James Whale is best known for his quartet of classic horror films—Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—but he directed all kinds of films during his 11 years at Universal. His directorial debut was Journey’s End (1930), based on a play by R.C. Sherriff about several British army officers serving in World War I, which Whale had directed as a stage production in London and New York City. His final film, They Dare Not Love (1941), was a romantic war drama starring George Brent, Martha Scott, and Paul Lukas. Whale directed 18 other films between those two, including the definitive film version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical Show Boat (1936) and a swashbuckling version of The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).
The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) is one of Whale’s “in between” movies—his sixth film, it came out the same year as The Invisible Man and By Candlelight, so during the best years of his directing career, before his relationship with the movie business soured following studio interference and a string of failures. It’s not on the same level as, say, Bride of Frankenstein, but it’s an enjoyable picture full of James Whale touches that make it well worth seeing. Some of the sets from Frankenstein were re-used for this film, and Whale’s characteristic nods to German Expressionism, the care he takes with every shot, and the racy content smuggled in so you can see it if you want to, and miss it if you don’t, makes this more than just a studio obligation fulfilled. It’s also pre-Code, so there’s less prudishness on display than became the norm for Hollywood movies after 1934.
The story is very much of its time, with the himpathy laid on thick, although it is also criticized. Paul Held (Frank Morgan) is an attorney defending his friend Dr. Walter Bernsdorf (Paul Lukas), who murdered his wife Lucy (Gloria Stuart) after learning she was unfaithful to him. Held begins to doubt his own wife, Maria (Nancy Carroll), and discovers she also has taken a lover. Enraged, he decides to try to present Bernsdorf’s murder as a crime of passion, the work of a man so in love with his wife that he could not control himself. Hoping to teach his own wife a lesson as well, he demands that she be present during the final day of the trial, where he does something that would probably get him arrested and disbarred if it took place off a movie set. Offering something of a counterpoint to the boulevard-comedy misogyny is the character of Hilda (Jean Dixon), a lawyer working for Held who speaks to him as an equal, and could well be Nancy Kulp’s long-lost bluestocking aunt.
The screenplay was adapted by William Anthony McGuire from a 1932 play by the prolific Ladislas Fodor; the same source material was used for the 1938 film Wives Under Suspicion, also directed by Whale. Karl Freund’s cinematography is excellent, as always, and the other technical aspects of the film are handled by reliable studio pros, including editing by Ted. J. Kent, music by W. Franke Harling, art direction by Charles D. Hall, and makeup by Jack P. Pierce. It’s a pity no one is credited for the costumes, because they’re also great—and they have to be in this kind of a picture, which gave people struggling through the Great Depression a chance to ogle the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The Kiss Before the Mirror was a critical success but proved less popular with the ticket-buying public, and I’m not sure why, other than the fact that lots of good movies were initially commercial failures (Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, Hugo, The Insider, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Shawshank Redemption, etc., etc., etc.).| Sarah Boslaugh
The Kiss Before the Mirror is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The image and sound, from a new 4K master, are both excellent. Extras include an audio commentary by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (incorrectly attributed to Joseph McBride on the Kino Lorber web site), who has a lot to say about gender politics as represented in the film, and theatrical trailers for five films.