We are all interested in bad (and not-bad) movies, death kisses, and films tangentially connected to classics, for that is the stuff we use to fill the empty spaces in our souls. You are interested in the nifty, the vintage, and the quirky—that is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of a film with seemingly little promise that wound up being full of promise, seemingly.
“Pull de stringk! Pull de stringk!”
The Plot in Brief: A gangster movie is being made at the fabulous (fictional) Tonart Studios in Hollywood. During the shooting of a scene involving shooting, someone is actually shot. Director Tom Avery (Edward Van Sloan) worries that this unfortunate accident will place his production hopelessly behind schedule. Everyone on set seems to be a suspect, especially comely lead actress Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames). Marcia’s boyfriend, devil-may-care screenwriter and lovable rogue Franklyn Drew (David Manners) knows that she is innocent and sets out to find the real killer.
Could the killer be studio head and offensive racial stereotype Leon Grossmith (Alexander Carr)? Could the killer be deeply mysterious and very suspicious studio president Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi)? Could the killer be comic relief and obvious red herring Officer Gulliver (Vince Barnett)? C’mon… you tell me. One of the many small pleasures of The Death Kiss is that the final revelation of “who dunnit” is honestly surprising… at least it was for me.
Movies set in movie studios usually play fast and loose with how movies are actually made. You can count on one hand the number of “behind the scenes” Hollywood films that get the details of studio life right. The Death Kiss seems to get more things right than wrong about working on real soundstages. Everyone on the set, for example, appears to have a real job with real duties. Other films from the 1930s present us with movie directors who are crazed sociopaths in funny pants. Edward Van Sloan is calm and quiet and thoughtful… or is that just what the filmmakers want us to think?
Lugosi is in fine form here, as usual. Fans might find it unusual that he was top-billed for a performance that amounts to little more than a ten-minute cameo. Between the exploitable title and the presence of Dracula, K.B.S. was clearly using the film’s most exploitable elements to sell the picture. I wonder if even Lugosi was surprised when he saw the film’s poster to realize he was the star of the picture… or is that just what the filmmakers want us to think?
This Scary Movie Month, if you are in the mood for something a little lighter, a lot shorter, and from a now-bygone era (era) with three of the stars of an oft-seen masterpiece… consider watching The Death Kiss. It’s a tiny treat!
My friend, you have now read this column, based on my own sworn testimony. Can you prove that this film doesn’t exist? Perhaps on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it, but he or she may be the killer who killed that one guy on the set of that one gangster picture. Many scientists believe that bad movies can often be better than expected. We once laughed at .38 caliber pistols, flammable film stock, receipts for funeral flowers, and the simple doodles that people sometimes make when they’re chatting on the phone. So much laughter! And now some of us come to laugh at very bad movies, but the joke is on us when the movie is FUN. God help us in the future!
If you want to see Manners in another role where he's not stiff (besides "The Mummy", IMHO) find a copy of Frank Capra's "The Miracle Woman" with Barbara Stanwyck.