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Suave, sophisticated William Powell proved the perfect choice to embody the public perception of a secret agent in Rendezvous (1935), a spy film set during World War I. Powell is an American cryptologist, i.e. secret code expert, who tangles with German spies in a story based on the book American Black Chamber by Herbert Yardley (1889-1958), who commanded the Army cryptographic unit MI-8 in France during the war.
The Black Chamber, which was one of the working titles of the movie during production, was actually founded after the war and headed by Yardley for several years. Officially known as the Cipher Bureau, it was the first U.S. peacetime agency dealing with code analysis and the forerunner of the National Security Agency. It was shut down in 1929. Two years later, Yardley, out of work and needing money, wrote the book that formed some of the basis for the screenplay of Rendezvous.
At the time of production, Powell was one of MGM's biggest stars and already closely identified with Myrna Loy, with whom he had co-starred in three pictures, including The Thin Man (1934). They would go on to appear together ten more times. Powell and Loy had most recently teamed for Evelyn Prentice (1934), which featured a young stage actress making her motion picture debut, Rosalind Russell. After the success of The Thin Man and other films, Loy went on strike for higher pay, so she was unavailable for Rendezvous. Russell was cast and given her first star billing opposite Powell, a prospect that made her nervous at first. She approached her leading man apologetically, telling him she knew he preferred to work with Loy, but he quickly put her at ease, assuring her that was not the case and that she would do very well in the part. "He was not only a dear, he was cool," she later wrote in her autobiography. "If an actor thought he could get any place by having tantrums, watching Bill Powell would have altered his opinion. I remember a story conference during which he objected to a scene that he felt wasn't right for him. He was at once imperious and lucid. 'It's beyond my histrionic ability to do this,' he said. I thought that was delicious."
Russell's role was that of a socialite in love with Powell who tries to get him a nice safe desk job. Their relationship injected notes of humor and romance into the spy drama. Some critics were rather unkind in comparing her to Powell's more popular co-star, calling Russell a "second-string Myrna Loy" and claiming her comic moments were too "kittenish." Powell on the other hand was praised for his "sleek banter and that blend of bored nonchalance and razored shrewdness" that had served him well in earlier roles.
Good notices also went to supporting players Cesar Romero as a German operative, Lionel Atwill as chief of the American code agency, and Binnie Barnes as the agent who holds the key to the mysterious code. All in all, Rendezvous was deemed a "lively and amusing melodrama."
The picture, under various working titles ("Blonde Countess," "White Bird," "Puzzle Man"), was shot in just five weeks during June and July 1935, but it wasn't without some difficulties and delays. Shooting was suspended briefly because of Binnie Barnes's appendicitis. After the Hollywood Reporter reported in August that the production was shutting down to rewrite and reshoot the entire picture, director William Howard wrote in to the publication to deny rumors that the delay was actually due to dissatisfaction with Barnes's performance. He did, however, admit that the production never had a satisfactory ending from the outset and that they hoped preview audience reactions would help them find a better ending. Howard also took the opportunity to announce he was leaving the production for another assignment. Sam Wood took over the direction of Rendezvous and James Wong Howe replaced William Daniels as the cinematographer. Neither Wood nor Howe got on-screen credit for their work.
Among the now well-known names playing uncredited bits in the film are 15-year-old Mickey Rooney and the Marx Brothers' frequent comic foil Margaret Dumont.
The story was later updated to World War II as Pacific Rendezvous (1942) with Lee Bowman and Jean Rogers in the Powell and Russell roles. Yardley's book was not credited as a source, nor were adapters Bella and Sam Spewack, but two of the original scripters, P.J. Wolfson and George Oppenheimer, were given credit for the remake's screenplay.
Producers: William K. Howard, Lawrence Weingarten
Director: William K. Howard; Sam Wood (uncredited)
Screenplay: Herbert O. Yardley (book "American Black Chamber"); Bella Spewack, Samuel Spewack (adaptation); P.J. Wolfson, George Oppenheimer
Cinematography: William Daniels; James Wong Howe (uncredited)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Dr. William Axt
Film Editing: Hugh Wynn
Cast: William Powell (Lt. William 'Bill' Gordon/Anson Meridan), Rosalind Russell (Joel Carter), Binnie Barnes (Olivia Karloff), Lionel Atwill (Maj. William Brennan), Cesar Romero (Capt. Nicholas 'Nikki' Nieterstein), Samuel S. Hinds (John Carter, Assistant Secretary of War), Henry Stephenson (Russian Ambassador Gregory), Frank Reicher (Dr. R.A. Jackson), Charley Grapewin (Prof. Martin), Leonard Mudie (Roberts).
BW-95m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon