The Female’s Kiss: A Double Deco Night by matthew c. hoffman
An original photo gallery played before the show…
With that, Greta Garbo and MGM kissed the silent era of filmmaking goodbye. It was an era in which she had become a sensation in films like Flesh and the Devil with John Gilbert. Garbo’s next film after The Kiss was her first talkie, Anna Christie, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. Some viewers today minimize her acting talent, but how could you with films like Anna Karenina and Camille. A wooden actress would not have been nominated four times for an Academy Award.
Others see a persona that’s as cold as the gray winters of her impoverished childhood in Sweden. Garbo was certainly aloof and moody on screen, but this was at the heart of who she was, and it’s what made her a great tragedienne. No, she did not elicit the warmth of Claudette Colbert or Myrna Loy. She was Garbo, and there was no other like her. Her onscreen magnetism and mystery– fully appreciated when seen on a big screen– was undeniable, and the camera loved her. The “Swedish Sphinx,” as she was known, was an international phenomenon of mythic proportions– and perhaps the greatest movie star of them all.
In the book The Power of Glamour, author Annette Tapert writes, “How the world’s most enigmatic screen star was different has been analyzed and dissected since 1926, when she arrived in Hollywood under contract to MGM. Seven decades later she’s still an enigma. No matter how many photographs you see of her or how often you’ve watched her films, looking at Garbo is like looking at the Mona Lisa. Garbo’s face haunts you, holds you. Her beauty put her in a class by herself. And that in a way is symbolic of who she was—a solitary creature who by all accounts felt like an alien visitor, unsure of her place on earth.”
Tonight we saw a very different Garbo than the one from Grand Hotel. In the 1932 film, she was playing a very dramatic and animated ballerina—one with emotional highs and lows. If that was the only Garbo film you’ve seen prior to tonight, you might’ve had the impression she was over-the-top and theatrical in all her films. But she could be very natural and subtle as in The Kiss where the slightest movement or gesture spoke volumes. I love the moment when she’s trying to keep an eye on the police who suspect her and you only see the slightest eye movement.
The Kiss was directed by Belgium-born Jacques Feyder. He had been an actor before switching to directing. He made films in several countries and was known for bringing a poetic realism to his work, most notably the films he made in the early 1930s. His films would influence directors like Jean Renoir. Garbo admired his elegance as a director. When a scene was over, he would wave a handkerchief in front of the camera instead of simply yelling, “Cut!” Feyder would direct Garbo again when MGM made a German-language version of Anna Christie.
The camerawork in The Kiss was accomplished by William Daniels, who knew how to capture Garbo’s allure on film. He would photograph 19 out of her 24 American films. The set design was by Cedric Gibbons and Richard Day. The Kiss is one of several Garbo silent films that could’ve easily been shown in this series. Films like 1928’s A Woman of Affairs and 1929’s The Single Standard exemplified Modern set design. Images from these films can be found in the book Screen Deco, which of course is the inspiration for our film program.
The Art Deco of The Kiss creates an atmosphere of luxury and sophistication. Modern décor is linked to the modern woman, and that is the case in our next film, Female. Ruth Chatterton plays the ultimate modern woman: an automotive executive who’d rather have a canary than a husband. She has a pool of male secretaries she freely draws from, so cue “Shanghai Lil” on the phonograph and get the vodka ready in the library. Then along comes George Brent as the gear shift inventor out to show her some new clutch action.
The Irish-born Brent was actually married to Chatterton in real life. It was his second of five marriages. Brent was a dependable leading man at Warner Brothers. He starred opposite many of the great actresses of the 1930s including Bette Davis with whom he co-starred in thirteen films.
But Female belongs to Chatterton, who brings intelligence and a playful sense of humor to her portrayal of Alison Drake. Ruth Chatterton is an unknown commodity these days, but the confidence she brought to her roles was an influence on the better-known actresses who followed her. (Supposedly, there is a biography on her in the works by author Scott O’Brien.) Chatterton was a Broadway actress Warner Brothers had signed to give the studio some class. She became the First Lady of Warner Brothers until she was usurped by Kay Francis. Chatterton is best known for her pre-Code films like Frisco Jenny, Lilly Turner, and of course, Female. Her best performance, though, may have been as Walter Huston’s wife in William Wyler’s Dodsworth in 1936. Dodsworth is also noteworthy in terms of its Streamline Moderne set design by Richard Day. Besides acting, Chatterton was a novelist as well as an early aviatrix. Amelia Earhart was a good friend of hers.
An early photo of Ruth Chatterton. For more about Chatterton’s early years on the stage, click here!
The Art Deco in Female is fantastic, such as Miss Drake’s streamlined factory office and the stylized lines within other scenes at the factory. The exterior of her home was actually shot on location in the Hollywood Hills at the Ennis House which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. One of the most impressive sets, however, is the swimming pool with the fountain and the odd statue. Eagle eye film buffs will recognize it as the same pool used during the “By A Waterfall” musical number in Footlight Parade. This is without a doubt one of the great examples of Art Deco at the Warner Brothers studio. It was designed by Jack Okey who was the art director for the studio throughout the 1930s. He also designed the Art Deco nightclub in Wonder Bar which will be screened next week.
I won’t say anything about how the film concludes– a subverted ending which many have criticized– but keep in mind the context of the film’s time of production. Even though this is a delirious pre-Code film, motion pictures were still at the mercy of local censor boards throughout the country. Had this film ended any other way, prints of the film could’ve easily been butchered by all the edits. This is why some films had a tacked-on moral at the end, as though to excuse everything that had come before. Despite this, Female remains a fun ride with some terrific performances.
One other note about this film. I had played it at the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago when I did a retrospective profiling director William Dieterle. Dieterle began Female, but when he became ill, William Wellman replaced him. Wellman, in turn, had to leave the production to work on another film, and so Michael Curtiz took over. It’s Curtiz who received the director’s credit. But all these Warner contract directors knew how to crank out a fast, efficient, and effective product. Today, a movie like Female would be 2 ½ hours long and loaded with subplots, but the great studio craftsmen knew how to tell stories back then without the dross.