Crystal Kalyana, the authoress of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, is a devoted hostess of blogathons which honor famous actors’ birthdays. This year I have participated in her blogathons for Olivia de Havilland + Errol Flynn, Ethel, Lionel, and John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Joan Fontaine. These blogathons generated some very interesting topics and lots of views for me, so I am very grateful to Crystal. Now she is hosting a Greta Garbo blogathon. When she kindly invited me to join, my topic choice was very easy, since I had only seen one movie with the famous Swedish actress. This movie was her last silent film, The Kiss from 1929. Since then, I have seen her in two more movies, a talkie and another silent film. However, I am still glad that I chose The Kiss, since it was the first complete silent film I ever watched. I was introduced to it because it was the first and only silent film my favorite actor, Lew Ayres, ever made. I will consider this movie to show how it deals with the sensitive subject of adultery and how it could have been made under the Code.
Irene Guarry (Greta Garbo) is a young woman who is married to an older man, Charles (Anders Randolf), whom she doesn’t love. She is in love with a young lawyer, Andre Duvalle (Conrad Nagel). The movie opens in an art museum, where Irene and Andre are having a secret meeting. They say that they can’t go on this way. Irene knows that her insanely jealous husband would never agree to a divorce, so they should run away together now. Andre says that he wants to face her husband, but she tells him it is hopeless. He decides that he can’t let her defy convention by leaving her husband, so they agree to stop seeing each other. We are told that several lonely weeks pass for Irene, who tries vainly to forget Andre. Irene is shown dressing for a dinner party. Downstairs, her husband is receiving a report from a private detective, whom he hired to trail his wife. The detective reports that she has been seeing a young man, but he is not Andre. The young man is Pierre Lassalle (Lew Ayres), the son of Charles’s best friend; she has been seeing him every day, since he is walking their dogs. This is shown in a flashback to one of their meetings. At the dinner party that evening, Monsieur Lassalle tells Irene that his son, who is grinning shyly at her across the table, is very infatuated with her. She says that he is a charming boy, and they both agree that he will be missed when he goes away to college next week. When Monsieur Lassalle reveals that the tardy guest of the dinner party is Andre Duvalle, Irene’s face shows her distress and pain at this news. He arrives soon after, but they ignore each other. After dinner, Pierre asks Irene to dance with him, and she obliges. Once they are on the terrace, she asks him to go inside and get her compact. Once he has left, she goes into the garden, where she meets Andre. She rebukes him for coming and making things more difficult for her, but he says that he is leaving the next day, and he had to say goodbye to her. They kiss goodbye, and she breaks away to find Pierre. According to the title cards, the next day is an extremely important day to Irene. It begins innocently on the Lassalle tennis courts. While Irene, Pierre, and the other guests are playing tennis on the lavish outdoor courts, Messrs. Lassalle and Guarry are in the former’s office inside. A desperate Charles is asking his friend for a loan, since he is on the verge of bankruptcy. Monsieur Lassalle says that, although it is a large sum, he will help him. He tells him to come back this evening to discuss the details. Back on the courts, Pierre tells Irene that he has something awfully important to tell her. He says that, as a man of eighteen, he is past the age of puppy love. She says that he is just a boy, and he is deeply hurt by this. He says that women don’t know how love effects a man like him, turning his head away to hide his tears. She takes his chin patronizingly and says that that proves that he is just a boy. He pretends to tie his shoelace as he wipes his tears away. As she walks back to the house, he follows her and asks if he may have a picture of her to bring to college with him. She agrees and says that he can pick it up when he comes to say goodbye tomorrow. That evening, Charles is getting ready to go to the Lassalle house. Irene is anticipating a quiet evening at home. Charles winces in pain as he is about to leave; it is obvious that he is not well. Not long after he has left, Irene is seen sitting on the couch, reading. Suddenly, Pierre drives up and comes through the side door. Irene is surprised to see him, but she invites him in. He claims that he came to say goodbye to her husband, but she informs him that he went to see his father. She tells him that she found some pictures for him, and he chooses one he likes. She tells him to be a good boy and study hard at college, and he agrees. Looking at the time, she tells him that it’s time for him to leave now. As he gets ready to leave, he says that he wants to ask her a big favor. He wants her to kiss him goodbye. She is rather amused, and she agrees to kiss him by the door. She gives him her cigarette and, tenderly caressing his face in her hands, she kisses him. Unfortunately, her husband began to feel very ill during the car ride to the Lassalle home, so he told the driver to turn back. Just as he is pulling up to the house, Pierre is receiving his far from platonic kiss. Irene doesn’t know how to kiss a man like a sister. Pierre is inflamed by the kiss, and he begins to pursue her. He kisses her, embraces her, and says that he loves her. She tries to laugh him out of it, but he is really pursuing her heatedly. Just at that moment, her husband walks through the side door. He is furious, and Pierre is terrified. Irene tries to convince Charles that he is mistaken, but he pushes her aside. He starts attacking Pierre, who can’t defend himself against the bigger man. Pierre flees into the office, Charles pursues him, and Irene follows them; the door closes behind her, and a shot is heard. In the office, a disheveled Irene is shown answering the telephone; Monsieur Lassalle is on the other end, and he asks whether Guarry has left yet, but Irene hangs up without speaking. Later that evening, Pierre staggers into his father’s living room, looking badly injured and rather dazed. He tells his father that Charles is dead. Soon after, police inspectors visit the Guarry house, where they question Irene. She lies that Charles went out for the evening, so she went to bed early. She did not hear her husband return. She was awoken by a servant, who informed her that her husband was dead. Unfortunately, she has difficulty making up her mind about most of the details of her story, so she sounds like she is lying. Because of this and the fact that she reacts violently to a shot which is fired downstairs as a test, she is arrested. Soon after, Andre arrives, since he heard about her dilemma. He tells her he believes that she is innocent, so he wants to defend her, but she doesn’t want to be defended. Eventually, he persuades her to let him defend her in court. In the law case, the prosecuting attorney implies that Irene had reason to kill her husband because she did not marry him for love, but she responds that she was always a good wife. Then, Andre introduces the theory that Charles Guarry was not murdered; he committed suicide. To support his theory, he summons Monsieur Lassalle to the witness stand. Lassalle says that Guarry came to him for financial aid, but he was unable to help him. He said that his depression concerned him. Andre is unaware of the fact that Lassalle is perjuring himself to keep his son’s name out of a scandal. Pierre, who is in the courtroom, looks very guilty throughout the case. Eventually, Irene is acquitted. After everyone else has left the courtroom, Pierre confronts Irene and says that she lied to protect him, and that means that she loves him. When he sees her looking after Andre, he asks her if she is afraid that her lawyer will find out. He confidently says that she needn’t worry, since he won’t tell him. She responds that she is going to tell him herself, but he says that he’ll think that she lied to protect him. He pompously says that she’ll be glad to come back to him, but she just laughs at his assurance. He leaves when Andre enters; he tells her that she is free now, but she says that she has to tell him something, even though she knows it will kill his love for her. She tells him exactly what happened on the night of Charles’s death. A flashback shows Charles viciously pursuing Pierre into the study. Irene knew that he would kill Pierre, so she pulled a gun out of her husband’s desk. She told him to stop or be shot. Ignoring her, he picked up a metal paper weight with which to kill the foolish youth, so she shot him. Irene now says that she doesn’t expect him to have any love left for her, but she couldn’t let Pierre be killed because of her. Andre just sits still in deep thought. Finally, he says that he understands and that he loves her as much as ever. They embrace, but they are interrupted by cleaning women who say that they have to clean the court. The women laugh. The End.
This movie is just about an hour long, but it seems so much longer. As you can tell from my far from brief description, it is very complex. As a silent film, it doesn’t waste time with a lot of dialogue. However, since it was made after 1927, the year of the first talkie, it featured a synchronized background score and even a few sound effects, such as the shot and the telephone ringing. This 1929 picture was the last silent film which Greta Garbo and MGM ever made, yet it was Lew Ayres’s first feature film. He was only twenty when this picture was made, yet he is far from immature. He is the perfect combination of youthfulness and maturity. In the climatic kiss scene, he is definitely equal to Greta Garbo.
This picture marks the end of Greta Garbo’s best era, the silent period. It was not a long period, since she made her American debut in Flesh and the Devil in 1926. She is very glamorous in this role, but I don’t entirely approve of all of her costumes. Although she was quite thin, as a 1920s icon should be, her chest is improperly revealed in multiple costumes. Her performance is convincing and entertaining, yet I feel that she is a little more seductive in some scenes than she should be. Her acting is beyond reproach in her scenes with Charles and Andre. My only criticism is her acting around Pierre. She puts her hand on him, gives him the eye, and gazes at him intensely in almost every scene. The problem is that she seems to be fascinated with Lew Ayres, while her character thinks of Pierre as just a charming, silly boy. This is especially evident in the scene when he comes to visit her at her house. She is lounging on the couch with her legs stretched out. She invites him to sit by her so that he can examine the two pictures of her under a better light. He sits in front of her legs so that he is actually sitting on her skirt. His back is toward her, and he is carefully comparing the photographs. Behind his back, she is giving him the once or rather more than once-over. She seems to be examining the slenderness of his torso. When he looks at her, she gets back into character, yet she never really acts platonic enough for my taste. Irene is supposed to be unaware of the depth of his emotions for her, so she laughs his attentions off as boyish foolishness. However, the kiss later in that scene makes Irene seem much too romantic toward Pierre. She should give him a small goodbye kiss which accidentally incites him to uncontrollable passion. However, the kiss she gives him is extremely romantic and rather long. It’s no wonder that he goes wild! The story about their acting together is rather interesting. The first scene which they filmed with the two of them was, by some evil fate, the most intimate, dramatic scene they had together, the kiss scene. This must have put a lot of pressure on Lew Ayres, particularly because it was his first real film role. He and Greta Garbo had not even met before they filmed this scene, so perhaps that it why she is surveying him so carefully. Soon after the scene had been filmed, another person who was involved with the picture asked Lew Ayres if he had met Greta Garbo as she stood nearby. Miss Garbo looked at Mr. Ayres, winked, and asked him, “I don’t know. Have we met?” After that, that was always her joke with him. She loved to wink at him and ask if they had met, since it made him blush. I think that she was a little fascinated by the handsome young newcomer, and she allowed this to make her portrayal of Irene just a little too flirtatious toward Pierre.
As one of the last silent films, The Kiss was definitely a pre-Code film, even though talkies from 1930-1934 are usually the only films which are classified in this category. As such, it has the problem of a few risqué costumes on the women. However, there is one key plot element which would have needed special treatment in a Code film, adultery. In my article about Remember the Night, I discussed the interpretation and enforcement of Section I of the Code, Crimes Against the Law. Now, I will briefly discuss one of the most important articles of Section II, which is the same thing as the facts of life, ginger, or it in the 1920s. The general principle for Section II is that the “sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of… relationship are the accepted or common thing.” This general principle is very important in the treatment of adultery, since it is the main enemy of marriage and the home. The Kiss does not really violate that principle. The part of the principle that mentions low relationships being the common thing is violated in many pre-Code films; I have seen more than a few early 1930s films which give one the general idea that every married person in the cast is being unfaithful. Fortunately, this problem was more prevalent in talkies than in silent pictures such as this one.
Adultery is arguably the most important sub-topic of Section II, since it is discussed in article 1: “Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.” This shows the reasonableness of the Code. Adultery is condemned by Christian churches, and it is forbidden in one of the Ten Commandments. However, it was not banned under the Code. The important thing was the depiction and the treatment of such difficult topics. In This Kiss, Irene’s “affair” with the lawyer is necessary plot material. However, it is not clearly stated exactly what their relationship is. All you know is that they meet at a museum, talk about running away together, and kiss before parting ways. Maybe this is as far as their relationship went. This vagueness is in compliance with the Code, since the affair is not explicitly treated. It is so brief and vague that it also doesn’t seem justified. As for being attractive, that leads us to Article 2.
Article 2 of Section II is Scenes of passion. There are three subdivisions of Article 2: “a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.” I don’t think that two kissing scenes between Irene and Andre are necessary. The scene in the museum makes them seem like the classic star-crossed lovers. The theme to Romeo and Juliet is even playing in the background. After they have decided not to meet again, they kiss rather passionately. This leads us to b: “Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.” Their kissing is a little excessive and bordering on lustful; it is particularly questionable because she is married. When Andre and Irene meet in the garden at the Lassalle dinner party, he takes her in his arms and kisses her forcefully. The kiss in the museum should be changed to an embrace with perhaps a fleeting kiss on the cheek, but this second kiss should be eliminated altogether. The third subdivision is c: “In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.” This part is more related to Pierre. We’ll discuss her actions toward him in a moment. When he is pursuing her, he is too lustful. This scene could definitely stimulate the lower and baser element in some individuals.
This is a good opportunity for me to mention the kissing limit myth. Many people who discuss the Code and the Breen office mention the time limit which they imposed on kisses. Most people say that the limit was three-seconds, but I have read some references of it being ten or thirty seconds. The last is ridiculous, since no filmmakers in the 1930s would waste thirty seconds of screen time on one kiss. According to the memoirs of Jack Vizzard, one of the Production Code Administration employees who worked under Joseph Breen, filmmakers during the Code era believed that Mr. Breen would not allow kisses to be over ten seconds long. However, he did not measure kisses by length; he measured them by feeling and quality. I have seen many three-second kisses which are less acceptable than some seven-second kisses. Mr. Breen would not ban normal kisses on length alone. He would, however, ban them for being open-mouthed, suggestive, lustful, base, or otherwise low. The number of kisses had to be considered as much as the length of the kisses. Multiple short kisses can be more suggestive than one longer kiss. However, I can’t think of any Breen films which featured kisses that lasted for ten seconds or more. Kisses which last that long become excessive or lustful, which the Code expressly forbids. Kissing was never more romantic than during the Code era, since it looks so elevated, clean, and beautiful. Modern film kissing just looks like two people you would see in line at a fast-food restaurant. Mr. Breen kept very close watch on kissing in movies, since censors did, too. However, you must never think that he was counting the seconds on his pocket watch when he screened love scenes.
In the later part of the Code entitled Reasons Underlying the Particular Applications, Section II is further explained: “Out of regard for the sanctity of marriage and the home, the triangle, that is, the love of a third party for one already married, needs careful handling. The treatment must not throw sympathy against marriage as an institution. Scenes of passion must be treated with an honest acknowledgment of human nature and its normal reactions. Many scenes cannot be presented without arousing dangerous emotions on the part of the immature, the young or the criminal classes. Even within the limits of pure love, certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation. In the case of impure love, the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law, the following are important: 1. Impure love must not be presented as attractive or beautiful. 2. It must not be the subject of comedy or farce, or treated as material for laughter. 3. It must not be presented in such a way as to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience. 4. It must not be made to seem right and permissible. 5. In general, it must not be detailed in method and manner.”
With all this in mind, how could the situation in The Kiss have been altered to be Code-compliant? Firstly, the situation in the museum needs to be changed. Irene should never suggest that she leave her husband. Andre should impulsively say that they should run away together, almost as though he is talking to himself, then realize that he couldn’t let her defy convention. Instead of wanting to face her husband but thinking that it’s hopeless, Irene should conclude that she loves him, but she must stay with her husband, since she has a duty to him. The kiss in that scene should be changed as I indicated earlier. Secondly, Pierre’s infatuation for a married woman is taken too lightly by his father and Irene herself. I know that it is common for older people to underestimate a young man’s emotions, but Monsieur Lassalle is so casual about the situation that it makes admiration of other men’s wives seem common. On the other hand, Lassalle has to be somewhat irresponsible as a father, or Pierre wouldn’t be the way he is. I think that, when he comments to Irene that his son is infatuated with her, he should lightly comment that that is how all boys are; he’ll get over it. This will heighten the scenario that Pierre is partly pursuing Irene out of defiance. She and his father have continually told him that he is only a boy; he wants to prove to them that he is a man. Thirdly, Andre should not kiss Irene in the garden. At the most, he may clasp her upper arms. Irene must always seem resistant in this scene, since she has become resolved that she can no longer have anything to do with Andre. If the romance is handled that way, the extant of the situation becomes even more vague. That way, the audience is given the right to choose the idea that they are not having an affair; they are in love, but they resist temptation because she is married. Fourthly, Irene should not be so flirtatious with Pierre; whether it is Greta Garbo or her character who is giving Lew Ayres a come-hither look, it contradicts the story, which tells us that Irene thinks that Pierre is only a boy. She gives him no encouragement with her speech, but she gives him plenty of encouragement with her eyes. The only mistake in her behavior toward him should be that she calls him a boy, which hurts his feelings and challenges him to prove her wrong. It must be obvious that she has no interest in him; at this point, it is not totally clear. Fifthly and in relation to fourthly, Irene’s goodbye kiss to Pierre must not be so passionate. It should be shown from a less intimate camera position, since the extreme closeup only heightens the sensual nature of the scene. She seems to be enjoying kissing him too much. She should kiss him very briefly and lightly on the lips in what she means to be a sisterly manner. However, even so small a kiss is enough to encourage Pierre. When she pulls away, he should put his arm around her and kiss her longer and much more passionately. She should struggle against this forced kiss. Just as she breaks away from him, her husband should walk in. That way, she really would not seem guilty for the incident. The entire sin would be Pierre’s. One final note is about a scene with the cleaning women who are shown at the end. In an earlier scene, they are cleaning the court at night, and they are discussing the Guarry case. One woman says that all women would shoot their husbands if they only had the nerve. To this, another woman responds that she should stop staying things like that, since she is putting bad ideas in her head. This is meant as a joke, but it gives the unfavorable impression that all women at this time were dissatisfied with their marriages and that lack of nerve was all that kept them from murdering their husbands! This is clearly against the Code, which is supposed to uphold the institution of marriage.
The Kiss is a fine silent drama. Since it is a late silent film, it was able to have a recorded soundtrack. I appreciate that, since earlier silent films, having had live musical accompaniment, now have been released with modern soundtracks. Sometimes the soundtracks seem authentic, but sometimes I think they have been slightly tainted with modern emotion-swaying techniques. Besides that, the instrumentation and sound quality are too modern. I appreciate hearing the dramatic old MGM background music which is taken from different classical pieces, including two romantic favorites at MGM, the themes from the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Suite and Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony. The acting is very effective and properly dramatic, yet I would not describe it as exaggerated. It certainly is not the exaggerated silent film acting about which people make jokes. If you have not seen many silent films, I suggest this one as a further soiree into the genre. It contains a pleasing amount of humour amid the drama. Also, it is not too long, so it does not become monotonous. I suggest it for silent film fans, Greta Garbo fans, and viewers who want to see Lew Ayres in his youngest role. It is available to buy on YouTube and on DVD from Warner Archives. Watch it at your first opportunity!
Tomorrow is American Thanksgiving, so I would like to wish a very happy holiday to my fellow Americans and to the people in other countries who also celebrate this holiday. We Americans have so much for which to be thankful. I am thankful not only because we are a country which has plenty; we have so much potential. America can continue to grow and improve, and it will as long as it is inhabited with conscientious citizens. I am thankful for the success and the progress which was made in Old Hollywood toward clean, good films. Joe Breen worked hard to self-regulate over 15,000 films, and filmmakers tried to comply with the Code and the PCA to make the best films they possibly could. Even though it didn’t last much longer than twenty years, I think that it is something for which to be thankful. Every successful Code film was a huge step in the field of moral entertainment. When you look at the seal number in one of the lower corners of a film’s credits, say thank you to a kind Providence for the cleanness of that film and the assurance which the seal gives.
Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, it is an excellent opportunity to watch a Code film with a Thanksgiving scene. One fine Breen film in this category is By the Light of the Silvery Moon from 1953, a charming World War I era musical with Doris Day and Gordon MacRae; in this sentimental family story, a young boy steals a neighbor’s turkey to save the life of his own pet bird, who is destined for the dinner table. Another charming period piece with preparations leading up to Thanksgiving is Rascal from 1969; even though it was released the year after the Code officially died, this Disney classic is almost completely up to Breen standard. You can read my review of it here. Of course, any holiday is improved by watching Holiday Inn from 1942, the quintessential holiday film in which Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire sing and dance to Irving Berlin melodies celebrating eight holidays. Of course, one of them is a charming Thanksgiving scene in which Bing Crosby sings one of the only real Thanksgiving songs along with his own recording of it. Tonight, my family and I will be watching this great Code classic to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season. No matter what you watch, the Golden Era of Hollywood makes holidays even merrier!
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