A compact film, The Key proved to be interesting plot, if a bit weak at times. We discussed the rather oblique title at some length (was it called The Key because of Powell's entry into his commander's office? Or was Paedar Conlan The Key to all the problems? It's a mystery; and not a very revealing title). We were also bemused by an ending that felt tacked on. Released in 1934, we suspect that concerns with the code may have altered the original ending. Regardless, it felt abrupt and slapdash.
The actual key to this film is William Powell. With the twinkle in his eyes, and his devil-may-care attitude, Powell saves the film from being a bore. When he is on the screen, you can't take your eyes away from him. Particularly nice were his interactions with a flower girl (played by Anne Shirley, back when she was still Dawn O'Day). We know that Tennant is a ladies' man, but his conversations with Ms. O'Day are gently flirtatious, an acknowledgement of her youth and obvious naivety. A consummate actor, Mr. Powell is never better than when he is a bit of rogue; he's always able to let you know that there is a gentle side to nature.
Colin Clive proves a good foil to Mr. Powell. His character is very straight-arrow; this allows Powell to give the action some much needed bounce. Mr. Clive had a very brief film career - only 18 movies between 1930 and 1937, the most famous of which was his role as Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 Frankenstein. During the same period, he appeared in 4 Broadway plays, including Libel, which would be made into a film in 1959. Whether Mr. Clive could have broken away from the super-serious plotlines into which he was being cast will never be known. He died in 1937 of tuberculosis complicated by alcoholism; he was 37.
This was Mr. Powell's last picture at Warner Brothers. He'd not felt well-used there; he selected The Key over another Philo Vance film and a movie called Dollar Wise (which does not seem to have ever made it to the screen). When his contract ended, he headed down the road to MGM, where he was teamed with Myrna Loy and Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). That paring with Ms. Loy was such a success that they appeared in another film that same year, for which Mr. Powell was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar - The Thin Man. Ultimately, Mr. Powell and Ms. Loy were in 14 films together. (TCM article; William Powell The Life and Films by Roger Bryant).
Mordaunt Hall in his New York Times review called The Key "a sturdy and effective melodrama" which is perhaps more praise than it deserves. He was particularly impressed with the performances of Mr. Powell and Mr. Clive; he even singles out Ms. O'Day for praise. While not a bad film, it's not Mr. Powell's best. But even his least is worth a quick view. We'll leave you with this trailer from the film: