Death Becomes Her: The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933)

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A Universal Pictures Production ~ Director: James Whale, Screenplay by: William Anthony McGuire, based on a story by Ladislas Fodor, Art Director: Charles D. Hall,  Costume Designer: Sadly, uncredited

A kiss is just a kiss.  Or is it?

“How did it begin?”

“With a kiss.”

“It always does. But what kind of a kiss?”

“A kiss before the mirror”

James Whale’s smart suspense drama The Kiss Before the Mirror plays with the idea of passion as a sinister force leading to infidelity, insanity, and murder.  It initially attempts to mark a distinction between a murder justified by rage and betrayal, and one committed through planning and premeditation.  In the end it concludes there really is no difference.  Even crimes of passion have their small moments of irrational  premeditation.

An idyllic scene of a beautiful woman in a garden opens the film.  She is meeting her lover, an attractive man who appears smitten, devoted. The air is sweet with promise as they exchange words in anticipation of their time together.  She is seen through the glass disrobing, but the tone changes.  In the dusky twilight, her husband has followed her through the trees and flowers.  He approaches the veiled entryway, hesitates and then shoots her repeatedly through the shattering panes.

 

 

The murderer’s lawyer is a close friend and is prepared to defend him.  He is puzzled by this horrific crime.  He hears the man’s confession and returns home.  Troubled, he reclines in his wife’s boudoir. She pulls a sheer curtain and then sits to do her face.  The attorney struggles to comprehend his friend’s actions, relaying the initial circumstances to his wife.  As he raises his finger the camera follows in a sweeping shot, circling the intimate space, and stopping where his wife sits facing the mirror at her dressing table.  The audience is enveloped in his perspective, sees his wife as he sees her, feels his hurt as she angrily chastises him for kissing her before the mirror. He is re-imagining the killer’s confession. Suddenly he views her dressing and departure with new eyes; she is preparing for a liaison.  Following her he finds his fears are confirmed.  She has taken a lover.  Humiliated, he contemplates clearing his friend as a means of preemptively establishing his own defense, and considers his own crime of passion.

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photo credit: Pre-Code.com

The Kiss Before the Mirror is an early stylish Noir filled with shadows in lamplight, dark insinuations and a tragic aura.  Yet it also has a bit of pre-Code playfulness and dark humor. The dialogue is clever and displays the love for a verbal quip that characterizes many early talking films.  The dual nature of passion is a theme repeatedly touched upon; that which creates love can also destroy those who fall victim to its false perceptions.

The lawyer, Paul, played elegantly by Frank Morgan, is confidently seeking a meeting with his distraught and confessing client Walter, a somewhat overwrought Paul Lukas.  He passes by a barred jail cell and exchanges words with another prisoner, Bill:

“You’ll be out of here soon.”

” I have been out.  I broke out.  Killed the wife and her boyfriend.  Now I’m in for good.”

“That’s too bad.”

” Too bad nothin’.  I’m happy.  Wondering where that woman was all the time used to drive me crazy.”

“Well you know where she is now.”

“I know where I hope she is.”

Women tend to get a bit of a rough treatment here.  Their vanity it seems makes them prone to seduction and an excess of time in front of mirrors.  And there are plenty of those here too.  Characters speak to one another while reflected, their images seeming to mock as they betray and tease one another.  The defendant’s wife’s mirror is adorned with a gilded cupid.  Another cupid sits haughtily upon a mantle. Women it seems are too often guided by Cupid’s whims.

Yet there is a strong female in the bunch too.  Paul has an office manager Hilda, depicted as cynically pragmatic but also ambiguously sexual by a smart Jean Dixon.  She seems to float above the proceedings, amused and yet solemn too.  She introduces herself to the prosecutor as a newcomer to Paul’s team:

“This is my first case.”

“Are you interested in it?”

“A woman has been killed.  That interests me quite a bit.”

Paul interjects, smiling, “for some strange reason, women don’t like being killed.”

A puzzled Paul walks with her after they leave the public prosecutor’s office.

“I can’t understand it.  He adored his wife.”

“He proved that by killing her.”

Later, Paul’s wife, Maria,  is inquisitive about her choices:

“You’re a funny creature.  What are you, a lawyer or a new kind of woman?”

 “By day I’m a lawyer. By night well…you might be surprised.”

 “Why don’t you get married?”

 “Well, being single has its points – at least no one will ever murder me.”

Marriage is portrayed as a risky game with the potential for deceit and a deadly outcome for infidelity. The line between love and hate can be a thin one indeed.

The screenplay’s dry gallows humor is reminiscent of Hitchcock; it finds charm in the even the deadliest of proceedings and marriage a fertile playground for exploring the dark side of wedded bliss.

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Paul’s young, beautiful wife is played by Nancy Carroll, a sensuous Kewpie doll enjoying a double life. She admires and loves her husband but she loves to play too. There’s a phone that’s always ringing, suspicious outings, an air of guilt and deception. It is only when she begins to suspect that her husband is wise to her that she tries, unsuccessfully, to ditch her lover.  Later when Paul begins to reject her and refuses her kiss she suspects he may find a way to not only leave her but mimic his friend in murder.  She drapes herself in fox-tails as they proceed to leave their home for the trial and notes the strain the case is causing him.

 “Oh promise me when all of this is over you’ll go away on a vacation.”

 “Go away…?  That’s not a bad idea.  Will you come with me?”

 “It’ll be best if I stay here.”

 “Alone?”

 “Naturally.”

 “And will you remain true and in love?” he asks, epectantly.

 “Yes,” she smiles sweetly.

She is almost believable. Perhaps she is being sincere in her own way, with what really matters.  But then the phone rings. Again. And Paul knows the truth. Just before he leaves he pockets a gun.  Paul’s feelings of pain and rage spill over in a courtroom scene. His client’s defense: momentary insanity induced by jealousy.  An acquittal for Walter would mean an acquittal for himself.

The film has a weary wizened character, Schultz, an additional assistant to Paul.  An aging alcoholic, he occasionally spouts wisdom disguised as nonsense.  His presence speaks to Paul’s big heart as he’s hired the has-been attorney despite his downward slide.  He delivers a telling line: Is there or is there not, freedom of the will? Disturbingly, the jury has its own ideas, our attorney thankfully another. Ultimately, he chooses to shatter his illusions and the looking glass, kissing before a broken mirror.

Whale makes the most of his Viennese setting, gorgeous art deco sets, and prison dungeons borrowed from his earlier Frankenstein.  He is assisted by cinematographer Karl Freund who plays with dark and light, mirrors and reflections, shattered glass and perspectives.  Morgan is quite good in the lead, intelligent and thoughtful, thoroughly convincing as an accomplished lawyer, anguished by the actions of his younger wife.  Nancy Carroll is a treat, tempering her flirtatiousness with warmth and dimension, and Jean Dixon even more so as the subversively tailored associate.  Gloria Stuart is showcased in the ethereal early scene in the garden, a specialty of Whale’s, and her lover is nicely played by a young and handsome Walter Pidgeon.

Recommended for Whale, the sophistication and you know, murder.

This post is a part of the ‘Till Death Us Do Part: To Love, Honor…and Murder blogathon hosted by the lovely Theresa Brown over at CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. For more please click the image below:

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Notes and Extras

  • Kiss started out as a play by Ladislas Fodor, a Hungarian playwright, was translated and then developed into a screenplay. So it’s tough to blame Whale for its rather tough stance on women and marriage as a source of all things heartbreaking and deceitful.  Or assign credit for its clever conversation.
  • Perhaps the witty dialogue shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fodor was the author of the story that later became a pre-Code favorite of mine, Jewel Robbery.  He continued to write professionally until his death in the seventies, primarily for movies and later television, much of the time in Germany.  After a promising start he mostly ends up in Bad B Movie-land.
  • This film was one of numerous collaborations between producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and director James Whale, the most famous being their classic Universal horror films of the thirties. Laemmle the younger was a busy man in 1933, producing twenty-three films including another favorite of mine, the pre-Code courtroom drama Counsellor-at-Law.  Farran Smith Nehme has a beautiful piece on the producer, The High Times and Hard Fall of Carl Laemmle Jr. at filmcomment.com which provides a taut overview of his brief career.  It seems he was involved in another favorite gem, My Man Godfrey, before he was tossed aside at the tender age of twenty-eight.
  • The sometimes fickle Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, liked this one too, calling it “an intelligently conceived story”. As he relates, “a very impressive sequence is that in which [Paul] delivers his summing up speech in the defense” of Walter.  Kiss definitely falls into the categories of not just Noir, pre-Code and psychological thriller but also solidly within the genre of the  courtroom dramas that were so popular at the time.  Hall refers to Frank Morgan’s performance as a bit histrionic but in my mind it suits the theatricality of the premise and art direction.
  • Speaking of art, this film has some fantastic posters.  Here’s my favorite:
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  • Danny Reid at Pre-Code.com shares another cool poster as well as his thoughts about the movie, which he liked, in his review.   It includes this succinct observation:

Human relationships are more complicated than simple revenge can properly encapsulate, and the film’s ending, where Paul and Maria forgive each other for their baser desires, is remarkably heartfelt. The movie is more interested in finding the underpinnings of these characters and seeing how far the coarseness in their souls will take them rather than arguing simple gender politics.

  • I love it when I get to see Morgan display his dramatic range in these early talking movies. Unfortunately, at least in my book, we don’t get to see it much following his career-defining Wizard in what else, The Wizard of Oz.  He’s on my short list of men displaying charm and yes, intelligence in the early thirties.  And I can never get enough of that.
  • Morgan and Nancy Carroll play cute together in this one. I found Carroll quite enchanting. Reportedly receiving more fan mail than any other star of the early thirties, her career was nevertheless limited.  Paramount released this charming actor from her contract by the middle of the decade, apparently tiring of issues with feisty non-compliance.  Too bad.
  • Oh – Be sure to take note of the glittering beauty of Gloria Stuart in the opening sequence. She retained those lustrous eyes for 1997’s Best Picture winner Titanic. For her portrayal of the aging Rose, she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the oldest actor ever to receive a nomination.  The film won an incredible eleven Academy Awards and brought Stuart’s light and luminosity once again into cinematic imaginations.  Stuart died in 2010 at the amazing age of one hundred.
  • One more slightly eerie note stands as a testament to the detail shown in the making of this film. When Morgan emerges into the bright sunlight following his conversation with the prosecutor, music plays faintly in the background, echoing from the city streets. The melody is that of a Viennese and German folk song whose tune was later taken up in later nineteenth century America as ‘Did You Ever See a Lassie’.  These lyrics nicely echo the male dilemmas in this film:

Did you ever see a lassie,

A lassie, a lassie?

Did you ever see a lassie,

Go this way and that?

Go this way and that way,

Go this way and that way.

Did you ever see a lassie,

Go this way and that?

Imagine it sung in chilling children’s voices and you’ll get the full effect. Sleep tight and watch out for the shattering glass. X

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Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies

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In retrospect Ava Gardner can be a mysterious and contradictory figure, awash in allure and breathtaking beauty. Considered to be one of the world’s most stunning women, she was contracted to a studio that seemed to be at a loss with how to manage her; she did some of her best work on loan or independently.  She had a stated desire for domesticity, children and marriage but her most significant decisions expressed an overwhelming hunger for experience and adventure. Despite insecurity regarding her own talent, she boldly entered varying shooting locations with unfamiliar faces, unknown actors and half-written scripts, doing so with courage and aplomb, only losing outward signs of professionalism as her private life unraveled and the hurts exacted a toll. Too often she bolstered her confidence with liberal amounts of alcohol, resulting in distilled bravado. Not surprisingly she did her best work with sympathetic supportive directors who could tap into her raw sensuality and vulnerability while respecting her fearless beauty and artistic integrity.

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Functioning as both coffee table book and detailed biography, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies knowingly embraces these contradictions and chooses to move along at a fast, luxurious clip. The pace matches the mercurial, hectic and audacious life of one of the last of Hollywood’s true movie stars, a magnetic screen presence as earthy as the North Carolina soil from which she came. Eminently readable and meticulously researched, the book includes a multitude of photographs, behind the scene candid shots, movie stills and promotional images, beautifully interspersed to illustrate pivotal points in this actor’s life. Yet these are still secondary to the text, which treats its subject to a respectful yet honest look at her life and career. As such it lends itself to being a gorgeous reference book, not only a picturesque gallery for each of her films but a source for understanding the heartaches and frustrations that Gardner faced in filming, in loving, and in living.

Gardner’s adventurous spirit and joie de vivre was apparent from her first trips to New York, heady experiences for a young woman from a simple background. As a child, her enthusiastic embrace of life expressed itself as a tomboy’s love for fun and simple pranks. Ava’s early years of poverty and frequent moves, grounded in her love for her father and the devotion of her mother, are given sufficient exploration here, laying the foundation for an understanding of the unchanging aspects of her inherent nature; Her values are clear at the outset. Yet Gardner’s beauty was not easily ignored and despite her naivete, a life-changing photo shoot while visiting her sister in the big city ultimately led to a screen test with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Later Gardner’s passion for new experiences transported her to homes, location shoots and lovers in Hollywood, Madrid, Rome, Mexico and London. Her restlessness led to both good and bad choices, world-wide fame and crushing heartbreak. Gardner was a woman ahead of her time, independent in spirit and frequently in conflict with her studio and her inner desire for respect as an actor, despite her many protestations that she was merely seeking the lucrative pay. In the mid-fifties, following filming that repeatedly took her to Spain, Gardner finally settled there, leaving America for good. As such she developed the lifestyle of many ex-pats of the era, a decision that suited the filming schedules and on location shoots that became arguably de rigueur as the major studios struggled to face the challenges of television. Through it all she wrestled with her own fears that audiences and those in the industry would discover she was merely ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Animal’ as she was so famously labelled, a moniker now glaringly dated in its sexism.

One wonders if Gardner might have had different inclinations regarding her talent if her romantic life had transpired differently. Gardner’s husbands pursued her unrelentingly. Her three marriages were combustible; her third to Frank Sinatra was a union marred by immeasurable passion and unending conflict.  Yet the first two were traumatic as well and potentially emotionally damaging. First husband Mickey Rooney, the perpetual boy in a man’s body, was unprepared for marriage to a beautiful naïve daughter of the south.  Indeed, once the MGM marvel bedded his virginal bride, leading to a sexual awakening for Gardner, he had difficulty fulfilling the role of devoted husband, remaining a gregarious, roaming Lothario. Second husband Artie Shaw inflicted a different kind of wound. Determined to act as Professor Higgins to Gardner’s Eliza, he was mercilessly critical of her lack of intellectualism and cultural sophistication. In a period reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s own attempts to overcome feelings of inadequacy stemming from a simple background, Gardner worked to keep up with him.  She met his unrelenting criticism and demands by taking classes, reading literature, pursuing her interests in jazz and classical music.  But as she did so he grew bored and the marriage folded. Her deep disappointment at the failure of these two marriages left her vulnerable and open to a third with a volatile, charismatic Frank Sinatra. A fiercely determined talent and temperamental womanizer, Sinatra met his match in Gardner, a woman possessed of the same impetuosity and high spirits. He was so enamored of the raven-haired green-eyed rising star that he left his wife of twelve years. Yet such was the warmth of Gardner that his famous offspring remember her fondly as a natural beauty, glamorous even without make-up, accepting of their presence, both fascinating and giving.

Sinatra and Gardner’s affair was a public relations nightmare that instigated a barrage of criticism. Gossip columnists and film fans perceived the actress as a home wrecker and the crooner as a fallen Catholic. Both careers suffered temporary blows. Following a tempestuous marriage, the two eventually settled on a lifelong simmering friendship once the flames cooled, with Gardner wistfully reminiscing on what might have been with the second sight of maturity. Sinatra carried his own contradictions; he became a steady rescuer for her on numerous occasions as their lives progressed.

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The dynamics of these relationships and others are well-elucidated by authors Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski, who provide specifics without indulging in salaciousness.  Personal details of Gardner’s private life are neatly juxtaposed with accounts of her experiences in making movies, each grounded in chronological time and place. While some of her films may have at times lacked substance or even popular appeal, in others her smoldering persona captured the sensual yearnings of audiences. From her breakout role in The Killers to Mogambo, Bhowani Junction and On The Beach, Gardner was unrelentingly riveting.

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In hindsight John Huston’s rendering of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana stands as perhaps her greatest film; it was her last significant screen role.  As the wise, weary Maxine Faulk she ultimately reaches the epitome of her talent, delving within for a rich, worldly vulnerability that in many ways echoes the woman she had become.  If Gardner was ever to have been awarded an Academy Award it would’ve been for Iguana yet that recognition was never bestowed.  The authors pay loving attention to this significant film, rightfully and rewardingly so.

As with any actor she passed on some good roles and was overlooked for others. Yet she worked with many of the most significant directors and writers of her time, establishing enduring relationships along the way.  Her warm friendships with John Huston, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and many other significant figures are a remarkable testament to the fascination this woman held for those who appreciated her unique brand of Southern charm and sensuality. The lifelong presence of other friends, such as Grace Kelly and Gregory Peck speaks to her generosity of spirit. Film fans familiar with these larger than life personalities of the twentieth century will find exploration of these relationships a satisfying aspect of this biography.  Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, beautifully presented in a format sure to resonate with fans of classic film.  As such it is a treatment that Ava Gardner ultimately and finally richly deserves.

ava 5.jpgMany thanks to Running Press for providing this lovely book for this review. It is appreciated. Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is available through Amazon and other booksellers.

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This post is the second in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!

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