by Douglas Messerli
Wilson Mizner and Joseph Jackson (screenplay, based on a story by Robert Lord), Tay Garnett (director) One Way Passage / 1932
The truly delightful heterosexual fantasy, directed by Tay Garnett, One Way Passage (1932) is interesting for gay and lesbian viewers only for a few seconds, when once again, almost as if it were an requirement for early 1930 films or as if purposely speaking against the newly established Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Code, this director also trots out a trio of singers, two burly men, likely gay, and a heavy-set woman, most certainly a lesbian, who looks very much like her partners. As they sing, people toss them coins, one landing in the nearby spittoon, all three every-so-often staring over to the open mouth of the metal monster as if wondering how they might gracefully retrieve the coin in its liquid soil. Obviously they need the money.
Suddenly, as if to make certain that the audience has noticed that the third singer was of the female gender, a woman comes up to her and whispers in her ear, the dyke replying, “First door to the left, dearie,” obviously in response to the question of the location of the women’s toilet. There is little else in this film that is even remotely concerned with LGBTQ behavior, although all the figures of this work are outsiders in one way or another.
The handsome hero, Dan Hardesty (William Powell), we soon discover is a wanted murderer, having evidently killed—according to his later outlaw accomplices—a man who everybody hated. No matter, he’s wanted and is soon arrested outside the bar in which the film begins by Steve Burke (Warren Hymer) a flatfoot detective determined to take his prisoner back to San Francisco from Hong Kong the long way, by ship, with a stop in Honolulu on the way.
The two, individually served by the bartender the house special, the Paradise Cocktail, back into each other, turning around to be hit by Cupid’s arrow, tossing down up the remainder of the drinks, breaking their glasses, and leaving the crossed stems on the bar counter, presuming that they will never see each other again.
Once aboard the ship, the now hand-cuffed Dan observes the pocket into which Burke tosses the key and an unlocked gate the leads straight into the ocean. At the right moment, he grabs the key, pulls up the gate-latch and leaps in the water, talking the cop, who can’t swim, with him. Terrified of drowning, Burke does little to stop him from grabbing the key from his pocket and unhooking the cuff, presumably willing to let the cop drown—except at that very moment he spots the beautiful woman from the night before aboard the same boat from which he has just leaped.
Impulsively working against all logic, Dan saves the drowning Burke, bringing him back aboard the boat, all presumably so that he can once again meet the woman with whom he has fallen in love, Joan.
At first it appears that the cop will hound him for the entire voyage. Indeed, when Dan hooks up with Joan again with Burke beside him he seems almost resigned to the new relationship between him and the other man. “I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Burke. We’re travelling together,” he tells Joan. Burke adds: “Yeah, we’re together all the time.” “Practically inseparable,” Dan chimes in, almost hinting the movie might move in another direction, focusing on the unwanted attentions of one man for another while the second tries to mange a heterosexual relationship within the seemingly homosexual one.
Meanwhile, another criminal kind and friend of Dan’s, the always drunken petty pickpocket Skippy (Frank McHugh), a man wanted in every port and not for his sexual prowess, has escaped to the ships temporary protection. And already on board and busy seducing a wealthy British Lord is Countess Barilhaus (Betty Crowley), known the Dan and police all across the USA as “Barrel House” Betty, a figure of the same ilk as the Barbara Stanwyck character Lady Eve Sidwich in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941). She and the charmingly hilarious Skippy keep the cop busy and confused enough that Dan is freed up to make love and, when they reach Honolulu, even escape the brig, spend another lovely day with Joan, and escape the jaws of justice just in time.
As the arrive the golden gate portals of San Francisco the handcuffs are clicked into place, as Burke tries to sneak him off to San Quentin. But not before Joan also discovers his fate, running to him and planting a final kiss on his wanted mug, she passing out as he goes ashore.
The lovers have finally met their sad fates.
The last scene in the bar in Agua Caiente, Mexico—where they’d promised to meet one another in New Year’s Eve—shows us that the party is almost over, when suddenly the bartenders hear the sound of breaking glass and see upon the bar two glass stems crossed, despite the fact the bar has only one last customer, the drunken Skippy who hasn’t heard the glass or observed the stems laying atop one another on the bar. Throughout this film Skippy, as he ticks Burke, pulls billfolds from the pockets of unsuspecting pigeons, and fools the bartender into providing him free liquor ends all his escapades with a charming hehaw of a laugh. But now, with the absence of his dear friends, he stands alone saying nothing, missing the mysterious reunion of his two former friends.. Perhaps only the viewers can provide the provocative laugh that he, now sadly serious, formerly announced that he had won the game.
It’s a touching scene, reiterating the gentle fantasy romance of the film entire. Many critical observers have named this work one of their favorites of the generally hard-boiled Depression movies of the early 1930s.
Robert Lord won an Oscar for this film’s original story.
Los Angeles, September 29, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).