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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Of Devotion and Decency: When Ladies Meet (1933)

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A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production ~  Director: Harry Beaumont and Robert Z. Leonard, Based on a play by Rachel Crothers, Screenplay by John Meehan and Leon Gordon, Art Director: Cedric Gibbons,  Costume Designer: Adrian

What a clever movie this is, made by a clever group of people.  By emphasizing tasteful costumes, set designs and repartee, it comfortably explores the sometimes tawdry complications between the sexes without the slightest hint of vulgarity or tacky dis-ease.   It is a fine example of the sometimes sophisticated adult nature of early 1930’s film.

When Ladies Meet offers some witty dialogue to elucidate the relations between men and women and marriage.  Disguised initially as light banter the script soon reveals itself to be a crackling social commentary on sex outside of marriage particularly that within the confines of infidelity which turns out to be just as constricting for the women involved as marriage itself. Careful viewing reveals a multitude of sexy double entendres.

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Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy~When Ladies Meet, personal collection

Robert Montgomery plays journalist and man about town Jimmy, smitten with author Mary, portrayed with determined naiveté by Myrna Loy.  Mary’s heart is committed to her editor, Rogers, a measured and middle-agedly handsome Frank Morgan, working against type as an intelligent yet shallow married man who enjoys variety in his relations with women. He is married to Clare, depicted by a solid, yet poignant Ann Harding, a bright, pragmatic and supportive spouse who has tolerated his affairs thus far. His dalliances are long-lasting but short-term and if that seems a contradiction it is; Morgan’s Rogers is a man whose true character is hidden from the women with whom he nurtures bonds, playing upon their loyalty and love to keep his own world an interesting one.  The inherent selfishness in his maneuvers only becomes clear once the extent of his deception and truth about his intentions is laid bare.  Jimmy has his number all along.

Jimmy is an interesting one too.  It is a testament to Montgomery’s appeal that he is able to say lines like the following and still retain the audience’s sympathy:

Mary:  You don’t know anything about women.

Jimmy:  Oh yes I do. All kinds, good and bad, straight and loose.  Some of the loose are the best; they’re honest anyway.  A woman pretends to be decent and isn’t, she’s just a so and so. When she’s good she’s good, when she’s bad she’s bad and that’s all there is to it.

Mary: Oh that’s just Victorian bunk.  You’re even out of touch with your own sex Jimmy.

Jimmy: Would you do what that girl in your book does?

Mary: A book’s a book.

Jimmy:  A man wants a decent woman to stay decent.  And if she doesn’t he bawls her out for doing the one thing that he’d always told her was the greatest thing a woman can do: giving him all for love.  Your girl ever did what she’d wanted to do the guy’d get so sick of her in about a year he’d poke her in the nose.  Gosh, I’ve persuaded so many women and hated ‘em afterwards.

Montgomery delivers these last lines with a bit of skillful staging.  Loy has her back to him as she deftly arranges a vase of flowers, precluding her from having to react, and sparring us the reaction shots that would overemphasize statements that are slipped in casually yet pointedly.  We are left then with our own reactions and glimpse into this man’s double standards, as he proceeds with what seems at times to be a monologue.  These sentiments were not unusual but what was unusual was that they were generally left unspoken.  This scene begins stripping away the romanticism of this tale before it has even begun.  But this exchange also underscores the motivation for him to essentially rescue Mary from a compromising affair with Rogers.  It’s not just that he’s in love with her.  It’s that he perceives her as one of the decent ones and despite her resolute devotion to Rogers he is determined to keep her on the good side of morality. Montgomery’s playfulness thinly veils the worldly cynicism of a man who has ‘lived,’ (hence the journalist occupation, which we never actually see him perform), and able to discern the motivations of another sophisticated man.

The film is based upon a stage play by Rachel Crothers who empathizes with her female characters and the situations that may develop due to their trusting natures.  Crothers’ women as shown here are straightforward, forthright and unabashedly honest, even regarding matters of sexual liaisons.  They expect the same from their men but don’t always get it.

The film retains some of its stage bound confines, primarily due to the heavy reliance upon dialogue.  There is little if any action but much is implied.  The plot moves by way of situations and arranged meetings, some by chance, some by deliberate machination.  The conversation above takes place in a beautiful enclosed garden with the couple then moving to a sunny terrace.  There we meet our comic relief Bridget (Alice Brady), a modern woman with a knowing way with a bon mot, a raised eyebrow and a man.  She punctuates scenes with humor and adds sardonic irony in a manner that sometimes makes us wonder if she fully knows the true import of her statements.  My guess would be she does.  She has a companion who seems to be little more than a bedmate, Walter (“Well I’m going back to bed. Come along Walter!”), played with amused youthful ambiguity by Martin Burton, who she dominates. His presence further breaks up this film’s dramatic moments, which come fast and furious as the film progresses.

The country house where the final half of the movie takes place is beautiful, with a lovely attention to detail, and a relaxed elegance that perfectly fits its characters and cast.  It is not surprising to find that Cedric Gibbons was nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction for When Ladies Meet, one of thirty-eight such nominations.  His sumptuous set design keeps the eye busy, despite the constraints of the confined cottage, which mirrors our characters predicaments.

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As expected by the title, Rogers women come together in a meeting of the minds, discussing the novel alluded to above in such a way that Clare begins to understand that the book is not entirely fictional. Harding is heroic and knowing, sometimes a bit too focused on the distant horizon with her delivery but able to quietly convey a strong woman whose world is falling apart while she does not. Loy is unabashed and perfectly natural in her part, seeming to channel her true self and her own clear-eyed Midwestern idealism.  It’s always a delight to find Morgan playing the straight man.  His true acting abilities shine, generally through eyes that convey resignation,  irritation, detachment or a mixture of all three.  He conveys a great deal in a quick glance.  It is fun to see this smart group of people play off one another.

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As sometimes is so, Montgomery is the smartest one in the picture.  Weaving deftly between his fellow actors, his expressive face handles comedic moments with a bit of exaggerated emphasis, reminding one of a narrator in a centuries old play.  Montgomery can be a bit of a scene-stealer without detracting from the film.

There’s some unpredictability in this little pre-Code number that sets it apart from many films of the Golden Age, and a fresh sensibility regarding women and the hazards of sexual freedom in a world still managed by men. It is this type of film whose loss I sometimes mourn the most with the advent of the strict enforcement of the Production Code.

Recommended, especially for lovers of language and melodrama.

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This post is a part of “The TCM 2016 Summer Under the Stars” Blogathon hosted by Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film

 

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Notes and Extras

  • This film is available through Amazon as a part of Warner Archive Collection’s Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 9.
  • Mick LaSalle has some discussion regarding this one in his outstanding book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, relishing in the movies frank and refreshing approach to marriage.  LaSalle notes that the movie “remains on the side of the women – both women – while the philandering man is the villain”.  This is indeed one of the delights of this film.
  • Movies were made very quickly in the 30’s, particularly in the early years.  While saying little about the actual making of this movie, Myrna Loy notes in her fascinating autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, that she, Montgomery and Alice Brady “became a little coterie of three, occasionally going to [Brady’s] house or having something to eat after work.  That kind of easy camaraderie is rare in pictures”.
  • Harding and Loy had previously worked together in The Animal Kingdom, with the male lead being Leslie Howard, and Myrna again playing the other woman, yet with an entirely different outcome. Loy writes that although When Ladies Meet gave them several scenes together, Harding was a withdrawn person, a wonderful actress lacking a star temperament, a good quality in a co-worker but a very private woman.
  • Director Harry Beaumont directed a multitude of silent films, including the Joan Crawford break-out film, Our Dancing Daughters (1928).  His first sound film The Broadway Melody (1929) won the Best Picture Oscar in 1930. There were sixteen more films, four with Joan Crawford before this one, with eleven more movies to follow.  He helmed a whopping ninety-nine films during his lengthy directorial career.
  • Playwright Rachel Crothers was known as the leading female playwright of her time.  Additional work adapted for the screen included the Norma Shearer pre-Code, Let Us Be Gay (1930), another film about a husband’s infidelity and a wife’s response.  Interestingly enough, the film was first a play, later adapted by  Lucille Newmark and Francis Marion, both women, infusing this successful Shearer starring vehicle with a female-centric point of view.  Similarly to Crothers’ achievement in the theater, Marion would become known as the premier female screenwriter of the Golden Age of Hollywood, if not the 20th Century.
  • Loy and Montgomery maintained a casual life-long friendship only slightly inhibited by their later political differences.  While Myrna was a  politically-active liberal and friend to Eleanor Roosevelt,  Montgomery switched parties sometime after the war, later becoming a great support to Eisenhower, so much so that he had his own office in the White House.  He was in essence the first presidential media consultant in the new age of television, a revolutionary in his time.  In their patriotism and commitment to the United States, they had very much in common.  Loy described him as witty, silly and just as great fun offset as he was on screen. Loy later wrote how she wished she would’ve had more opportunities to work with him – “there were so many other things we could’ve done together”.  How wonderful that would’ve been for us!

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Fateful Travels: Union Depot (1932)

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A First National Pictures Production ~  Director: Alfred E. Green, Based on a play by Joe Laurie Jr., Gene Fowler and Douglas Durkin, Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Kenyon Nicholson and Walter DeLeon, Art Director: Jack Oakey,  Costume Designer: Earl Luick

Union Depot Title

Money plays such a starring role in Union Depot that it deserves credit in the opening titles. Flowing smoothly from the first shot of the depot with a brief superimposed title sequence, the camera pans from the outside activity to the inside in a lovely long tracking shot that sweeps the vast space and then leads down to the small vignettes occurring inside.  It’s a lovely panorama that pulls us into the heart of the story.  Opening vignettes and glimpses into passersby and passengers tip a hand to the films knowing, cynical humor and snappy, swirling tempo.

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As the story unfolds, it is discovered that Chic, the dashing Douglas Fairbank Jr. and his fellow hobo, Scrap Iron, Warner’s fixture Guy Kibbee, have just been released from a 10-day stint in jail for vagrancy. By six that evening they find themselves at the depot. Fate, making its entry, intervenes. Across Chic’s path comes first a uniform, then a fortuitous conversation with an inebriated salesman, Frank McHugh in a short but memorable bit, so comically fixated upon his WWI reminiscences that he momentarily forgets his travel bag. Chic’s good fortune continues as Fairbanks is able to miraculously and perfectly fit into McHugh’s suit (!) and clean up a bit with a shaving kit. He also handily pockets some cash he finds conveniently tucked away. Chic has an opportunity to speak up about the cash as the bag is quickly retrieved but he just laughs; his first instinct is to fill his hungry belly. His second is to find a woman.


The young and luminous Ruth, a wide-eyed curvaceous Joan Blondell, appeals to him. They make quick conversation that leads them to a private room. Ruth conveys her hesitancy. She needs the money, $64 in fact, yet his assumption she’s a prostitute is an error, although she’s too desperate to let him know. We find that out just as he does: by the tears streaming down her face as he proceeds towards fulfilling what he believes is the plan and his own desires. Abruptly he slaps her once he realizes the truth of her situation, admonishing that she might not have been so lucky and could’ve found herself alone in a room with a man that wouldn’t have stopped. Ruth is a down-on-her-luck chorine, recovering from a broken ankle and in desperate need of money to rejoin her traveling company.  Not only is she in need of cash, she is also keeping ahead of the advances of a lecherous deviant who has finagled her into reading stories of an increasingly salacious nature.  Her fears are well founded as he is indeed revealed to be stalking her. Chic is at first interested in the sordid tale then concerned.  But first things first.  She’s hungry too and devours the meal he purchases for her.  He downs the liquor himself.


Chic has moments of jarring harshness, particularly in the beginning of the film.  He is conniving and thieving, scrappy and tough. Sometimes rough with women he can be good to them too. He has moments of decency and those come when he backs away from the things he might’ve done, such as he does with Ruth and later the things he does do. The strength of his character slowly emerges throughout the evening, unfolding just as the story does during a single night. As he gets used to the feel of money in his pocket and knows he’s got more stashed away, fate intervening again via a violin case stuffed with counterfeit bills, he grows a bit kinder and softens about the edges. Apparently having a full belly and a woman to look upon you as her “Santey Claus”, can put a bit of confidence into a man and allow for some magnanimity.


Despite being paired with this fellow traveler, we never see a similar change in Scrap Iron. Granted he’s a soft enough character to begin with, worn by time and trouble, and never having possessed Chic’s intelligence or charm. Yet it is of note that he is never seen to dine. In fact in the opening scene with these two, Chic reaches in a pocket, likely that of the found uniform, and pops a stick of gum into his mouth, leaving Ol’ Scrap Iron just standing there, pie-eyed and drooling over a described imaginary meal. Despite having access to the found cash, his appearance never changes. He remains a man on the outside looking in.  Never satiated in any way, he wanders a capricious path. Kibbee plays this character as a bit of a sad clown, pulling tricks from his bag at improbable moments.


There’s a warm and satisfying romance at the center of this tale, helmed by two warm and charming romantic leads. Fairbanks can convey more with a grin and a tip of the head than just about anyone and Blondell shows her vulnerable side, one perhaps a bit closer to her own nature than her usual smart and sassy persona.
Surrounding this depression-era trio is a familiar cast of Warner Bros.-First National players, some uncredited. Aside from the already mentioned Kibbee and McHugh, Alan Hale, Dickie Moore, David Landau, Lillian Bond and even Lucille Laverne make an appearance. The movie is based upon a never produced play itself inspired by the successful Broadway hit Grand Hotel, already in the process of being turned into the classic 1932 film. Union Depot beat it to the punch by three months. The movie shows signs of being predicated upon the same premise, with the depot substituting for the hotel and a swirling cast of characters providing ambience. But the similarities to Grand Hotel end there. This is no glossy MGM production. The heart of this movie is in the streets, with Fairbanks playing forgotten man this time out.

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Chic shows a nice agility on his feet both in taking advantage of opportunity, seizing a moment and dodging one, and there’s a nice action sequence that demonstrates his actual physical agility too.  Jumping and veering from trains in the night, pursuing a truly bad man and turning into not only “Santey Claus” but a hero, Fairbanks Jr. echoes his father and his own gentlemanly heroics.

(Spoiler Alert)

Union Depot shows us that having the basics and a few luxuries can go a long way toward smoothing the rough edges and finding the diamond in the rough. The film was released overseas as Gentleman for a Day. With the cushioning comfort of a little dough, that is exactly who Chic is revealed to be.  By movies end, we’ve seen him for who he truly is and so has Ruth, who tells him as much. This knowledge that each has seen the good in the other, and been made a better person for the experience, makes the ending that much more bittersweet, as money, either the pursuit of it or the lack of it, continues to define their paths in life.  They share a warm kiss and embrace, exchanging the superficial kind of words that let us know they will likely never see each other again. Ruth leaves via train, Chic on foot, this time splitting a piece of gum with his road companion Scrap Iron, seemingly none the wiser, despite all that has transpired on this fateful evening.

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Highly recommended, especially for lovers of the films of 1932.

This post is a part of the “Hot and Bothered” Blogathon July 9-10, 2016 hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and Once upon a Screen

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To read additional entries please visit: Once Upon a Screen or CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch harlow peeking red dust

Notes and Extras

  • Blonde Crazy with Jimmy Cagney was released in November 1931.  It’s success led to this second co-starring role for Blondell, who gets second billing in the opening, just below the title.  Aside from Fairbanks Jr., all other actors are credited at the end, creating a lovely immersive opening. This was Blondell’s thirteenth motion picture. By way of comparison, Fairbanks was already a veteran with this being his 42nd film!
  • Next up for Blondell was another Cagney picture, The Crowd Roars. Concern was that Union Depot wouldn’t be finished on time, so much so there was talk of potentially re-casting her part in the Cagney feature. But that was easily remedied:  Production was just started on the next film before this one was finished, leaving Joan scurrying back and forth between films.
  • Joan’s reputation as one of the  hardest working women in Hollywood was well-earned.  In 1932 alone she appeared in nine films, with next in line being Kay Francis with eight, Una Merkel with seven and Loretta Young with six.  Warner Bros.-First National Pictures knew how to work their hot properties, churning out quickly paced motion pictures in the process.
  • The opening night for Union Depot was a big one with all stars on deck and held at Warner’s Hollywood Theater.  Blondell, not usually one for an elaborate Hollywood social scene, attended dutifully, true to her consummate professionalism.
  • The film was considered a personal hit for Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  although  New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall noted “it is questionable whether Mr. Fairbanks’s diction is quite suited to the lowly role.  But he gives quite a satisfactory show.”  Restrained and faint praise indeed.  On the other hand, Variety , noting Chic brushes off some earlier, less substantial women,  “for Ruth…he falls with the complete sangfroid of a sophisticated drifter”.  Apparently Variety was more comfortable with the presentation of a  gentleman hobo. They use some interesting language in this review overall so it’s worth checking out. I for one, love reading a good review.
  • Disturbingly, Ruth is pursued by a perverted deviant who is obviously stalking her with extremely ill intent, however Blondell and the actor (George Rosener) actually share no scenes together.  This is perhaps a good thing. Horribly, Joan was the victim of a brutal rape before her career in entertainment began.  Detailed in her biography, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy, she remained silent about it for over four decades until finally revealing it in her thinly-disguised semi-autobiographical novel, Center Door Fancy. This is one of those instances when I truly wonder how the actress felt during filming, particularly when describing her fear and desperate need to get away.
  • Fairbanks, along with Robert Montgomery, was one of the first men in Hollywood to enlist and serve in 1941, before the United States officially entered WWII. Truly a  renaissance man he lived to the age of 90.
  • For a nice peek at a much younger Fairbanks, try Loose Ankles, a 1930 early talkie with Loretta Young.  A slightly naughty teen-age rom-com, it features a twenty-one year old Fairbanks romancing a just barely seventeen year old Loretta Young.  Both are beyond cute and adorable as they get into one silly situation after another.  Incredibly he was already married to Joan Crawford at the time, having hitched his fate to hers in 1929.  They untied that knot after just four years but what a four that must have been!

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