Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Kiss in the Dark (Warners, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was the 1949 Warners comedy-farce A Kiss in the Dark, which was next in sequence after Make Your Own Bed on the Jane Wyman tribute disc I had recorded from TCM and which, if anything, turned out to be equally as delightful if not more so. It helped that she had a more appealing co-star this time — David Niven — instead of Jack Carson, and instead of the slapstick of Make Your Own Bed this film’s humor was basically farce but crossed over into a surprising number of genres, ranging from Capraesque high-culture-pretensions-get-deflated to a gallery of Sturgesian eccentrics. Indeed, one could argue that just as Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) is the best Alfred Hitchcock film Hitchcock didn’t make, so A Kiss in the Dark is the best Preston Sturges film Sturges didn’t make himself.

The director is Delmer Daves but this appears to be a Schreiber film in which the writer, Harry Kurnitz (who also produced and got a special credit for doing both), had far more to do with its quality; throughout the movie Kurnitz, adapting a story called “Cleopatra Arms” by Everett and Devery Freeman (they were brothers, born two years apart — Everett in 1911 and Devery in 1913 — and Charles wondered why on earth their parents gave them such similar and dorky names), brings a mordant sensibility and a rapier wit to the proceedings. The film opens with Jane Wyman in a mock-Middle Eastern costume and setting with some appropriately cheesy music playing in the background — and then we get one of those shots in which the camera cranes backwards and we see that the original image is just a set: she’s a model and she’s being costumed and posed in this tacky setting for her latest ad picture. The photographer is a mad eccentric who can only work when he’s listening to the classical piano of Eric Phillips, and the film cuts from the photographer on a high, unstable ladder waiting for the broadcast of Phillips’ latest concert to begin to an empty stage with a grand piano on it.

It seems that Phillips (David Niven), frustrated by the breakneck pace of the gigs his manager, Peter Danilo (Joseph Buloff) — did Kurnitz or one of the Freemans deliberately name this character after the male lead in The Merry Widow? — has booked for him on the strike-while-the-iron-is-hot principle, has developed a paralyzing case of stage fright that requires him literally to be pushed onto the stage to perform and cued as to exactly what he’s supposed to play since he can’t remember what’s on his program. (There is no music on his piano; apparently we’re supposed to believe that he’s one of those artists, like Toscanini, who has developed a reputation for being able to play entirely from memory and can’t afford to break that image by starting to display scores in front of him.) He finds that in order to invest his money, Danilo has bought a string of gas stations and also the Cleopatra Arms, a run-down apartment building in Morningside Heights — whose former owner, Horace Willoughby (Victor Moore, a bit less annoyingly whiny than usual), sold it to Phillips only because he thought that as an artist, Phillips would be sensitive enough to run it in the same spirit as Willoughby has and be equally fair and sympathetic to the tenants.

Among the tenants are Polly Haines (Jane Wyman) — who thanks to Kurnitz’ effective use of a “plant” in his plot has been indirectly connected to Phillips well before they actually meet — and Mr. Botts (Broderick Crawford), who works in a boiler factory at night and sleeps during the day … when he can; mostly he chews out the other tenants for making any sort of noise. The fish-out-of-water aspects of Phillips’ relationships with the other tenants — and his burgeoning love with Polly and the jealousy of her boyfriend, Bruce Arnold (Wayne Morris), a football star turned insurance salesman who concocts the idea of selling Phillips a $1 million insurance policy on his hands so he and Polly can get married on his commission — are told nicely, though there’s a rather jarring bit in which Phillips is playing the title song (actually an oldie by Victor Herbert, who died a quarter-century before this film was made) and Polly compliments him, saying, “You see? There’s nothing wrong with music just because people happen to like it” — she’s saying this to a superstar pianist who, we’ve been told earlier, has just sold 27,000 tickets for an upcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl! One central plot gimmick is that Willoughby tries to figure out a way to get Botts out of the building — he’s the one resident who doesn’t fit his image of all the tenants forming one big, happy family — and after Botts punches him out and Phillips is afraid to risk hurting his hands by striking back, Phillips hits on the idea of moving a grand piano into Polly’s room, setting it next door to Botts’s room and practicing on it all day, thereby killing two birds with one stone: he can keep in practice and the sheer volume of his playing (he always seems to lead off with the famous “Heroic” polonaise by Chopin) will persuade Botts to move.

A Kiss in the Dark is an appealing film and a very, very funny one that keeps veering off in unexpected directions — it’s the sort of script that deploys a lot of the old clichés but in such fresh and unusual combinations it seems more original than it is — and it’s nice that Kurnitz and Delmer Daves don’t make Eric Phillips choose between his concert career and life as an ordinary person: at the end of the movie Eric and Polly, now married, board the train together to go to Los Angeles and his sold-out concert at the Bowl. Even composer Max Steiner, not usually known for a sense of humor, gets into the spirit of things, supplying a background score full of ironic quotes from the classics that, like the script itself, help bridge the gap between Eric’s and Polly’s characters and make it seem right to us that they should come together at the end. A Kiss in the Dark is a real charmer, the sort of movie that makes following old films worthwhile, and though it’s a comedy Niven plays it nimbly with some of the same panache he brought to his serious role in the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger A Matter of Life and Death — and Wyman, cast as the representative of ordinary, down-to-earth humanity, matches him and shows off her skills as a farceuse.