James Whale‘s The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) is an elegant pre-Code flourish that reveals more bite than suggested by its initial appearance as fattening bonbon. Is it a comedy or a drama? We can’t decide, and that ambiguous balance pretty much defines its modus operandi. Fortunately, we can revel in the possibilities since Kino Lorber’s new 2K master is as sparkling as the sets and dialogue.
The film is set in Vienna, a city coded as sophisticated and European to the point of decadence. Like Paris, it’s one of those “foreign” cities where the jaded bourgeoisie amuse themselves with adultery and take marriage and murder more lightly than grounded middle-class Americans like the film’s presumed audience. It’s one of those cities where Hollywood screenplays go to sin, and ticket buyers understood the contract.
To waltz music, the opening credits appear over a porcelain statuette reflected in a mirror: a woman in domino mask having her shoulder kissed from behind by a man in clown ruff while she appears to flee. She is pursued, leading him a merry dance, turned into a precious brittle object, and reflected. As film scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas points out in her commentary, the film implies that mirrors have the magic power to make women duplicitous. Mirrors reflect doubled or multiplied personalities; that reflection is deception.
Against an extravagantly false painted backdrop, the first scene opens with Lucy (Gloria Stuart) darting like a nymph amid trees to a rendezvous in the glorious Art Deco house of her unnamed lover (Walter Pidgeon). She gazes into her shimmering reflection in a fountain while a midnight-black cat watches like an omen.
By the shocking end of the scene, in which Karl Freund’s camera has been gliding from room to room like a will-o’-the-wisp, Lucy’s jealous husband Walter (Paul Lukas) has entered stage left on her trail, shot her thrice in silhouette and through the window as she doffed her dress, and called the police to turn himself in.
The rest of this 70-minute film concerns not only his trial but the personal trial of his best friend and defense attorney, Paul Held (Frank Morgan). After Walter, rotting and despairing in a heavy prison cell like a dungeon, he reveals that he suddenly intuited his wife’s infidelity by her reflection in a mirror while primping for her lover (cue a warped Expressionist flashback), the stunned Paul goes home only to discover that his young trophy wife, the doll-like Maria (Nancy Carroll), exhibits similar behavior.
Paul seems to feel his whole life is smoke and mirrors, even that his profession is a game of lies, and The Kiss Before the Mirror implies that everyone is phony and all marriages are shams. Yet, even as the story paints wives as adulterers, with three different women wrapped in vixen furs, it shows great sympathy for them, and this is reinforced by the cynical, ego-deflating woman attorney Hilda (Jean Dixon) who functions as Paul’s assistant and the story’s truth-teller.
His other assistant, the older and tippling Schultz (Charles Grapewin), is the film’s other voice of conscience. He gets the funniest line. When Hilda asks why Paul is carrying a gun, Schultz replies, “Indigestion perhaps. Every time his stomach becomes bloated, he fires a bullet into it to let the gas out.”
This isn’t the story of a once complacent and secure man who unravels due to unjustified suspicions, but due to justified ones. For Maria too has a nameless boy toy (Donald Cook).
Paul sees everyone as a reflection of himself and as someone to be manipulated for his satisfaction. “You are a murderer and I am a murderer,” he tells Walter at one point, as he’s lit like a demented devil in plotting his revenge. “Are you insane?” Walter asks rhetorically a second time to underline the point that yes, Paul’s losing his marbles.
As Heller-Nicholas states, the forceful sidewise observations of Paul’s assistants, Hilda especially, continually bring us up short from falling for the easy interpretations about women as deceitful property. It’s also casts a skeptical eye that powerful men who feel themselves tottering over the abyss that was once their stable lives, are the story’s moral center.
Hilda, a mildly androgynous and hard-boiled professional (“Are you a woman or a lawyer?” asks Maria), is the only woman not wearing a vixen, unless we count the perfect shot of two identical stout scrubwomen whose work is ignored by our hero Paul. (But is he our hero?) Heller-Nicholas examines the possibility of reading Hilda in a coded lesbian context that allows her a jaundiced view of the normative types around her.
This idea is hardly out of the question for director James Whale, who throws in a brazenly fey sketch artist in the courtroom scene. That grand finalé, by the way, is a brilliant melange of comedy and melodrama. It keeps us on edge because we still haven’t decided what type of story this is.
Whale’s affinity for European culture is satisfied here. He’s best known for his landmark Universal horror films of the early ’30s, reflecting the same Old World taste and sophistication, though he also showed command of American vernacular in Show Boat (1936). He was equally at home in the lavishly appointed boudoir, as in The Kiss Before the Mirror, or the vigorous outdoor tales of The Great Garrick (1937) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).
The script by Broadway writer-director William Anthony McGuire adapts one of many Hungarian plays by Ladislas Fodor, who would arrive in Hollywood later in the decade and stay for 20 years.
Whale would remake this property as Wives Under Suspicion (1938), which Heller-Nicholas describes as straight-jacketed by the Production Code to such an extent that it can’t allow the ambivalence and naughtiness seen here. It would have made a perfect co-feature for comparison. By the same token, Whale’s 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge is a very different animal from the necessarily more toothless if romantic 1940 remake by Mervyn Le Roy.
Whale was a protean figure whose career was too short. His whole output deserves the Blu-ray treatment, so we’ll be hoping for more. For now we’ll take this, as even-handed and stylish an adultery tale as pre-Code Hollywood could serve up.