by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I finally got to watch a movie I’d been curious about for years and which TCM had shown on their schedule last Sunday: The Kiss Before the Mirror, a 1933 suspense melodrama made by Universal and directed by James Whale from a script by William Anthony McGuire based on a Hungarian play by Ladislaus Fodor. (In an example of the whirlwind pace at which films were made in 1933 — a far cry from the years even popular stories spend in development hell in today’s film industry — the film was released on May 4, 1933, just eight months after the play premiered in Vienna, where it takes place.) The Kiss Before the Mirror is a wild tale which begins with a clandestine meeting between two adulterous lovers, Lucy Bernsdorf (Gloria Stuart) and an unnamed but clearly wealthy man (Walter Pidgeon, who reflecting both his background in operetta before he started making films — he had a singing role in Universal’s first all-talkie, the musical Melody of Love, in 1929 — and a possible influence from Hitchcock’s Blackmail, sings — or at least hums — a song in the sequence). She visits him at his palatial home (this is the sort of movie in which all the homes are palatial; if they weren’t so crowded with breakable bric-a-brac one could readily imagine someone moving a portable basketball net into one of these impossibly large, high-ceilinged rooms and shooting hoops), full of beautiful glass windows and doors, unaware that her husband Walter Bernsdorf (Paul Lukas) has followed her there.
The lover steps out to send his servant home so the two can be alone, and while he’s out Walter fires a revolver through all those beautiful glass panes at his wife, killing her. He then calls the police and turns himself in, and when he’s taken to the police station and put into a holding cell (recycled, out of all the sets on the Universal lot, from the room in which Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster was first seen in Whale’s classic Frankenstein film two years earlier) he sends for his close friend, defense attorney Paul Held (Frank Morgan — yes, the Wizard of Oz himself in quite a different role, turning in a strong and utterly un-foofy performance strongly reminiscent of Lionel Barrymore’s Academy Award-winning turn as a super-lawyer in A Free Soul at MGM two years earlier), to represent him. When the two meet Walter tells Held a bizarre story that he hadn’t realized his wife was cheating on him until half an hour before he killed her, when he saw her in front of a large circular mirror, dressing, putting on makeup and primping. He leaned over and gave her a kiss in front of the mirror — and she recoiled and chewed him out for messing up her makeup. So he followed her to her lover’s home and shot her.
Held decides that the only defense he can possibly put on for Walter is what would now be called a diminished-capacity argument that he was rendered temporarily insane by jealousy — and in the meantime Held gets suspicious that his own wife, Maria (Nancy Carroll, top-billed), is having an affair with someone (which she is, with another unnamed Lothario played by Donald Cook). When he finds her in front of her own elaborate collection of mirrors — a three-way mirror above her vanity, two side mirrors on either end and two full-length mirrors on either end of those — dressing and putting on makeup, and he tries to kiss her and she reacts with the same shocked recoil and insistence that he’s ruined her makeup, he goes ballistic. As part of his summation in court — to which he’s insisted she come even though she didn’t want to — he pulls out a revolver (apparently this was well before the days of metal detectors in courtrooms, even though as early as 1937 Fritz Lang’s film You Only Live Once included a sequence in prison showing a metal detector) and brandishes it in the air at the climactic peroration, then threatens that as soon as he wins Walter’s acquittal and thereby establishes the precedent, he will kill his own adulterous wife. Walter tries to talk Held out of killing his wife, saying that even if he escapes legal penalty he’ll feel guilty and miss her all the rest of his life, and when the Helds finally return home he smashes the central panel of her elaborate array of mirrors and kisses her in front of the shards, symbolizing that at least for the present they’ve reconciled.
Like another obscure and long-unseen Whale film, Remember Last Night? — a marvelous screwball comedy which took the basic situation of The Thin Man and ratcheted up both the alcohol consumption and the overall obsessiveness — The Kiss Before the Mirror proved to be a marvelous movie, well worth seeing despite its odd mix of personnel: a director best known for horror films, a writer best known for musicals and a male lead best known for a foofy part in a classic fantasy. Part of its appeal lies in the amazing cynicism of McGuire’s script, full of lines expressing skepticism in the ability of any married couple to remain sexually exclusive for very long, and with a Hitchcock-style wit in some of the supporting characterizations (particularly a large, obnoxious woman who watches the trial and gets in the way of other people in the courtroom audience).
But much of the strength of this film comes from Whale’s direction, full of vertiginous camera movements and recyclings of the sets from his (and others’) Universal horror classics — not only does Paul Lukas’s character get incarcerated in the same holding cell Colin Clive and Edward Van Sloan used (unsuccessfully) to try to contain the Frankenstein monster, but earlier Lukas stalks his faithless ex-wife in what look like some of the soundstage “exteriors” from Whale’s Frankenstein and the entire prison seems to be made up of leavings from the Frankenstein and Dracula sets. The impression one gets is that Whale was so totally in love with the Gothic look of his great horror movies that he tapped that visual iconography even for stories like this one that had nothing to do with horror. When Frank Morgan and Paul Lukas confront each other in that holding cell, Whale shoots their closeups with oblique angles and rich, shadowy lighting (Karl Freund, veteran of both Weimar Germany’s filmmaking and Universal’s early-talkie horrors, was the cinematographer) that makes them look more like the wary confrontation of two almost-human monsters than an attorney grilling his client for information with which to construct a defense.
Another point of this film was one Charles made: that though the sound cinema was only six years old when it was made, it had already developed all the techniques that have been used since; the actors speak naturalistically (though there are times when Whale lets them overact, particularly Lukas in the throes of his confession and Morgan at the end of his courtroom speech), the dialogue is well-paced, there’s an almost continuous background music score (by W. Franke Harling — indeed, the music is actually a bit overdone, especially surprising given how little of it Whale used in The Invisible Man, made six months later) and Whale’s camera is in almost constant motion. Over and over again he uses long tracking shots to discover the action instead of cutting straight into it — a technique usually associated with Orson Welles but which Whale anticipated here, just as he did Hitchcock in his decision to cast a then-major star like Gloria Stuart in a part in which she gets killed in the first reel — and The Kiss Before the Mirror also anticipates Welles in some highly creative uses of sound, particularly the babble of the spectators in the courtroom scenes. (Cecil B. DeMille is generally credited as the first director to insist that his extras carry on their own conversations, unrelated to the main action, in sound films, but Whale uses a similar technique here and, not surprisingly, gets even more out of it than DeMille did.)
In 1938 Whale, now on the downgrade — when Carl Laemmle Sr. and Jr. lost control of Universal in 1936 the new owners were very homophobic and, disapproving of Whale’s more-or-less open homosexuality, ran out their contract with him by giving him three “B” cheapies — was assigned a remake of The Kiss Before the Mirror called Wives Under Suspicion, whose writer, Myles Connolly, made an intriguing change in the plot line — the attorney who finds his own life paralleling the case he’s trying is a prosecutor (played by Warren William) rather than a defense attorney, with an abacus made of 35 model skulls representing the top crooks of New York City (where the setting was moved to),and the experience of living the same situation as the defendant he’s trying to put away for his crime teaches him humility and encourages him to smash the abacus and rehabilitate his marriage by going on vacation with his wife — and though Wives Under Suspicion hardly has the Gothic flair of its predecessor it’s still an appealing movie and one which should also be revived.
Also worthy of note are the two actors in The Kiss Before the Mirror who play Frank Morgan’s courtroom assistants, woman attorney Hilda (Jean Dixon) — who swears she’ll never get married precisely so she doesn’t end up killed by a jealous husband! — and middle-aged alcoholic paralegal Schultz (Charley Grapewin — so this film has two actors who later appeared in The Wizard of Oz!) — and that Morgan’s performance, a few overacted moments aside, is quite credible; like his performance in the RKO thriller Secrets of the French Police the year before, his work in The Kiss Before the Mirror reveals an actor of surprising range who could do quite a lot more than his “Wizard” act.