This is perhaps one of Kay Francis' best dramatic roles. She sympathetic as a woman who has little time to live, and has decided to live a shorter, more interesting life, rather than just sit in bed and wait for the inevitable. Ms. Francis, without any backstory, provides that history to the audience simply with her demeanor. We know that Joan has heretofore lived the life an an invalid; informed that the end is now truly near, she has one last chance to experience the world before she leaves it. It seems the film was a favorite of Ms. Francis' as well - it was one that she would regularly show to her beaus to acquaint them with her work (Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten: Her Life on Film and Stage by Scott O'Brien).
Equally excellent is William Powell as a decent man about to be executed for murder. Dan Hardesty has killed a man, though according to his friend Skippy (Frank McHugh), the victim "needed killing". We get no more information than that. But, we know that Dan is ethical - while attempting to escape from Steve, he plunges them both into the water. But when he realizes that Steve cannot swim, he puts off his escape attempt to rescue his captor. With that simple gesture, we know all we need to know about the integrity of Dan.
In their sixth film together, Ms. Francis and Mr. Powell are a dynamic team. Their chemistry is palpable, and their camaraderie is apparent. This film would prove to be their biggest box-office hit, yet it was also their last film together (TCM article). Powell would soon leave Warner Brothers for MGM, and The Thin Man series, while Ms. Francis remained at Warners. If you are interested in some of their other films together, start with Jewel Robbery (1932) - their interplay is remarkable.
One Way Passage also has the advantage of co-starring the remarkable Aline MacMahon (Barrel House Betty aka Countess Berilhaus) in the cast. As a con artist who starts off using her wiles to distract Steve from Dan, but ends up falling in love with Steve, she's terrific. Ms. MacMahon is an actress who makes everyone around her look better. As a result, Warren Hymer (who is usually, to my mind, an uninteresting actor) shines as Steve. He becomes more than just the dumb cop he usually plays. In his book Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids: Twenty-Five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, Axel Nissen says that "because she didn't look like anyone [Aline MacMahon] could play everyone" and that is certainly the case here. You believe that she is could be a countess, even though you know almost immediately that she is not. Ms. MacMahon can play anything or anyone. For a brief bio on this wonderful actress, visit our post on Heroes for Sale (another film in which she basically stole every scene).
The screenplay for One Way Passage won the Oscar for Best Writing - Original Story in 1933 for Walter Lord. Director Tay Garnett allegedly felt he deserved credit for some of the writing, which he did not receive (AFI catalog). The costuming by Orry-Kelly is lovely; he was also tasked with making Kay Francis look ill, which he succeeds in doing by giving her lovely, flowing gowns that hint at frailty. Mr. Kelly would return to costume the 1940 remake, 'Til We Meet Again, this time starring George Brent and Merle Oberon as the doomed lovers. Also returning for the remake - Frank McHugh!.
Surprisingly, the New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall actually praised the film, stating that it "offers quite a satisfactory entertainment. It has an original idea and the characters stand out..." We would be much more effusive in our praise, but regardless, this is a film for fans of both Ms. Francis and Mr. Powell. We'll leave you with a brief scene - the meeting of Joan and Dan: