks to an incurable heart ailment.
Joan, against the advice of her doctor (Frederick Burton), pledges to live life to the fullest before she succumbs to her disease. She falls head over heels in love with Dan, who returns her affection but also harbors hopes of slipping out of Steve's grasp during a stopover in Honolulu. Neither Joan nor Dan reveal their secrets to each other, but both believe they're destined to be together, both physically and spiritually. The question is can they thwart their respective fates?
In the wrong hands, One Way Passage could be a sappy, maudlin mess, but the often underrated Garnett, best known for helming the first (and finest) adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, brings both sensitivity and vigor to the material. The result is a lyrical, luminous film spiked with the sass that was such a vital cog in the Warner Bros wheel during the 1930s. Robert Lord won an Oscar for his original story and the script by Wilson Mizner and Joseph Jackson is packed with vivid, dimensional characters and snappy dialogue.
The more Powell movies I see, the more respect I gain for his consummate acting ability. Like many stars of his era, Powell projects an easygoing style and innate authenticity, both of which belie the depth of his talent. Though his roles were rarely taxing, he fully inhabits them, giving the impression he's merely playing himself, but upon closer examination, we catch the myriad subtleties shading his performances. In One Way Passage, as he does so often elsewhere, Powell strikes just the right tone and brings out the best in Francis, who files one of her best portrayals. Joan is the type of part that easily could be overplayed, but Francis gives the character vitality and dignity and never allows Joan's pathos to consume her.
Warner's stable of supporting actors enlivened many of the studio's Golden Age films and two of its best perk up the proceedings here. The incomparable Aline MacMahon shines as a European countess who we quickly learn is really Barrel House Betty, a shameless grifter and old pal of Dan's who tries to distract and soften up the straight-arrow Steve, and Warner stalwart Frank McHugh supplies comic relief as the affable trouble-magnet Skippy, who laughs off a series of close shaves with local police with an inimitable giggle. As the tough-tender cop who begins to sympathize with Dan's plight, Hymer also makes a strong impression, but his promising career careened off course several years later when the hard-drinking actor got blackballed by Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn after he reportedly retaliated against the mogul by breaking into his office and urinating on his desk.
One Way Passage packs plenty of plot, emotion, and humor into its 69-minute running time, yet the story never feels rushed. The spirituality that courses through it adds an uplifting note to this tragic tale that resonates long after the mystical coda. (The film was so popular, Warner Bros remade it eight years later as 'Til We Meet Again with Merle Oberon and George Brent.) Though very much of its time, One Way Passage rarely feels dated and its classy presentation and excellent restoration by Warner Archive and The Film Foundation (see below) ensure this underrated pre-Code gem will endure.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
One Way Passage arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 4K scan of the original nitrate negative yields a spectacular 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that makes One Way Passage more intimate, involving, and elegant than ever before. While watching this lush, meticulously restored, yet incredibly film-like presentation, I had to keep reminding myself this movie is 91 years old! Grain is evident, but it's been beautifully resolved, resulting in a crystal-clear image distinguished by superior contrast, rich blacks, bright, stable whites, and well-balanced grays. Details like grains of sand, costume textures, and teardrops are crisp, and sharp close-ups showcase the glamor that exudes from almost every frame of the film. Sadly, cinematographer Robert Kurrie, who photographed several other William Powell pictures, would pass away from meningitis at age 42 just a few months after the film's release.
The sound has been nicely restored as well, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track thrusts us into the action. Sonic accents like shattering glass and the ship's bellowing horn are distinct, while subtleties like the background din of a crowded bar and water lapping against the ship supply essential atmosphere. All the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend, the well-modulated tones exhibit none of the tinny and shrill notes that plague many early sound films, and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been erased. Sound doesn't play a huge role in One Way Passage, but this track nicely colors the narrative.
A hefty supplemental package adds luster to the disc.
Vintage Short: Buzzin' Around (SD, 20 minutes) - Iconic comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle stars in this very funny 1933 Vitaphone two-reeler about an inventor who must tangle with an angry hoard of bees and weather other misadventures while trying to peddle a miracle elixir. Some impressive special effects complement the slapstick genius of Arbuckle, who would die at age 46 the same year this short was released. The dog from The Little Rascals series also plays a prominent role in this rollicking romp.
Vintage Cartoon: A Great Big Bunch of You (HD, 7 minutes) - This black-and-white 1932 Merrie Melodies cartoon showcases a misfit toy and his friends, all of whom perform the title song. The restored print also looks like a million bucks.
Vintage Radio Adaptations (90 minutes) - Two radio adaptations are included. The first, a 60-minute adaptation broadcast in 1939 as part of the Lux Radio Theater series, features Powell and Francis reprising their screen roles, with William Gargan and Marjorie Rambeau playing the parts originated by Warren Hymer and Aline MacMahon. (Francis was actually a last-minute replacement for Norma Shearer, who had to bow out due to illness.) Host Cecil B. DeMille narrates the tale, which remains surprisingly faithful to the film. The broadcast also includes an interview with a real-life captain of an ocean liner, who shares his experiences with lovers and criminals during his voyages. The second adaptation, broadcast a decade later in 1949 as part of the Screen Director's Playhouse series, cuts the tale down to 30 minutes and once again stars Powell. Peggy Dow takes on Francis' role and puts a fresh spin on it, but this version is more melodramatic than its predecessor. The movie's director, Tay Garnett, chats with Powell at the broadcast's conclusion.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview completes the extras package.
More than 90 years later, One Way Passage remains a sensitive, affecting, and very entertaining romance, thanks to Tay Garnett's nuanced direction and deft performances from William Powell, Kay Francis, and a stellar supporting cast. Warner Archive honors this pre-Code treasure with a dazzling transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate negative, remastered audio, and a fine spate of supplements. Fans of classic film and expert craftsmanship should seriously consider adding One Way Passage to their collection. Highly Recommended.