Written by Raquel at Out of the Past Blog
Based on the novel by Madelon St. Dennis and directed by Edwin L. Marin in his directorial debut, The Death Kiss (1932) is a Pre-Code backstage mystery made by Poverty Row’s Tiffany Studios. The film stars David Manners as Franklyn Drew a film scenarist working who uses his talents as a writer to help solve a murder. A film within a film, the fictional Tonart studio is shooting The Death Kiss which stars Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames) who lays the title kiss on her ex-husband and co-star Myles Brent (Edmund Burns). Myles’ character is then killed by gangsters in a drive-by shooting. Once the director Tom Avery (Edward Val Sloan) yells cut, they soon discover that Myles was actually killed. In the chaos of filming no one knows who shot the real bullet. Detectives come to investigate while studio chief Leon A. Grossmith (Alexander Carr) and manager Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi) do damage control to keep Tonart’s reputation intact as the murder is investigated. Before the mystery is solved there are blunders and more murders along the way. This light-hearted drama doesn’t take the killings all too seriously and the writer Franklyn, who has a vested interest in the case being Marcia Lane’s beau, does more to solve the case than the professionals.
The Death Kiss comes a year after Bela Lugosi starred in the hit Universal film Dracula (1931), which also starred David Manners. After such a huge career defining role, it’s curious why Lugosi would take third billing in a low-budget Poverty Row film. According to film historian Gregory W. Mank, Lugosi found himself in a financial jam and to make some cash to clear his debt he threw himself into his work taking any role that came his way. Lugosi biographer Arthur Lennig points out that in Lugosi’s native country of Hungary it was traditional for stage actors to switch from major to minor roles so this kind of flip flopping came natural to Lugosi. It did hurt his career and Lennig goes on to say “audiences grew wary of seeing his name on a marquee, not knowing whether he was the lead or appeared only in a minor role.” Lugosi’s part in The Death Kiss is a small but important one. He’s essentially one of the mystery’s red herrings.
Something you’ll see in The Film Detective’s restored version of the film is the original hand tinted scenes. In one scene, the cast and crew are watching the footage of Myles Brent’s death. A flash of orange appears on screen as the reel is destroyed and lights and smoke appear in shades of yellow. In the final scene when the murderer is caught (don’t worry I won’t spoil it for you), gun fire appears in red and lights appear in yellow. Contemporary viewers who watch The Death Kiss might make connections to Brandon Lee’s untimely demise on the set of The Crow (1994), a tragedy that still haunts the industry to this day.
This short little drama, clocking in at just 75 minutes, is a Pre-Code curio, perfect for anyone who is interested in film history, will appreciate the backstage setting and who enjoys a light mystery. I call movies like The Death Kiss “rainy day films.” Something light to watch when you’re snuggled up on the sofa on a bad weather day to help pass the time.