“Jewel Robbery” is a delightful pre-code romance set in Vienna. Starring Kay Francis and William Powell, this film is shamefully unavailable in any format. However, TCM will be showing “Jewel Robbery” on September 4 at 8:15 PM Central. Actually, the entire month is Kay Francis month — the last time Kay was the featured star was close to 10 years ago, and it’s not hyperbole for me to say that month changed my life. I stayed up all night to watch Kay’s films and a whole new genre and era of film-making opened up for me. I especially fell in love with the Kay Francis-George Brent-Lyle Talbot trio.
At the time I didn’t realize that so many of the films I was watching were rare, so I didn’t record anything; this year I will not make that same mistake. I don’t want you to make the same mistake either! Don’t miss a rare opportunity to see “Jewel Robbery” and other films, such as “Mandalay,” this September.
I should remind you that my film entries contain spoilers. Don’t read any further if you want to watch “Jewel Robbery” unspoiled in September!
After the title credits roll, we are introduced to some very polite, well-dressed businessmen in a jewelry store. A professor has arrived to show the excited manager and employees his ingenious new burglar alarm system. This system is a grotesque face rendered in a gorgeous art deco pattern, as you can see to the right. To the dismay of everyone in the store, as they go to inspect the alarm — which was already armed and working — they discover they have been robbed. Even a beautiful and sophisticated piece of equipment cannot stop The Robber!
We segue to the house of Baroness Teri von Horhenfels (Kay Francis), who is happily frolicking in a tub overflowing with bubbles. While playing around and being attended to by multiple maids she loses her soap. I defy you to not be charmed into abject submission by Francis’ surprised “Ooh, my soap!” as the bar flies out of her hands and into another room.
Teri’s friend Marianne (Helen Vinson) arrives with the newspaper during the bath. As Teri is toweled off, massaged, and rubbed down by the maids, Teri reads the headlines about the jewel robbery. A flood of zippy, entertaining dialogue ensues as Teri and Marianne discuss their hedonistic lives in beautiful Vienna. Teri is unhappy, though, and bemoans her fate; she’s been married to her husband the Baron for just a short while, but she’s already bored. He’s old and uninteresting and her boyfriends aren’t keeping her entertained anymore. They all become “distinguished” and wear sashes, she says, and when that happens they suddenly think the most important part of their anatomy is their chest.
Teri is impatient to get her diamond, an enormous ring with the famous Excelsior Diamond as the solitaire stone, that her husband the Baron has promised her. She panics though when she thinks her jewelry store may get robbed as so many others in Vienna have been. After the maids set her hair and dress her, Teri, Marianne, and Count Andre (Andre Lueget) go to see the diamond.
At the store Teri and Marianne fawn over the ring while waiting for the Baron. The stone is brilliant, exclaims Teri, clean and pure, with something of the infinite contained within. When the Baron arrives he is accompanied by the distinguished undersecretary Paul (Hardie Albright), obviously one of Teri’s boyfriends. The Baron immediately upsets Teri by complaining that the stone is far too small as compared to the price. Teri sulks like a child refused a toy, so the Baron says he’s simply trying to negotiate, and he goes into the back room to talk to the jeweler. Meanwhile Paul corners Teri to talk to her. Teri is having none of it. She’s decided she’s shallow and weak and needs to turn her life around. She declares she’s going to live a clean life from now on, something “clear, simple and pure… like that stone.”
Just then William Powell and his assistant Fritz (Alan Mowbray) arrive. Powell is dapper, refined, and sophisticated. He takes off his hat while Fritz offers him a silk-lined case, opens it, and Powell withdraws a small revolver. “Would you kindly put up your hands?” he asks the assembled room — Powell is The Robber, the one all of Vienna has been reading about for weeks. The rest of The Robber’s entourage arrive to clean the place out.
The Robber knows all the tricks, knows that some in the store are hiding jewels in their mouth, knows that an alluring blonde or two outside the building will keep police distracted. The Robber is suave and polite, serious but never deadly. He puts on some classical music while they rob the place of all the jewels, including Teri’s beloved ring. Teri is delighted, but Paul and the Baron are decidedly unimpressed by her enthusiasm.
The Robber is attracted to Teri, and knew of her by reputation. His business is jewelry, after all, and Teri has an enormous and well-known collection. Teri is quite taken with the handsome jewel thief and is immediately attracted to him. The Robber is interested in her as well, but one is never quite sure if he desires her beauty or her jewels.
The store’s dim new guard Johann (Spencer Charters) arrives and is easily fooled by The Robber. Thinking he is just a customer, Johann helpfully takes two large, heavy suitcases full of jewels out to The Robber’s waiting car. Meanwhile The Robber forces everyone to smoke some “drugged cigarettes”. This isn’t tobacco. Oh no, my friends, this is pot. Everyone who smokes it is told to inhale deeply. It gives them the giggles and, according to The Robber, when they awake the next day they’ll have an enormous appetite.
Some men refuse to smoke the “drugged cigarettes” so The Robber locks them in the vault, knowing it will open automatically in the morning. Teri however refuses to smoke anything or allow herself to be locked into the vault, she wants an intriguing ending to the evening, and The Robber gallantly concedes. They leave her behind while going to their getaway car. As a token of their appreciation, they give some of their cigarettes to Johann the guard just as they drive away.
Later that night Teri, the Baron, and Marianne go to the police station, where Teri has been called as a witness. Teri claims she fainted when The Robber left, therefore cannot identify him or describe him correctly and Marianne knows she’s up to something, but can’t pry the truth out of her. Teri’s husband and boyfriend are both convinced she’s taken with The Robber as well, and they are quite jealous.
Johann has been in the waiting room smoking some of the cigarettes The Robber gave him. He joins the rest of them but is unable to help, as he is already quite high. The police prefect (Clarence Wilson) becomes annoyed at the farce and allows Teri go home. After everyone else leaves, the prefect chews out Johann for being inept. Johann offers the prefect and another officer in the room the cigarettes, and they all become extremely goofy. They start giggling uncontrollably and begin to make crank calls.
When Teri arrives home she finds an enormous vase of at least 100 red roses has been sneaked into her room. They are obviously from The Robber, which sets Teri and Marianne into a girlish giggling fit. They gossip about the thief and his past exploits — one of which is illustrated on the poster for the film — while Teri changes into a night gown that is so low cut that one is certain it’s going to fall right off at any moment. Soon Teri and Marianne work themselves into a frightened frenzy like two pre-teens at a slumber party, and Teri fears she’s been robbed when she notices her safe has been opened.
Instead she sees her beloved diamond ring has been left in the safe. Marianne leaves in a huff — she’s both jealous of Teri’s adventure, but also frightened that The Robber may return — and her exit means it’s safe for The Robber to enter Teri’s room. She tells him he has to take the ring because she would never be able to explain how she had it, but he refuses. While they argue the police arrive and The Robber is forced to hide in her bedroom, but it’s no use: the police capture him and find the ring. They cuff The Robber and take Teri with them to make a statement.
Surprise! The police aren’t police at all, but The Robber’s assistants. They’ve taken her back to The Robber’s luxury apartment for a romantic tête-à-tête over dinner, while Teri’s husbands and friends assume Teri was kidnapped.
Neither Teri nor The Robber feel much like eating so the evening is spent in risque talk and open flirtation. The Robber makes his intentions known and Teri playfully replies that, since she’s been kidnapped, whatever he does “must be done by force.” He picks her up and tosses her onto a pile of cushions in his living room, but she protests that they’re going too fast and missing such interesting “intervening steps.” She asks him how he became the person he is today:
TERI: I’m curious to know how you were led astray.
THE ROBBER: Well, I began life as a little boy.
TERI: I’m glad to hear you kept to the same sex.
THE ROBBER: Yes, it’s a family tradition.
He continues to tell Teri how he entered into a life of robbery. Entranced, she asks to see his jewels, all of which he gladly displays for her, including some stolen at a charity ball. He explains that he stole a necklace while a woman was gazing at the Prince of Wales (in real life the Prince of Wales at the time was Edward, later King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936); she was so entranced that he “could have removed her dress” and she not known.
The Robber and Teri both share a love for exquisite jewels, for excitement and romance, and a passion for each other. When The Robber suggests they run off together, Teri changes the plan a bit to meet each other in Nice the next Thursday. She leaves his apartment to go home. As The Robber’s butler cleans up he notices some jewels not in their case; The Robber realizes immediately that Teri has stolen from him.
As she’s walking away she changes her mind, and goes to return the jewels she’s stolen, but the police arrive just then. She runs back to the apartment where The Robber shows no hard feelings — they’re both cut from the same cloth, of course, and if anyone is going to understand why she stole some jewels, it would be him. They confirm their plan to meet up later, and he ties her up and leaves her behind. The Robber and his henchmen escape while Teri basks in the attention from her husband and friend, who worry over her after her harrowing ordeal.
Teri says she’s frazzled, she can’t handle all the stress and danger she’s been under lately after the robbery and kidnapping. She insists to her husband that she must go away for a while, to Nice, preferably next Thursday. As she’s telling him this, Teri looks straight at the camera and puts her finger to her lips, asking us not to tell…
“Jewel Robbery” has never been released in any format, which is absolutely unacceptable. It would be terrific for the recent TCM “Forbidden Hollywood” series, and I’d tell them that if I weren’t too busy pestering them to show “Skyscraper Souls” again. You know, “Skyscraper Souls” would be another wonderful “Forbidden Hollywood” release! Hint hint.
The lack of official release means there’s very little information about the film out there, so I don’t really have much more to add. The only marginally interesting thing I noted was found on the Kansas Historical Society website, I discovered a list of edits the Kansas film censors made to “Jewel Robbery”: removal of some of Powell’s dialogue in reel 5 for being indecent. While it’s impossible to know what specific dialogue was removed, reel 5 would be approximately when the love scene between The Robber and Teri took place. How I’d love to know which bits the censors thought were “indecent”.
On a personal note, I have to say that “Jewel Robbery” is why movies make me so intensely happy. It was warm, spirited, fun and beautiful to look at. The plot is basic and allows space for the characters and dialogue to expand and flesh out the film. The dialogue was an amazing balance of playfulness, precision, believability and ridiculousness. The Robber’s suave, romantic comments to Francis would never work in real life; the poor recipient of his charms would fall about in peals of laughter.
In all honesty, I have to admit there is not a single good person in this film. The Baron is cheap and boring, Paul is dull and vaguely angry, the police and guards are inept. Teri’s selfish, immature behavior in the real world would be far from delightful, and Marianne’s cynical worldview borders on anti-social. The Robber’s debonair attitude somewhat masks a conniving thief who brags that he moves about in lofty social circles.
Despite the negativity, an underlying positive nature was revealed by the characters being very self-aware. The film is a full-on celebration of that familiar, overwhelming, initial shallow attraction that leads us into unknown territory with a new lover. Materialism and entitlement drive both Teri and The Robber to passion and, perhaps, to love — The Robber’s last words to Teri are “I love you” — but the film ends there. We’ll never know if they really do love each other. We’ll never discover if The Robber is making a mistake by trusting Teri. When the film ends, how many viewers will remember that Teri never kissed The Robber, yet she ardently kissed the Excelsior Diamond several times?
As for me, I willingly fell in love with Teri, The Robber, and Marianne… and the diamond ring.
The NY Times 1932 review of “Jewel Robbery” (login may be required)