Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Death Kiss (KBS/World-Wide, 1932/33)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Anyway, we repaired to Charles’ place and I ran him two videos I’d recorded the night before from Turner Classic Movies. One of the movies we watched was The Death Kiss, a 1933 film from a studio that seemed to be almost terminally unsure of its name — and indeed it would close its doors due to the Depression within the year. The company was originally called Sono Art-World Wide, but in 1932 it took over another small studio called Tiffany — where The Death Kiss, which is actually set in a film studio, was in fact filmed. There’s also a triangular logo in the opening credits identifying it as a “KBS Production,” and a producer credit to Earle W. Hammons, who later became head of Educational Pictures (you remember them — they didn’t make educational pictures, but specialized in two-reel comedy shorts with up-and-comers like Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, the Ritz Brothers, Imogene Coca and June Allyson, all of whom made their film debuts in front of Educational’s cameras; as well as down-and-outers like Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon).

There are color tints in this movie — in a scene about midway through when a fire starts in a projection room (they’re watching a movie and it suddenly starts burning in the projector, and when they go to the projection room to check on it, the whole room is on fire and the projectionist has been knocked out), and again at the end in which the murderer’s gun blasts a red flash across the screen whenever it’s fired, and the good guys’ flashlights burn a bright orange every time they face the screen. It’s an interesting effect — this kind of highlighting, like overall tinting, was actually fairly common in the silent era but pretty much went out when sound came in — that enlivens an otherwise pretty mediocre, though not totally uninteresting, film.

The other surprise about The Death Kiss is that it reunites three cast members of the original 1931 Dracula — Bela Lugosi, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan — but there’s nothing supernatural or horrific about the film at all. Basically, it’s a murder mystery set in a film studio, in which a vain and much-hated actor is shot to death while filming a scene in which his character is supposed to be killed. Manners plays the hero, a screenwriter who eventually unravels the mystery — by proving that the fatal shot did not come from any of the guns used by the actors who were supposed to have “shot” the victim in the movie (all of their guns were loaded with blanks, as they were supposed to be, and they were the wrong caliber anyway).

Lugosi is the studio manager, and is carefully set up as a red-herring suspect — for a film built largely on the star appeal of his name, he gets surprisingly little footage (one suspects on a film with such a low budget and tight schedule, they couldn’t afford to give him too much dialogue and wait around for him to learn it phonetically — throughout his entire career in America Lugosi learned little more than the simplest English and did all his acting phonetically). But the real killer turns out to have been the film’s director, played by Van Sloan — it almost seems like wish-fulfillment for all those writers who can’t stand the auteur theory to have a movie in which the writer is the hero and the director is the villain! The Death Kiss is a solidly made little movie, decently directed by Edwin L. Marin (who the same year made the Sherlock Holmes film A Study in Scarlet, also for World Wide, with Adrienne Ames from the cast of The Death Kiss and Reginald Owen as Holmes — on the closure of World Wide he graduated to the major studios and filmed the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol at MGM, with Owen as Scrooge!) and well photographed by Norbert Brodine (who also moved up to major-studio assignments and did the marvelously atmospheric cinematography of the 1947 version of Kiss of Death) — it doesn’t achieve greatness but it’s perfectly good entertainment. — 2/9/05


I ran a download from of the 1933 thriller The Death Kiss from KBS productions via World Wide Pictures, which had taken over the Tiffany studios (where this film was shot) when Tiffany went bust due to the Depression — a fate that would befall World Wide itself later in 1933. (This, the Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet and the other movies World Wide had in or ready for release were picked up by Fox and distributed through their exchanges.) Alas, the downloaded version was without the marvelous tinted sequences that added a lot to the appeal of the original (the film was actually scheduled for release in December 1932 but was delayed a month to add the tinted scenes), included colored flames during a scene depicting a fire in a projection room and bright orange flashes from the guns used in the final shootout.

The Death Kiss reunites three of the cast members of the Universal Dracula — David Manners (top-billed), Bela Lugosi (billed third but having surprisingly little screen time — I guess producers got tired of the sheer length of time it took him to learn English dialogue phonetically so they gave him very few lines) and Edward Van Sloan — but cast them in a straightforward whodunit that had no horrific or supernatural elements. It was based on a novel by Madelon St. Denis published in 1932, and was written by Gordon Kahn and Barry Berringer and directed by Edwin L. Marin: his first feature film. The situation revolves around a clever opening in which a woman tells a car full of gangsters with guns that she’ll finger the person they mean to kill by giving him a kiss, Judas-style, and she does so and they blast away at him and he falls. Later the camera pulls back and reveals that this entire scene has merely been a film shoot, with actress Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames) as the finger (wo)man and her ex-husband, actor Myles Brent (Edmund Burns), as the victim — only, natch, Brent turns out to be dead for real. (Charles pointed out to me that author Arthur B. Reeve, in one of his Craig Kennedy novels, The Film Mystery — published in 1921 — also used the device of having a person murdered when his, or in Reeve’s case her, character is supposed to be shot during the actual making of a film.)

The hero of The Death Kiss is “Tonart Pictures” screenwriter Franklyn Drew (David Manners), who’s in love with Marcia Lane and was hoping to marry her as soon as her divorce from Brent became final. When the bodies pile up — including that of a former gaffer at the studio, Chalmers (Alan Roscoe), who detected the ingenious concealment of the gun in a studio lamp — and both the negative and the positive of the death footage are destroyed, Drew becomes suspicious that someone is trying to frame Marcia for the killings, so he investigates himself, much to the annoyance of the official police officer in charge of the case, Detective Lieutenant Sheehan (John Wray), and after several reels of interest-keeping if not especially thrilling mystery, Drew traps the killer on the studio catwalks and, when the killer falls to the studio floor and dies instantly (Messrs. Kahn and Barringer didn’t even keep him alive long enough for a dying confession, which was a bit disappointing), he turns out to be the film’s director, Tom Avery (Edward Van Sloan), who was upset with Brent for having an affair with Mrs. Avery.

In case you’re wondering where Bela Lugosi fits into all of this, he plays Steiner, the studio manager, and is elaborately set up as a red herring when Drew discovers a torn-up check to a florist which she wrote for a bouquet for Brent’s funeral and then thought better of leaving her name and instead paid cash. The downloaded print was a bit glitchy and in some scenes you could really see the finite elements, but for the most part it was watchable even if hardly optimal, and the movie itself suffers from indifferent direction and the difficulty in accepting David Manners as a detective hero, but even without the tints it still has some appeal — and, as I pointed out the first time Charles and I watched it (from a videotape I recorded from TCM with the tints in place), for screenwriters there’s a sort of anti-auteur theory wish fulfillment about a movie in which the writer is the hero and the director is the villain! — 10/11/08