Setting of The Key, adapted from the London stage play [by R. Gore-Browne and J. L. Hardy], is the Irish revolution of 1920. Recalled is that chapter of Anglo-Gaelic relations in which the marauding Black-and-Tan troops, the street-sniping patriots and the phantom-moving Michael Collins combined to make a gory, tumultuous time of it.
Only a minor part of the color and dynamic drama that these pages afford has been captured by the picture. But there is enough pulsing sweep to the background episodes to overcome the vapidity of a formula triangle – husband (Colin Clive), wife (Edna Best) and returned lover (William Powell) – to give the film an above-average rating.
Powell is starred, but the acting honors go to Clive. Fault doesn’t lie with Powell. It’s a role that’s as wooden as the central plot itself. When the characterization calls for a debonair, glib fellow with a flair for getting himself out of femme complications, the Powell personality clicks on all cylinders. Later, when the tale gives way to self-sacrificing, Powell becomes a puppet moving this way and that to the tug of the strings.
For Best it’s a debut in American films. Hers is also a puppetlike part, giving her little chance to register anything but anguish. Next to Clive the standout bit of acting is delivered by J.M. Kerrigan who, as a noncombatant Irish, does the contacting between the revolutionists and the invading Black-and-Tans.