Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Harlan Thompson | Kiss and Make-Up
by Douglas Messerli
Harlan Thompson (based on the play by István Békeffy (screenplay and director) Kiss and Make-Up / 1934
It’s strange that most critics completely missed the joke of Cary Grant’s 1934 film, seeing it as a romantic comedy instead of perceiving it as another version of the quite misogynistic Pygmalion. Much like Henry Higgins, Grant’s character, Dr. Maurice Lamar—at one time, so we are told by former colleague, one of the most brilliant of researchers—has turned his operating skills into a “nip-and-tuck” service, helping women with his face-lifts, creams, and exercise regimen in the manner Higgins transformed Eliza Doolittle.
And much like the Higgins of the My Fair Lady he is far-more interested in his relationships with the male characters—in this case his former schoolmate Max Pascal (Lucien Littlefield) who is evidently creating a new wonder drug by working with, quite ironically, rabbits, and the dissatisfied husband of one of his shop’s clients, Marcel Caron, played with relish by Edward Everett Horton. Marcel wants the plainer wife he married back, and Max desires his friend to return to serious medical research.
He treats the beauties which he has created (Paramount Studios trotted out their entire “WAMPAS Baby Stars” as Maurice’s fawning customers) like “girl” secretaries, and behaves to his truly loyal and loving secretary, Anne (Helen Mack), as if she were simply a lowly stenographer, despite the fact that we later discover she is the one who actually keeps his beauty shop in order.
In the Pre-Code Hollywood days Kiss and Make-up is actually a very coded film, in which the handsome Grant is clearly not very interested in the women he makes over. It’s not accidental that his three males that truly grab his attention have names that all begin with “m,” himself, Max, and Marcel. Or that the film begins with the arrival in his Paris-based school of beauté of an already beautiful woman, Eve Caron (Genevieve Tobin), with his commanding her to “Take your clothes off please,” and when she does, after explaining that she’s actually there to arrange a consultation for her mother, he suddenly questions why she has just undressed. She answers: “I thought you’d be interested to see how I look without it.” “No, I’m not,” he snaps back.
Maurice might be very interested in women’s faces and even the dimples in their knees, but he is clearly not interested in the women themselves, nor the sex they might provide him. Even the visits to his lovely apartment by some of the beautiful women upon whom he has worked—we can hardly imagine him actually crawling under the covers with them, but simply entertaining them encouragement and champagne—are referred to as a series of “lovely episodes.”
When his Eve, having been entirely made over, now demands a sexual award for her transformation, Maurice can hardly wait to flee her company, declaring: “There’s nothing more I can do for you.” If it isn’t clear by this time that this doctor is far more interested in lifting chins and applying powder puffs, you’ve truly missed the narrative this movie provides. His kisses are all in the air, and his make-up is part of the make-over.
Of course, in all of Grant’s films, the woman ultimately gets her man, but here Eve’s seduction of and marriage to Maurice, after ditching her more simple-minded husband, is perhaps the worst disaster of matrimony ever portrayed on film—except for perhaps what Shirley MacLaine describes after marrying the brother of her dead husband in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry.
Through her endless narcissism Eve forces Maurice to miss the banquet for the highest award by and presidency of the organization he has long sought. Grant’s character is not even permitted a full meal. His special beauty cream is slathered over her face as they attempt to enter the honeymoon bed. If the actor Grant ever wanted to go straight, he certainly has no luck with this conquest.
And even as he realizes that he needs his former secretary Anne—who in the meantime has fallen in love with Eve’s former husband, Marcel and, in surprisingly singing out, along with Marcel, their expression love of for “cabbage”—we’re not sure that the doctor’s capture of her will end with anything more than Henry Higgins’ demand that she bring him his slippers. His Galatea remains a thing of stone which he, and now his new office partner, Max, can dress up like all the pretty women Maurice has in the past.
Los Angeles, March 25, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).