William Powell in Rendezvous (1935) from Warner Archive
William Powell is one of the most lovable, charming actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. His dry wit, distinct voice, and gentlemanly disposition truly make him one of a kind. Like most of the stars of the Studio Era, Powell had to deal with his share of recycled scrips and grueling production schedules. Sometimes the result was a rough-hewn gem. Other times it was an easily forgotten misuse of an incredible talent. But when it comes to Bill Powell, just give me what you’ve got. I’ll take it all.
One year after delivering what would become an iconic performance in W.S. Van Dyke’s hugely popular The Thin Man (1934), Powell appeared in the WWI drama Rendezvous (1935), alongside Rosalind Russell and Binnie Barnes. I generally dislike typecasting, but I do prefer Powell in light comedies and sleuthing roles like Philo Vance and Nick Charles. Powell in a WWI Army officer’s uniform threw me for a bit of a loop, especially since he is most often seen sporting a tuxedo with martini(s) in hand(s).
Powell is Bill Gordon, lieutenant in the United States Army. He is days away from a deployment to the front lines overseas, which is something he is more than happy to participate in. At a dinner party before his departure, he becomes acquainted with Joel Carter, a young and spunky woman played by Rosalind Russell. Joel pretends to be annoyed by Bill’s teasing and flattery, but it’s apparent she’s smitten. The pair are virtually inseparable, and in an intimate moment on the eve of his deployment, Bill confides that he is an expert in cryptography. Unbeknownst to Bill, Joel’s uncle is a top official in the War Department. As he is about to board his train at the station, Bill receives orders to report for desk duty. Before long, Bill discovers that Joel had a hand in his change of orders.
Frustrated that he can’t join the fight, Bill soon realizes his experience in cracking code is desperately needed to insure the safety of his fellow servicemen. While working alongside Maj. William Brennan (Lionel Atwill) and relying on the lab research of Professor Martin (Charley Grapewin), Bill uncovers an elaborate plan by the Germans to intercept American military communications. Unaware of the location of the espionage ring or the identity of the mole, Powell fights the clock to prevent the destruction of American Naval vessels.
I wanted to like Rendezvous more than I did. Unfortunately, the film presents a confusing mix of comedy and suspense, but does neither particularly well. Russell is oddly miscast as the aggressive, flighty love interest – meddling to protect Bill, but doing more harm than good. Russell’s character is slightly reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance in Howard Hawks‘ Bringing Up Baby (1937). However, Hepburn’s Susan is adorable and her meddling only affects David (Cary Grant), never putting him in harm’s way. Joel’s interference is destructive and places him, and others, in grave danger. Russell’s character aside, I really enjoyed the spy yarn plot-line, which had some surprisingly dark moments. William Powell is quite convincing as a military code expert, despite the boozy baggage he brings to any characterization.
Rendezvous is a manufacture on demand (MOD) DVD from Warner Archive. This edition does not have any special features and is struck from the best available source material. The transfer is decent, with an equally good audio track.
If you’re a William Powell completist, Rendezvous is a must. If not, take a furlough and pop in your Thin Man DVDs.
Disclaimer: Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence received a review copy of Redezvous directly from Warner Archive.
Jill Blake is the owner/managing editor of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Moviola and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.