Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Glutton for Punishment: The Death Kiss

by JB
Gosh and golly! What a wonderful Scary Movie Month surprise!

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.

I promise.
I was driven to watch this low-budget gem by my love for all things Lugosi. My expectations were not very high, to be truthful (look, the column has the word “Punishment” right in the title.) My curiosity about a seeming “Dracula reunion,” filmed barely more than a year later, finally drove me to load the disc and pull the string… so to speak.

“Pull de stringk! Pull de stringk!”
The Death Kiss is a thoroughly engaging programmer from short-lived K.B.S. Productions. It has a brisk 71 minute running time, never wears out its welcome, and Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray even features some of the picture’s original hand tinting to sweeten the pot.

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.
I bet that setting the film in a movie studio was a cost-cutting measure for indie K.B.S. Productions. I have read that the historic Tiffany Studios was used for the film’s “Tonart Studios.” Much of the real ephemera of early sound filmmaking are here: original cameras, dollies, lights, sets, and technicians. If the film’s predictable plot gets tiresome, viewers who are film buffs can while away the running time gawking at all of the vintage gizmos, clothing, and automobiles on display. Some scenes in the film are like an old-timey movie museum brought to life.

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?
What a revelation it is to see David Manners—forever frozen in my imagination as the stiff, uncomprehending, unimpressive Jonathan Harker in Dracula—playing a very different character with verve and (dare I say?) panache. Manners is obviously having the time of his life here. His character gets to be smarter than everybody else, and his enthusiasm is infectious. More’s the pity that, on most of the film’s advertising materials, he is second billed to Lugosi when he is actually playing the lead… 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!

1 comment:

  1. Great movie.

    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.