Tay Garnett

T. alt.: S.S. Atlantic. Sog.: Robert Lord. Scen.: Wilson Mizner, Joseph Jackson. F.: Robert Kurrle. M.: Ralph Dawson. Scgf.: Anton Grot. Mus.: Leo F. Forbstein. Int.: William Powell (Dan Hardesty), Kay Francis (Joan Ames), Aline MacMahon (contessa Barilhaus), Frank McHugh (Skippy), Warren Hymer (sergente Steve Burke), Frederick Burton (il medico). Prod.: Warner Bros. Pictures. DCP. Bn.

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

William Powell is allowed to spend the ocean voyage from Hong Kong to San Francisco without handcuffs, based on a deal with the policeman escorting him to death row. So Powell joins the ship’s passengers as a suave gentleman, just like the heroes of the upper-class comedies of the 1930s. There he meets Kay Francis who is terminally ill. The couple is as unlikely as a Hollywood pair can be, and that’s exactly why they’re the only right ones for each other.
They don’t know about each other’s fate and, when they first guess, and then know, it is in the nature of the matter that it is never referred to. This dual knowledge is the sounding board against which emotions are born and broken, and yet they endure, transcending time. The mood might turn sordid, but instead the awareness of death distills the emotion into a fresh and clear one.
The world is inseparably grim and romantic and – the vision of the “real” world is as merciless as the access to a “separate reality” is exalted. From the beginning, Powell and Francis establish a habit: they end each fragile moment by smashing their champagne glasses. Such gestures which exist in the mutual world of lovers are the salt of every romantic movie.
The final image is the culmination of these gestures. Powell and Francis are both gone – inexplicably, but for good. All we see is an enigmatic image: two glasses shatter. The view tests our sense of justice since the lovers fail to “get each other” – and yet they do.
Tay Garnett was an uneven director. He covered almost any kind of film, often with an alarmingly half-hearted attitude. When such a gem and masterpiece emerges among everything else he did, it would be tempting to speak of the “genius of the system”. But no. One Way Passage is pure Tay Garnett to such an extent that the director’s fragmentary oeuvre, in which a red thread is otherwise impossible to discern, does find that thread in this very film, light (like Lubitsch), clear, playful, hilarious and sad – radiant like life itself.

Peter von Bagh, from an unpublished chapter for Lajien synty [On the Origin of the Species], WSOY, Helsinki 2009. Edited in English by Antti Alanen

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