James Whale is best remembered for such classic fantasias as Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), though he himself preferred his 1936 version of the venerable musical Show Boat. One of Whale's more obscure efforts is 1933's The Kiss Before the Mirror, William Anthony McGuire's adaptation of a Ladislaus Fodor play, which the director remade a mere five years later as Wives Under Suspicion. Unlike the public domain retread, the original is currently unavailable on home video, but TCM premiered a lovely fullscreen print of this pre-Code melodrama on April 26, 2009.
Universal wanted Charles Laughton and Claudette Colbert for the leads, but they were otherwise occupied, so Frank Morgan and Nancy Carroll were loaned from Paramount. Morgan stars as Viennese attorney Paul Held, who defends his friend Walter Bernsdorf (Paul Lukas) against the charge of murdering Bernsdorf's adulterous wife Lucie (Gloria Stuart, whose early exit from the film was considered startling for its time). Bernsdorf follows Lucie to the home of her nameless bachelor lover (Walter Pidgeon), then shoots her through a window as she disrobes in silhouette. (Pidgeon also exits the picture at this point, never to return, and--for all the chatter of betrayal--seems largely forgotten.) Morgan's politically-incorrect defense strategy is that Bernsdorf was driven to the point of madness by his wife's infidelity, and thus was not responsible for his actions. Bernsdorf's first inkling that his wife was seeing another man occurred less than an hour before the murder, when the devoted professor canceled his evening lecture to return home to his beloved, only to endure her look of disgust at him, in stark contrast to her earlier emotion, as he kissed her neck and shoulders at her makeup mirror. ("You've ruined my hairdress!" she rants.) Lukas is believably anguished as he recounts the frenzy that overtook him, a frenzy immediately infecting Held.
Most appropriately for a film with "mirror" in its title, Held and Bernsdorf, as well as their wives, reflect one another. It transpires that the lawyer's spouse Maria (Carroll) is also unfaithful to her husband, though she feels considerably more guilt about her affair than the late Lucie. As Held observes her making herself up in the looking-glass, he suddenly realizes the truth about his wife, later trailing the anxious woman to a rendezvous with her lover (Donald Cook). Held's scheme, which he confesses to the horrified Bernsdorf, is to get the professor acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity, then immediately murder Maria. "All men suspect their wives," the enlightened Held assures the professor. Significantly, both men are considerably older than their spouses, while the women's lovers are closer to their own ages. Held already seems to be feeling the press of time, as he praises the opera Faust for its idea that "one could look forward to the years with such complacency if one knew that at the age of seventy, a kindly devil would touch him on the shoulder and make him young once more."
Maria attempts to break off her affair with her (nameless) paramour, while being driven around the bend by her obsessed husband. Held requests that she be present in the courtroom when he delivers his closing address ("I want to see your face when I speak"), and a memorable summation it is. His antics are enough to get any attorney ejected from the courtroom--especially when Held flourishes a revolver to Maria's terrified shrieks--but the largely male jury rules in the professor's favor, and the lawyer finally regains his senses. (Bernsdorf spends much of Held's speech hiding his face in his hands, and makes an amusing contrast to the hysterical counselor.)
The Kiss Before the Mirror functions as a footnote in Whale's horror and science fiction cycle. The countryside set through which Bernsdorf trails his wife is cannibalized from Frankenstein's exteriors, while the accused's cell suspiciously resembles the room in which Colin Clive kept Boris Karloff. Karl Freund's camera is appropriately Expressionistic, as befits the greatest of all German cinematographers; particularly memorable is the scene in which the eerily-lamplit Morgan explains his mad scheme to Lukas, as well as a 360-degree pan of the courtroom as Morgan delivers his closing argument. Stuart, who found renewed fame many decades later as the octogenarian Kate Winslet in James Cameron's Titanic (1997), returns from The Old Dark House, and would later play Claude Rains' fiancee in The Invisible Man.
Whale's film fairly sizzles with sexuality, as Morgan harps on Lucie's disrobing in her lover's bedroom as often as the judge and the censors let him get away with it. When the distraught Maria asks Held if Lucie's murder is justifiable "because she loved someone," Held counters that it is "because she lied." "That's no reason why she should've been shot down like a mad dog," Maria protests, to which he smoothly replies, "That, my dear, is a matter of taste." The director works in a homosexual newspaper sketch artist for between-the-lines followers of his films, while Held's office manager Hilda (Jean Dixon) is a definite free spirit who makes veiled reference to her randy private life: questioned by Maria as to whether she's "a lawyer or a new kind of woman," Hilda responds that she's a lawyer by day, but "at night--well, you might be surprised." (Such forthrightness is not to be found in the Wives remake, which recasts the cuckolded lawyer as a District Attorney.) Whale packs all this outrageousness into an economical sixty-eight minutes. The Kiss Before the Mirror is eminently worthy of DVD release, and hopefully TCM's screening will facilitate this.