Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Cary Grant runs a beauty clinic filled to the brim with gorgeous ladies begging him for advice and smiles. To one perspective client seeking console, he nods at her and instructs, “Take your clothes off please.” And, of course, she undresses. He then asks her why she’d need work done, and she explains that she’s actually there for consultation for her mother. “Why’d you take your clothes then?” She winks, “I thought you’d be interested to see how I look with out it.”
- The Pre-Code trick of nude ladies behind suspended sheets again.
- Co-starring the Wampas Baby Stars of 1934: a bunch of fresh faced women paraded before the camera in all sorts of provocative positions. And, no, they’re not actual babies.
- Extramarital affairs are defensively referred to as “Lovely Episodes”.
- “Could you get us some wine like a good girl?”
“I’ll get it, but I’m not sure it’ll be like a good girl!”
The Most Beautiful Monster
“Men are selfish brutes, and they demand beauty.”
Kiss and Make-Up is, first and foremost, presents itself as a horror film version of a peculiar male fantasy. It presupposes the idea of being a God among women– to dictate how they look act and respond to you– but that, no matter how much control you have, that too much control realigns itself to become a new form of danger.
It’s Frankenstein with a powder puff.
And it’s a comedy. Mostly. Kind of. It tries. The completely hectic and unbound film structures of the 1930s proves to be a liability this go around, as we careen through the plot with reckless abandon, letting the human connections flounder at the expense of the outrageous.
Let me step back for a second and talk about the plot since I’ve managed to already extrapolate and bad mouth it without giving it a proper run around the track.
The always unflappable Cary Grant, in one of his first leading roles, is Dr. Maurice Lamar, beautician to the world. He cries out to one unconvinced soul “Did you realize ugliness is a disease?!” and insists that he is the cure. His methods, emphasizing exercise, powders, creams and bits and pieces of cosmetic surgery, all come down to his urgent need to cure visceral flaws in all women.
Unfortunately his methods never extend below the skin, and what he hasn’t realized is that physical beauty and mental beauty are two separate but important things.
These come in two separate but distinct packages, or so we’re led to believe. Beauty is Dr. Lamar’s masterpiece Eve Caron (Genevieve Tobin)– a woman he’s taken in and redone, all the way down to adding dimples to her knees.
The brains is his secretary Anne (Helen Mack), one of those unfortunate female characters in the movies whose entire motivation is to say ‘no’ until the final act when, after all other possibilities are exhausted, she says ‘yes’. I think some bigger brains in this one would have helped immeasurably.
As it is we’ve still got beauty, and Genevieve Tobin is a hell of a fearless comedienne. Eve’s defection and devotion to Dr. Lamar has left her husband Marcel (Edward Everett Horton) in a bit of a tizzy, since he’d promised long ago to love her knees without the dimples. He sneaks into the beauty clinic, and, after getting more than an eyeful, decides to dump Eve on the doctor and make his way to divorce court.
Dr. Lamar instantly finds himself at the mercy of Eve’s new freedom. He desperately tries to ward her off:
“There’s nothing more I can do for you.”
“Are you sure?”
When he continues to push her away, all the while unable to overcome his own ego about how much he has managed to perfect her, she throws down with the ultimate threat:
“I shall get fat! In all the wrong places!”
Tobin’s fanaticism here comes across as being very Norma Desmond-esque, adulating herself and nakedly craving identical adulation from her creator. Grant can’t help but admit that he loves his monster, and they’re soon married, to the further fuming consternation of Anne.
And what of Anne? As mentioned before, she’s the flood that sinks the film’s foundation. She doesn’t buy into the beauty fad. Why? Because she’s jealous of all the women who do, and jealous of the attention Dr. Lamar gives them. Out of spite, she’s decided to look ordinary (or as ordinary as Helen Mack can look).
This robs the film of a lot of dramatic tension, since our female lead is trying to win the protagonist’s heart by being as passive-aggressive as humanly possible. When the second act rolls around and she meets Marcel on her own and they develop a genuine rapport, it’s hard not to more concretely root for that union.
The topper in that relationship is when this film does that strange Pre-Code thing where a musical number crops up about halfway through the movie with no prior or warning or much of a follow-up. Horton and Mack duet to a rather sweet little ditty called “Corned Beef and Cabbage“, which is filled with warmth and good humor.
Meanwhile, Maurice has discovered that his perfect creation is just the monster we’ve been led to believe, as she generally makes him late to appointments, forces him to follow his own diet advice, has a secret lover, and, worst of all, won’t sleep with him.
And while I’m sure plenty of my female readers will agree that they would never sleep with Cary Grant– well, at least at the moment– I doubt anyone will sympathize with Eve’s vanity. She exits, and its up to Lamar to tear down his institute and win Anne back.
Because he was totally into her this entire time and didn’t view her as being possibly just another conquest, you see. Totally.
Let’s (Not) Make Love
“I would never have left my husband if I’d known you were so dull.”
“What do you expect on lettuce?”
“Well, rabbits seem to do alright.”
Sex and beauty are the two most rampant themes here, as the still-new beauty industry is paraded before the camera with glee. This is one of two films that come from director Harlan Thompson, and his careful directorial plan seems to be to elevate the sexual images at every opportunity.
The most interesting way he does this is by starting off this film in the first person perspective. We see the action for the first ten minutes from Dr. Lamar’s point of view, emphasizing the unlimited yield of his power. He sees acres and acres of nubile young flesh and his beck and call, and because of the perspective its being framed that the audience has this power as well.
Unfortunately this attempt to implicate the viewer fails; the oddities of this beauty institute, and the fact that, hey, all of these women are already beautiful, reveal it is a pretty craven and uninteresting male fantasy from the get go.
Grant’s Lamar is also supposed to be a bit of a player, and we see him attempt to almost seduce Anne at one point by inviting her to his apartment for work and conveniently leaving photographs of lovers laying around with plenty of candies to spice up the affair.
He gets called away by Eve, but this scene– which may have worked if it weren’t already obvious that Anne’s resolve was about as thin as her characterization– ends up being completely flat. Nothing here indicates that he has any deeper feelings for Anne that don’t originate from his crotch, and nothing from Anne gives her any drive to toy with.
Worse, the film doesn’t blatantly reveal until the closing moments that Anne is just as facetious as Lamar, and the movie suffers for it. And by doing so it indicates the message of the movie may just be that ugliness is a disease, you just have to know when to treat and when not to.
That’s dispiriting. The movie, which could have been a lampoon of the beauty industry or it could skew Lamar’s self importance, instead seems to indicate him as correct, and paints women as being beauty obsessed or being beauty obsessed and not knowing it. The moral, as you’ll sometimes get from movies in that day and age, boils down to ‘bitches be crazy.’
Oh, god, but I don’t care any more. The only real fun in Kiss and Make-Up comes from Tobin’s demented take on the pinnacle of womanly beauty (and no argument here, by the way), and from Horton and Mack’s early romantic interludes. Pro tip: Don’t make the romance that’s supposed to raise conflict in the main narrative be more romantic than anything in the main narrative.
It’s weird to say, but Edward Everett Thornton is much more of a heartthrob here than Cary Grant, and that is… well, weird.
Trivia & Links
- CaryGrant.net does a lot of the heavy lifting for me this week, as they include both the review from Variety and The New York Times. It looks like its Andre Sennwald handled the critique from the Times, and, I guess I’m just used to Mordaunt, but he’s absolutely hilarious in vivisecting this one:
The picture entitled, with such knowing and antic humor, “Kiss and Make-Up” is a first-class lingerie bazaar and a third-class entertainment.